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Review of  A Grammar of Paluai

Reviewer: Alexander Zahrer
Book Title: A Grammar of Paluai
Book Author: Dineke Schokkin
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Linguistic Theories
Language Family(ies): Austronesian
Issue Number: 32.786

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Paluai is an Austronesian (Oceanic, Admiralties languages) language of Baluan Island, the southernmost island of the Admiralty Islands, Papua New Guinea. Speakers are spread over six villages and estimated somewhere between 2.000 and 3.000. Bilingualism with Titan, the only other language of Baluan Island, and Lou, a closely related variety of nearby Lou Island, is rapidly fading away to the benefit of Tok Pisin, which gains ground as a lingua franca throughout Papua New Guinea. The name ‘Paluai’ is an endonym. Outside the community, the language is more commonly known as Pam-Baluan.

“A grammar of Paluai” is based on Schokkin’s 2014 dissertation at James Cook University, Cairns, Australia. She collected her data during four field trips, lasting 11 months. All primary data is listed in appendix I and consists of recordings from various genres (procedural texts, narratives, personal anecdotes, public speeches, etc.) with a total duration of almost 8 hours. The data consists almost exclusively of monological speech. Conversations make up only about 30 minutes. Additionally there is data from a multi-player picture-matching game (Levinson et al. 1992). The book is a traditional descriptive grammar, divided into 12 chapters and two fully interlinearized texts in Appendix II, a traditional legend and a procedural text about planting yams. As a theoretical background, the author refers to Basic Linguistic Theory (Dixon 2010a, 2010b, 2012) although Chapter 12 on “Pragmatics and discourse practices” relies more on concepts and notions from information structure as discussed in Lambrecht (1994) and Krifka (2008).

Chapter 1, “The language and its context” gives basic information about the sociolinguistic situation, cultural background and genetic affiliation of Paluai. The small section on previous work is constrained to work on neighbouring languages since this is the first description of Paluai. The only other Admiralties language with a full-length grammar is Loniu (Hamel 1994). Linguistic research in this area is relatively scarce. The final section of this chapter deals with data collection and methodology.

Chapter 2, “Phonology” contains sections on syllable structure, segmental phonology, word stress and prosody. The phoneme inventory is rather small with 10-11 consonants. Although the author distinguished 7 vowel phonemes, she claims that close-mid vowels are currently merging, with the distinctions /e/ - /ɛ/ and /o/ - /u/ no longer perceptible for younger speakers. More subtle phonetic differences, e.g. phonemic labialized /pw/ vs. phoneme sequence /pu/, are illustrated with spectrograms. Especially intriguing is the attention given to phonological (aka prosodic) domains. Based on phonological processes and intonation she convincingly distinguishes six domains above the segment level. This is a somewhat neglected topic in descriptive grammars of this kind and is therefore worth mentioning. Furthermore, the chapter includes a section on the phonology of loans from Tok Pisin and English. A weak spot lies in the treatment of word stress. Conceding her difficulties with correctly placing stress when speaking words in isolation herself, she nonetheless does not clarify the methodology. Results seem to originate more from an impressionistic approach. The main acoustic correlate for word stress allegedly is intensity. However, the differences in intensity in the given examples are too little to convince me that Paluai even has word stress.

Chapter 3, “Word classes I: open classes” is one of two chapters on word classes and contains sections on nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. A useful overview of all morphosyntactic criteria to distinguish the open word classes is given in three tables on pages 116-117. Each word class is presented concisely and clearly. Only two comments shall suffice here:

Nouns are categorized along three independent dimensions. Labelling is somewhat misleading here. The subsections are labelled “noun subclasses, type I”, “noun subclasses, type II”, “noun subclasses, type III”. This suggests three types according to one typology. Rather we encounter three different “way[s] to group nouns'' (pg. 60). All three of them reveal interesting facts about phenomena frequently encountered with Oceanic languages: subgrouping of personal, local and common nouns, direct vs. indirect possession, numeral and possessive classifiers. Schokkin adopts the term “pertensive” from Dixon (2010b) for suffixes in possessive constructions. This BLT notion indicates the locus of marking as the possessed rather than the possessor (i.e. “genitive” in BLT). One could ask if it is necessary to gloss the locus of marking in interlinearized examples. Moreover, there is no functional distinction with this notion. Morphemes as different as possessive pronoun suffixes (mina-ng ‘my hand’), linking elements between nouns (kerei-n kele ‘canoe edge’), bound pronouns in demonstratives (ta-ng ‘my’) and in spatial relations (kaso-ng ‘near me’) are all glossed as PERT.

