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Review of  A Grammar of Kuuk Thaayorre

Reviewer: John Mansfield
Book Title: A Grammar of Kuuk Thaayorre
Book Author: Alice R. Gaby
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Typology
Subject Language(s): Thayore
Issue Number: 30.33

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This is the most comprehensive grammatical description yet published for any of the Paman languages, which occupy the Cape York Peninsula in north-eastern Australia. Gaby provides careful analysis of structural roles, distributional categories and discourse function in Kuuk Thaayorre sentences. This grammar will therefore be of particular interest to specialists in syntax, semantics and pragmatics. The language has several typologically unusual features, such as demonstratives marked for cardinal directionality, subtractive morphology, and vowel-less syllables.

Chapter 1 gives the background to the book, and describes the social, historical and geographic context of the language. Kuuk Thaayorre (KT) has some 250 speakers, most of whom live in the town of Pormpuraaw, alongside speakers of Wik Mungkan and English. Few children are fluent in KT, so it must be regarded as severely endangered. Gaby provides some welcome details about how she developed relationships with KT speakers, which is an important and often under-discussed element of field linguistics with minority indigenous communities.

Chapter 2 describes the phonology, focusing on the phoneme inventory and syllable shapes. Gaby proposes word-final syllables that consist of a single consonant, this being either a nasal, a liquid (both expected syllabic consonants), or more unusually, the dental obstruent /t̪/. KT also has unusually heavy codas (cf. Gordon, 2016, p. 91). There are only simple onsets, and in word-initial position a rather restricted range of onsets; but codas may have two or three consonants, including double-obstruent codas /tp, kp/. Gaby does not discuss, however, the principle by which such codas can be distinguished from a simple coda followed by a consonant-only syllable, i.e. /t.p, k.p/. It is also notable that Gaby’s proposed /kp/ coda appears to violate a claim of feature-theory, that all complex codas must contain a coronal (Yip, 1991). The KT lexicon includes many monosyllables, and a predominance of consonant-final stems. Gaby notes that these are unusual for an Australian language, based on Dixon’s (1980) classic delineation of the ‘typical’ Australian word shape, though Dixon’s phonological generalisations do not hold for several other languages of northern Australia (Mansfield, 2019). Gaby also describes a typologically unusual reduplication that infixes a syllable rhyme, which is further analysed elsewhere (Gaby & Inkelas, 2014; Round, 2013).

Chapter 3 gives an overview of the word classes, thus serving as an entrée to the morphological and syntactic descriptions that make up the remainder of the book.

Chapter 4 describes nominal morphology, which is predominantly case suffixation. KT has a ‘split ergative’ system of the type found in various other Pama-Nyungan languages, whereby personal pronouns use the same forms for intransitive S and transitive A roles (i.e. ‘nominative–accusative’ alignment), while common nouns use the same forms for S and P roles (i.e. ‘ergative–absolutive’ alignment). Following Goddard (1982), Gaby argues that the best analysis is one where there are distinct ERG, NOM and ACC cases for all nominals, with different patterns of homophony in different nominal classes. However KT offers additional puzzles. For one, case is marked only at the end of an NP, rather than agreeing on all nominals, suggesting that it is a phrase-level enclitic structure. But the formal markers of case inflection involve lexically specified allomorphy, with four declension classes, suggesting a word-level morphological operation. The theoretical implications of this are discussed in further literature (Anderson, Brown, Gaby, & Lecarme, 2005). KT case inflection is also interesting because it involves subtractive marking of NOM/ACC, for which Gaby provides a convincing historical explanation. This chapter also describes a highly multifunctional DAT case, and the prolific use of body-part nouns in nominal compounding.

Chapter 5 is on pronouns and demonstratives. Personal pronouns have full forms and reduced enclitic forms, with enclitics allowing stacking of multiple pronominal arguments, though the data available on this is somewhat sparse. There are also ‘ignorative’ pronouns, which cover a range of functions including interrogative, indefinite, and vagueness. KT is rich in demonstratives. There is a three-way spatial distinction – speaker-proximate, addressee-proximate, distal – with some uses reflecting discourse structure rather than physical space.

Chapter 6 is on noun phrase syntax, with KT exhibiting a fairly complex NP structure. There are distinct categories of generic noun, specific noun and adjective, though some lexemes can fill more than one of these roles. NP definiteness and specificity need not be marked, though both +def and +spec can be marked using demonstratives and pronouns respectively. Generic nouns often serve as anaphoric links to established discourse referents.

