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Review of  Classifiers in Minangkabau: a typological study

Reviewer: Daniel D Brodkin
Book Title: Classifiers in Minangkabau: a typological study
Book Author: Rina Marnita RMW Dixon
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Minangkabau
Language Family(ies): Austronesian
Issue Number: 28.1033

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Classifiers in Minangkabau: a typological study” by Rina Marnita, a revised version of Marnita’s 1996 thesis, presents an outline of the systems of noun classification in Minangkabau and situates them within a theoretical framework previously applied by others to closely related languages. This work consists of six chapters, covering general information about Minangkabau, a cross-linguistic review of types of classifier systems, and the internal structure of the Minangkabau Noun Phrase (NP), followed by close analyses of two distinct types of classifier in Minangkabau coupled with an application of Conklin (1981)’s “Interactive Semantic Field” model. Marnita concludes her work with a synchronic analysis of the falling usage of classifiers in contemporary Minangkabau, drawing data from her own fieldwork.


Marnita provides in this work a very thorough description of the system of noun classification present in Minangkabau, presenting a complete survey of every classifier traditionally used in Minangkabau, coupled with usage notes and remarks on semantic nuances in her fifth chapter. The author recognizes multiple distinct semantic groups within the Minangkabau classifier system, and chooses to categorize classifiers using Conklin’s “Interactive Semantic Field” Model, which allows for significant degrees of semantic overlap to be recognized across a set of independent semantic groupings. This model, originally created to chart out the semantics of classifiers in Malay, a language closely related to Minangkabau, fits Marnita’s data and analysis well and makes for a convenient and effective categorization system of the semantically slippery Minangkabau classifiers. Marnita presents well-justified semantic groupings, succeeds in representing them accurately with Conklin’s model, and presents a thorough and compelling picture of the classifier system in Minangkabau.

The author presents an important argument in this work for the recognition of a distinct syntactic grouping of “generic classifiers” in Minangkabau, contrasting with traditionally recognized numeral classifiers common throughout East Asia. Minangkabau, she argues, contains a second, distinct type of “generic classifier” bearing some similarities to noun classifiers found elsewhere in the world’s languages. Marnita presents a convincing, well-compiled argument for the independent existence of these generic classifiers in Minangkabau, replete with copious examples of nuances in classifier behavior and obligatoriness, backed up with data drawn from related languages concerning a similar phenomenon. Generic classifiers, among the Western Austronesian languages, Marnita remarks, have received little attention in the literature, so the analysis presented in this work holds particular significance.

The cross-linguistic behavior of classifiers consistently appears on the frontlines throughout this work, keeping the description of Minangkabau classifiers informed by typological generalizations drawn from a wide array of sources. She frequently references previous works on classifiers both inside and outside of the Austronesian family, offers comparisons between the classifier systems of particular languages and that found in Minangkabau, and presents relevant typological generalizations which assist in the description of the behavior of the classifiers found in Minangkabau. In Chapter 4, entitled “Minangkabau Generic Classifiers,” the author argues that Minangkabau contains, along with the numeral classifiers common throughout eastern Asia, a distinct class of noun-classifiers–a dichotomy which others have remarked upon in other Western Austronesian languages, such as Malay (Conklin 1989) and Acehnese (Durie 1985). Marnita backs up this argument both with descriptions of behavioral differences among classifiers in Minangkabau and with an outline of the functions of noun classifiers in languages in which they clearly exist. This typological awareness helps clarify the functions and semantics of Minangkabau classifiers.

Marnita’s sociolinguistic observations on the status of contemporary Minangkabau also provide value to this work and enhance her description of the Minangkabau classifier system. The sixth chapter of this work, entitled “Young Speakers’ Use of Classifiers,” details the results of a study conducted in the author’s home village, and here the author demonstrates a sharp decline in the usage of classifiers in the speech of Minangkabau youth and then links this to sociolinguistic trends of heavy influence from Indonesian, including partial language shift among the current generation of Minangkabau speakers. In this work’s first chapter, entitled “General Characteristics of Minangkabau Language,” Marnita makes several notes on the usage and prevalence of Indonesian within the Minangkabau speech community, remarking that the majority of Minangkabau speakers are bilingual and that Standard Indonesian, as the prestige language throughout the country, has been increasingly encroaching on Minangkabau in social and public spheres as the language of education, media, and all things official. She links the sharp decline in classifier use among the current generation of young Minangkabau speakers to heavy influence from Standard Indonesian, which has already undergone a much larger decline in classifier use, presenting several convincing diachronic parallels between the two languages, demonstrating how the ongoing processes of the general decline in classifier use in Minangkabau have already largely occurred to completion in Standard Indonesian, and pointing out several specific instances of common semantic shifts in cognate classifiers between Indonesian and Minangkabau. She also includes several sociological observations on the loss of traditional Minangkabau practices and the linguistic repercussions thereof, remarking that much culturally specific vocabulary, including several classifiers, has failed to be transmitted to the youngest generation of speakers, exacerbating the decline of classifier usage in present-day Minangkabau. As this shift within the Minangkabau classifier system can be largely explained by sociolinguistic trends, Marnita’s inclusion of this information provides a helpful addition to her work.