Paluai has a strong tendency to specify directions for “virtually all actions that in some sense involve motion” (pg. 90). The according word class – directionals – is a common Oceanic feature and in this language analysed as a subclass of intransitive verbs. Directionals often occur serialized with other verbs (in SVCs, see below). Other than regular intransitive verbs, they do not allow nominalisation. Scholars of Oceanic languages will benefit from the clear account of directionals including comparisons with Proto Oceanic roots.

Chapter 4, “Word classes II: closed classes” is the second chapter on word classes and includes pronouns, demonstratives, adpositions, numerals, quantifiers, interrogatives, negation and mood markers, conjunctions and clause connectors, interjections and the unclassified (though ubiquitous) formative ta=. Pronouns vary in forms according to 4 numbers: singular, dual, paucal and plural. For 1st person each non-singular number distinguishes forms for inclusive and exclusive. Gender is generally absent. Researchers in Austronesian linguistics will certainly appreciate the amount of attention Schokkin spent on the diachronic perspective in this chapter. She points out relations between Paluai forms and Proto Oceanic forms (reconstructed in Lynch et al. 2002) wherever possible.

Chapter 5, “The noun phrase” is the shortest chapter in this book besides the introductory chapter. Most of the relevant topics – noun classification, functions of NPs, relative clauses, possession – are outsourced to other chapters and mentioned briefly here. Typologically interesting is an alternative coordination strategy with pronouns replacing the conjunction leading to structures, as for example ‘father 3.DUAL mother’ instead of ‘father and mother’. Lichtenberk (2000) discussed this phenomenon under the label “inclusory pronominals”.

Chapter 6, “Verbal predicates” contains information on the verbal categories aspect, modality and reality status as well as on indexing of subject and object. As usual in Oceanic linguistics, she refers to the assemblage of the main verb and its surrounding markers as a “verbal complex”. Subject indexes are proclitic bound pronouns. Aspect is marked with (mostly preverbal) particles. Core aspects are imperfective, perfective and perfect, secondary aspects are continuative/habitual/iterative, stative continuative and progressive. Irrealis mood denotes unrealised events, immediate future, past habitual and dependent clauses. It is marked as prefixes, which distinguish all three persons in the singular and only one form in non-singular. Modalities like desiderative, apprehensive and deontic are marked with preverbal particles.

Chapter 7, “Predicates II: non-verbal and copula predicates” is with 13 pages again a rather short chapter. Each of the possible heads of verbless predicates is discussed in turn: nouns, adjectives, numerals, interrogatives. She analyses non-verbal predicates as having a “zero copula” (pg. 225) though the posture verbs to(k) ‘be; stay, remain’ and the directional verb la ‘go to’ sometimes function as copula.

Chapter 8, “Grammatical relations and valency” makes use of the BLT symbols S, A, O and E to discuss the nominative-accusative alignment system of Paluai. S/A are obligatory and overtly expressed whereas O is often elided. A fair amount of space is dedicated to the discussion of extended arguments (E), again a notion from BLT. Certain verbs in Paluai require arguments with oblique marking although they behave like core arguments rather than peripheral arguments (aka adjuncts). E arguments are mostly found with verbs of emotion like kaêrêt ‘be afraid of’, mwamwasêk ‘be ashamed of’, wayêt ‘feel sadness for’ but also other verbs mostly sharing the semantic features of states, low volition and low affectedness of E, e.g. mapwai ‘know about’, masai ‘be clear about’, pangai ‘think about’. The subtle differences between O, E and adjuncts clearly belong to the more interesting features of Paluai.

Compared to other Oceanic languages, Paluai has only a few valency-changing derivations. There is a causative prefix pe- and an applicative suffix –(C)ek to increase valency. The only productive valency decreasing operation is reduplication, which forms intransitive verbs from transitive verbs. Noticeable to scholars of Oceanic will be the frequent initial syllables ma- and ta-, probably fossilized prefixes from a no longer productive stative verb derivation.