Chapters 7 and 8 are on verbal inflection and derivation respectively. Verbs are marked for TAM inflection by suffixation, or in some cases again by subtractive morphology, which can be traced to KT’s tendency to delete final vowels. Gaby provides fairly detailed semantic analysis of the tense and aspect categories. In verbal derivation, there are reflexive and reciprocal affixes, and a single valence-increasting suffix, which adds a NOM/ACC argument that can have a wide range of semantic interpretations. There are two associated motion derivations, and again (as with nominal bases) prolific use of body-part nominals to create compound lexemes.

Chapter 9 is on particles and adverbs, thus covering a somewhat disparate collection of forms. Gaby provides careful accounts of the multifunctionality of some forms, which seems more accurate than attempting to posit a single basic meaning that would account for all uses. KT adverbs include a rich set of ‘directional adverbs’, which are similar to the celebrated directional system of Guugu Yimithirr (Levinson, 2003, p. 113ff), though if anything more elaborate. Directionals specify degrees of distance, orientation to/from the deictic centre, orientation with respect to cardinal directions, as well as the Edward River. They are morphologically complex, e.g. ya-rr-iparr-op ‘away-towards-south-river’, and are frequently used in KT discourse.

Chapters 10, 11 and 12 are on clause structure. Verbal arguments are freely elided, which means that the distinction between intransitive, transitive and other clause types is identified by the NP cases with which a verb may combine, rather than those with which it must combine. On this basis, Gaby argues for a taxonomy of verb classes based on their potential case frames. Copula constructions optionally use a postural verb to carry TAM information, and Gaby provides interesting details on the semantic and aspectual dimensions of these postural verbs. KT has subordinate clauses marked by an infinitival verb form, and Gaby shows that there are distinct word-order patterns for relative and subordinate clauses. Gaby argues that finite verbs are also sometimes used as a subordination strategy, adducing prosodic and word-order evidence for this claim.

This is a comprehensive and careful grammar, covering several phenomena that are otherwise under-described, and some which present challenges to linguistic theory. The primary data in examples is both generous and judicious, with the description of each structure supported by a set of examples illustrating the formal and functional range. Gaby offers nuanced discussion of semantic interpretation and pragmatic considerations, which makes the text highly readable, and elevates it above the ‘catalogue of forms’ style that can be difficult to avoid in grammatical description. Another strength is Gaby’s willingness to consider alternative analyses. On several topics, Gaby discusses the merits of an alternative approach, and explicitly states why she has chosen her particular analysis, rather than asking us to take it on faith. This is a welcome recognition that grammatical analysis involves judgment and discretion, and that the labels and categories applied in the analysis are interpretive artifacts, rather than raw data.

There is little to critique in this book. The only flaws I noted were in superficial presentation: there seemed to be some mis-matches in the numbering of examples and their mention in the text; citations of monographs would in some cases have benefitted from a page number reference. Personally, I would have liked to see the typological significance of the phonotactics explored more – though I suspect that every linguist has some ‘pet topic’ in which reference grammars leave them wanting more. These minor critiques only rate a mention because the scholarship and writing of this grammar is of such consistently high quality.


Anderson, S. R., Brown, L., Gaby, A., & Lecarme, J. 2005. Life on the edge: There’s morphology there after all! Lingue e Linguaggio, 5(1), 33–48.

Dixon, R. M. W. 1980. The languages of Australia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaby, A., & Inkelas, S. 2014. Reduplication in Kuuk Thaayorre. In R. Kager, J. Grijzenhout, & K. Sebregts (Eds.), Where the principles fail (pp. 41–52). Ridderkerk: Holland Ridderkerk.

Goddard, C. 1982. Case systems and case marking in Australian languages: a new interpretation. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 2, 167–196.

Gordon, M. K. 2016. Phonological typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levinson, S. C. 2003. Space in language and cognition: Explorations in cognitive diversity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mansfield, J. B. 2019. Murrinpatha morphology and phonology. De Gruyter Mouton.

Round, E. R. 2013. Why reduplicate VC? Kuuk Thaayorre answers a lingering question. Presented at the Australian Linguistics Society.

Yip, M. 1991. Coronals, consonant clusters and the coda condition. In C. Paradis & J.-F. Prunet (Eds.), Phonetics and phonology (Vol. Volume 2, The special status of coronals: Internal and external evidence, pp. 61–78). San Diego: Academic Press.
John Mansfield is a Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Melbourne, specialising in Australian languages. Mansfield’s research interests include language change, morphology, phonology and the relationships between linguistic structure and social structure.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9783110456011
Pages: 499
Prices: U.S. $ 172.99
U.K. £ 136.50