This work does, however, suffer from several shortcomings which unfortunately persist through a large part of the book. Though the work’s final two chapters, which constitute the majority of the work and which include the majority of Marnita’s analysis of the Minangkabau classifier system (5) as well as her account of their disappearance in the modern language (6), contain clear and clearly guided writing, analysis, and explanation, the same cannot be said for the earlier half of the work, particularly the first three chapters, in which Marnita presents an overview of Minangkabau (1), a cross-linguistic account of classifiers (2), and a description of the Minangkabau Noun Phrase (3)

Marnita, especially in the first half of her work, often fails to clearly show her reader where her arguments are going, what her points are, and how the information she presents contributes to her argument, leaving the reader uncertain of her message and direction. Previous works which she summarizes are often not linked back to her original arguments, with data or arguments often being presented and explained, but not contextualized. Some chapter subsections and many paragraphs throughout the work contain lists of arguments without clear connections, as the author often does not explicitly demonstrate links between the different points she raises.

The first chapter, containing an overview of the Minangkabau language, exemplifies a number of these troubles. Though Marnita does provide an informative survey of the Minangkabau, their language, culture, and history, many subsections lack clear conclusions or distinct messages. This chapter begins with a section entitled “Genetic Classification of the Language” in which the author lists several theories on the internal structure of the Western Austronesian subfamily, yet provides no broad summary or further comments of her own. The following subsection, entitled “The Origins of the Minangkabau People,” contains yet another list of theories, but this time, on the geographical origins of the Proto-Austronesian people, without mention of the Minangkabau until the final paragraph, which the author somewhat abruptly begins, after a discussion on the difficulties of locating the Austronesian urheimat, “despite the controversies, Minangkabau and Malay are not often regarded as mutually intelligible.” These examples illustrate an unfortunate trend in the presentation of data, theories, and information throughout the first portion of this work: the author often does not provide enough explanation to the reader to clearly demonstrate where her arguments are moving, how the material she presents connects to her broader work, or how arguments proposed by other linguists inform her analysis of Minangkabau or the typological conversation surrounding classifiers. Much of Marnita’s writing feels unclear in purpose and direction, as points are left unmade, connections are not overtly demonstrated, and the overall direction of the writing remains unclear.

Several other unfortunate shortcomings persist throughout the work. Marnita occasionally makes overbold or poorly-justified claims about certain languages or typological trends, especially when summarizing arguments from other works. Of the many diagrams she offers in her work, several do show data clearly and efficiently, but others are poorly designed and presented. Terminology, though mostly consistent, is not always clear and in one case, Marnita makes a major terminological shift which reroutes an entire argument: in her fourth chapter, two paragraphs after stating “I argue that it is likely that Western Austronesian languages have noun classifiers as well as numeral classifiers,” (56) she abandons the terminology of “noun classifier,” despite having devoted significant attention to a cross-linguistic description of their properties, and redefines these items as “generic classifiers,” using Conklin’s term for similar lexemes in Malay.

Lastly, typographical and grammatical errors appear unfortunately regularly throughout the work, though again primarily in the first half. Misspellings are frequent, both in prose and especially in examples borrowed from previous works, and written examples in Minangkabau are occasionally misglossed or mistranslated in ways recognizable to a non-speaker. Minor grammatical errors appear in the English text as well, providing distractions to the reader. Overall, much of the writing in the first half of the book reads as unpolished, which detracts from the impression this work provides.

In summary, Marnita’s “Classifiers in Minangkabau: A Typological Survey” presents a thorough description of the Minangkabau classifier system, despite some shortcomings in organization and presentation. Her analysis of the Minangkabau Classifier system proves convincing and illuminating. She clearly demonstrates the existence of the two distinct types of classifiers she argues for and provides a solid justification for “generic classifiers” to be recognized in Minangkabau and other Western Austroneisan languages as a category distinct from the “numeral classifiers” common throughout East Asia, substantiating her argument with relevant evidence from multiple languages from the subfamily, including Acehnese and Standard Indonesian alongside Minangkabau. Her application of Conklin’s “Interactive Semantic Field” classifier model, furthermore, accurately captures relevant semantic distinctions and groupings in Minangkabau and raises interesting questions about semantic universals or generalizations among classifier semantics in Western Austronesian languages and beyond. Marnita’s own work documenting classifier use in contemporary Minangkabau adds significantly to her work, and she makes a compelling argument for the reasons behind their decline in usage based on her sociolinguistic observations. While establishing the background for this discourse and argument, her writing does suffer from a lack of clear direction, as individual segments often do not receive argument-oriented summaries and are frequently left unconnected to other portions of her work. Typographic errors surface throughout the book, contributing to the overall unpolished feel which the less-refined first half creates. This work, however, does effectively accomplish its goal of analyzing the Minangkabau classifier system, and Marnita succeeds in distinguishing several salient syntactic and semantic categories.

This work, I believe, will prove valuable to those working on classifier systems in Western Austronesian languages, and especially those interested in the “generic classifiers” which Marnita identifies in Minangkabau and which have not received significant attention in the literature. The latter three chapters contain strong arguments towards the existence of several distinct kinds of classifier in Minangkabau and towards the motivations behind the decline in classifier use in contemporary Minangkabau; thus, I would suggest this work to those interested in such phenomena.
Dan Brodkin, currently an undergraduate linguistics major at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, has been working on Minangkabau, a Western Austronesian language since early 2016. He plans to pursue linguistics at the graduate level, with particular interest in the austronesian language family. He has presented his work at several undergraduate conferences and is currently co-authoring a paper for publication on particular applicative morphology found in Minangkabau.