Chapter 9, “Serial verb constructions'' is dedicated to a topic that has received much attention in the last decades. Serial Verb Constructions (SVC) are abundant throughout the language. Schokkin adopted the asymmetric-symmetric distinction from Aikhenvald (2006) and organized the sections of this chapter accordingly. As for the argument structure, we find SVCs with shared subjects as well as SVCs with an argument switch: the object of the first verb is the subject of the second verb. Asymmetrical SVCs are from the semantic types of resultative, adverbial, valency-increasing, posture and directional SVCs. The section discusses each type in turn. Contrary to asymmetrical SVC, symmetrical SVCs – i.e. constructions with all verbs from an open class of lexical verbs – are “a rather marginal phenomenon in Paluai '' (pg. 289). They generally share all arguments, are juxtaposed and exhibit rather compound meaning. Examples would be: song yik ‘hunt, i.e. run away+search for’, sungêek lêp ‘collect, i.e. heap together+take’, lang saui ‘revive, i.e. lift up+lift up’. The features of symmetrical SVCs make them hard to distinguish from lexicalized compounds and indeed the author opts for a broad lexicalisation of symmetrical SVCs in subsection 9.2.2, leaving unresolved the question of whether symmetrical SVCs form a productive pattern in Paluai.

Schokkin claims that Paluai SVCs maximally serialise two verbs. Unfortunately, there are sequences of more than two verbs and her analysis as nested structures is not convincing. Serialisation of more than two verbs is not uncommon in this part of the world (Senft 2008). There is vibrant research in this area and concepts as macro-events (Bohnemeyer et al 2007) or component vs. narrative serialisation (van Staden & Reesink 2008) should have been considered. Instead, nested structures for more than two verbs in sequence are claimed without further argumentation. Furthermore, it is not even clear on what syntactic level nesting should take place. More attention to larger sequences – even if they occur rarely in the corpus – and consultation of the relevant literature beyond Aikhenvald (2006) would have been beneficial to this chapter.

Chapter 10, “Speech act distinctions and polarity” is rather short and suffers from the unnecessary use of the grammatical category mood. There is no grammatical means to distinguish mood either in morphology or in syntax. Speech acts are mostly distinguished by intonation patterns: “polar questions have a sharp rise and fall in pitch on the final element, in contrast to statements, which show gradually falling pitch” (pg. 306). Since there is no other contrast between them, it seems rather uneconomic to attribute interrogative mood to the former and declarative mood to the latter. Why not confine the descriptions to speech act types?

Negation in Paluai makes use of the discontinuous negator ma=...pwên for realis or sa...pwên for irrealis. French negation ne...pas comes to mind. The first element immediately precedes the verb. Scope of negation is on everything between the discontinuous elements, which is often rather broad due to the common use of subordinate clauses. Pwên alone is used for answers to questions.

Chapter 11, “Clausal relations and clause combining” is one of the highlights of this book. The author carefully distinguishes all possible parameters and arranges the subsections accordingly. Relative clauses are arranged according to the syntactic function of the common argument. Interestingly, there seems to be no restrictions to relative clauses. The head can be S/A, O, oblique, nominal predicate or possessor in the main clause and it can occur in all these functions in the relative clause as well. Examples for all possible combinations have been collected painstakingly from a broad variety of speakers and genres. The same holds true for complement clauses, which are arranged according to the semantic types of complement-taking verbs: verbs of attention, thinking/speaking, quotation, liking and modal verbs. Contrary to relative clauses, complement clauses are less frequent and we find them exclusively in the functions of O and oblique arguments. The only formal differentiation from relative clauses is their position. Relative clauses always follow nouns but complement clauses follow verbs. Both rely on the same subordinate marker te.

Adverbial clauses are formally more variegated. They come as temporal, manner, consequence, concessive or conditional clauses, each with semantic varieties and clause markers of accord. Again, we find a plethora of well-selected examples.

Chapter 12, “Pragmatics and discourse practices” is the final chapter of this book. As already mentioned the author tried to integrate notions from research on information structure (Lambrecht 1994, Krifka 2008) but acknowledges that she can only provide a preliminary overview. The chapter starts with introducing some basic concepts: presupposition, identifiability, activation, topic, focus – all of which are presented with examples in the following section. The introduction lacks precision and there are some mistakes, e.g. on page 365 – while discussing topics – the notion of “semi-active referents” (Chafe 1994) is erroneously attributed to Lambrecht, whereas the discussion of activation lacks a reference to the literature altogether. One has to wonder about the intended readers of this section. Linguists will be familiar with these notions (and how problematic they are). Non-linguists will probably need more basic explanation than this highly condensed section can provide. I consider this section a residue of the original dissertation that would have needed thorough editing before publication. However, covering pragmatics in a Ph.D. grammar is certainly not a trivial task and preliminary information is always better than no information at all. After all, the overall high quality of this grammar is not impaired.

The final section is about discourse organisation and simply summarizes the structure of two example texts: a narrative and a procedural text. These texts are also fully included in the appendix, so the interested reader could check if Schokkin’s segmentation – introduction, story proper and coda – makes sense. This section is a nice supplement to the grammar but since it merely gives an outline of the texts and furthermore lacks any theoretical grounding, it certainly will not be that exciting for prospective readers.


Schokkin’s grammar of Paluai contains a well-crafted description of an interesting language in a little studied part of the New Guinea area. The wealth of data she presents on 422 pages (incl. appendix) is impressive. Theoretical grounding in Basic Linguistic Theory and the choice of terminology was appropriate for most parts of her analysis. Some shortcomings were pointed out in the summary (see above) but they never impaired the overall high quality of this work. All topics are presented in a clear and reader-friendly manner. The division of chapters feels natural and is suited to find information quickly. Furthermore, the attention spent on the individual parts of the grammar seems well balanced.

The great strength of this grammar is its careful arrangement of the examples. Interlinearized examples are formatted in four lines. The differences between line 1 (orthographic) and line 2 (morpheme breaks) give immediate access to surface forms and their underlying morphemes. As one proceeds with the grammar, one gets more and more comfortable with reading the orthographic lines first. The author provides for each example an index to the source in her corpus. In combination with the recordings’ metadata in appendix I, this allows for quick access of genre/subject and speaker information for every single example. Line 2 often provides highlighting of the element under scrutiny via square brackets and subscripts. For example [...]LOC for locative adjuncts in Chapter 8. In the later chapters, bracketing becomes an indispensable aid through nested structures. The careful attention that the author spent to the examples is also reflected in the fact that –to my eye– there are virtually no mistakes. I only spotted one single mix-up on page 153, where example 80 erroneously reproduces the translation from example 70 (pg. 149).

Interested readers can benefit from the attention Schokkin paid to the diachronic perspective. The many comparative notes embed Paluai in its Oceanic context and pave the way for more thorough historical work in the future. Beyond the Austronesian linguistic community, this work will be interesting to typologists and general linguists who search for good examples for typically Oceanic features like noun classification, serial verb constructions, directionals and many more. Finally, Paluai in its present state shows interesting patterns of language contact with Tok Pisin as well as areal features, some of which are mentioned in this book but are more elaborated in subsequent work by the same author (Schokkin 2014, 2017). Hopefully, this grammar will stimulate future work in this less studied part of the New Guinea area.


Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2006. Serial Verb Constructions in typological perspective. In Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald & R. M. W. Dixon (eds.), Serial Verb Constructions: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, 1-68. Oxford University Press.

Bohnemeyer, Jürgen, Nicholas J. Enfield, James Essegbey, Iraide Ibarretxe-Antuñano, Sotaro Kita, Friederike Lüpke, Felix K. Ameka. 2007. Principles of event segmentation in language: The case of motion events. In Language (2007), 495–532.

Chafe, Wallace. 1994. Discourse, Consciousness, and Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 2010a. Basic Linguistic Theory: Methodology (Vol. 1). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 2010b. Basic Linguistic Theory: Grammatical topics (Vol. 2). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dixon, R. M. W. 2012. Basic Linguistic Theory: Further grammatical topics (Vol. 3). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krifka, Manfred. 2008. Basic notions of information structure. Acta Linguistica Hungarica 55(3-4). 243-276.

Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information structure and sentence form: Topic, focus, and the mental representations of discourse referents. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Levinson, Stephen C., P. Brown, E. Danzinger, L. De León, J. B. Haviland, E. Pederson, & Gunter Senft. 1992. Man and tree & space games. In Stephen C. Levinson (ed.), Space stimuli kit 1.2: November 1992. Nijmegen: Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

Lichtenberk, Frantisek. 2000. Inclusory pronominals. Oceanic Linguistics 39. 1-32.

Lynch, John, Malcolm Ross, & Terry Crowley. 2002. The Oceanic languages. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon.

Schokkin, Dineke. 2014. Discourse practices as an areal feature in the New Guinea region? Explorations in Paluai, an Austronesian language of the Admiralties. Journal of Pragmatics 62. 107-120.

Schokkin, Dineke. 2017. Contact-induced change in an Oceanic language: The Paluai – Tok Pisin case. Journal of Language Contact 10(1). 76-97.

Senft, Gunter. 2008. Serial verb constructions in Austronesian and Papuan languages. Canberra: The Australian National University.

van Staden, Miriam & Ger Reesink. 2008. Serial verb constructions in a linguistic area. In Gunter Senft, Serial verb constructions in Austronesian and Papuan languages, 17-54. Canberra: The Australian National University.
Alexander Zahrer is a PhD student at the University of Münster, Germany. His interests include language documentation, typology, morphology, information structure and semantics. Alexander is currently doing fieldwork for a grammar of Muyu, an endangered language of West New Guinea.

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