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Review of  Edible Gender, Mother-in-Law Style, and Other Grammatical Wonders

Reviewer: David Douglas Robertson
Book Title: Edible Gender, Mother-in-Law Style, and Other Grammatical Wonders
Book Author: R. M. W. Dixon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Subject Language(s): Dyirbal
Issue Number: 32.1859

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(xiv + 342 pp.) This newest contribution to linguistic typology by a prolific major figure highlights notable structural and sociolinguistic phenomena in the Indigenous languages of a specific region in Queensland, Australia. Dixon arranges his tour as a five-part, 16-chapter study.

The first chapter establishes “Background” (1-17) on relevant cultural traits, tribal units, and linguistic characteristics of the languages under discussion.

Part I “Genders and Classifiers” (19-20) begins with a concise summary of the state of linguistic knowledge about these items. Chapter 2 “Edible and the other genders in Dyirbal” (21-43) proceeds from the morphosyntax of that language’s four “noun markers” of gender to a tabulation of the meanings typical in obligatorily assigning every noun to one of these genders. The fundamental semantic distinctions in this gender system are shown, and their numerousness is then explained with reference to culture-specific principles and practices. Dixon takes a moment (43) to correct widespread misunderstandings of this system arising from George Lakoff’s influential 1987 take on them.

Chapter 3 “Classifiers in Yidiñ” (44-60) shows a neighbouring language’s contrasting approach to categorizing nouns, with many but not all occurrences of nominals taking one of about 20 classifiers. Dixon observes that it is generally “more felicitous” to include the latter than not to, but also that it “would be unbearably pedantic” to speakers if classifiers were always used (44). This sensitivity to the texture of discourse, he shows, initially puzzled and then enlightened him as to which morphs are classifiers and which are not (46-48); they fall into two types, reflecting a noun’s “inherent nature” or “function”. The Dyirbal and Yidiñ nominal-categorization systems are compared and contrasted.

Part II,“Kin Relations and How to Talk with Them”, again starts with a pithy sketch, highlighting the characteristically Indigenous Australian conception of ‘family’ as exclusively consanguineal, thus defining all members of one’s tribal society as some kind of blood relation (61-62). Chapter 4, “The Dyirbal kinship system” (63-84), exemplifies in depth one language’s categorization of relations within such a society. Nine basic kin categories are shown to be fundamental, as are concepts of ‘harmonic’ (“same generation, or two apart”) vs. ‘disharmonic’ (“one or three generations apart”) (71), and elder vs. younger siblings. A limited set of kin terms exists for respectful reference in certain circumstances (69-71). Dixon demonstrates with two kinship charts how it is more intuitive and economical to conceptualize Dyirbal kinship in culture- and language-internal terms than in customary anthropologists’ terms (which are English-oriented and affinal) (74-76). The above principles are shown to be implemented in traditional rules of choosing a potential spouse.

Chapter 5, “Jalnguy, the ‘mother-in-law’ speech style in Dyirbal” (85-111), situates this oft-cited phenomenon in context, showing that Australian languages have a variety of well-developed registers and styles. Jalnguy (Ja) use is more accurately characterized as “to mark the relationship of avoidance between cross-cousins” in tribal initiation contexts (86). Essentially, all lexical content words of “everyday” (Ev) speech (but not names) are replaced by different forms in Ja, but easing the cognitive demands of substitution is a many-Ev-to-one-Ja-form correspondence; typically one Ev noun or verb is the ‘nuclear’, prototypical, member of a set translated by a Jalnguy term (94). Ja uses either a distinct root alone, or a complex Ja paraphrase, e.g., the Ev root for ‘kookaburra’ is ‘he who laughs a lot’ in Jalnguy (92-96); in some cases voice timbre or gestures disambiguate a Ja term (108). Dyirbal grammar is identical between the styles, with differences in usage (110-111).

Chapter 6, “The origin of ‘mother-in-law’ vocabulary in Dyirbal and Yidiñ” (112-138), shows that the Jalnguy replacement lexicon developed diachronically by three mechanisms: phonological distortion of several Ev lexemes; most often by borrowing an Ev lexeme; and sometimes by borrowing a Ja lexeme (121). Directionality of borrowing and dating of changes cannot be established due to unequal quality of available data in various languages.

Part III, “Grammatical Studies”, focuses on prominent morphosyntactic characteristics of the book’s subject languages. Chapter 7, “Comparing the syntactic orientations of Dyirbal and Yidiñ” (141-158), is another illustration of the value of taking behavioral factors into account in linguistic analysis, showing how preferences around discourse organization have influenced the grammatical evolution of these two languages. Dixon makes use of his concept of ‘pivot’, examining which arguments can (and must) occur in common between coordinated clauses or between main and relativized clauses. Dyirbal’s almost uniformly S/O pivot is understandable in light of its preference for third-person narration and the cognitive demands of its long pivot chains. Yidiñ’s more variable pivot, S/A ~ S/O, correspondingly interacts with its shorter, more manageable pivot chains and its first-person storytelling convention (speech-act participant pronouns, which are more likely to be Agents, are very frequent as a coordination pivot; nominals, which are more likely to be Objects, are more common in relative clauses) (154-156).

Chapter 8, “Serial verb constructions in Dyirbal” (159-186), examines the phenomenon of multiple verbs not linked by a coordination or subordination strategy but instead functioning as a single predicate sharing at least one core argument. Most Dyirbal SVCs are symmetrical, that is, involving only verbs, but many are asymmetrical, involving an “adverbal” – essentially an inflectable adverb. Most have two members, some have three, and just one has four. The notional transitivity of the SVC members need not match, whereas surface transitivity must agree; thus various transitivity-altering morphology is often deployed. Past tense is the most common SVC inflection, with significant smaller amounts of purposive, imperative, and relative-clause tokens. Just nine lexemes account for most SVC members, with verbs of motion most prominent and verbs of rest and adverbals somewhat less so. The members of one SVC commonly are a verb of rather general meaning and its hyponym(s), verbs expressing different aspects of a motion, or simultaneous events or states. Dyirbal and Yidiñ are the only two languages so far described as having both asymmetrical and symmetrical SVCs.

Chapter 9, “Complementation strategies in Dyirbal” (187-204), shows how various strategies are enlisted for the functions that would be filled if this language had a complement-clause construction. SVCs express concepts of finishing and trying. The purposive inflection approximates English ‘(for)’ expressions. The relative-clause inflection is used on notional complements of attention, thinking, speaking, and human-propensity predicates such as ‘jealous’ and ‘ashamed’; perhaps the common theme is that of cognitive acts.

Chapter 10, “Grammatical reanalysis in Warrgamay” (205-226), is the only one devoted entirely to this language. Its focus is on a diachronic change evidenced by differences between the two dialects, whereby the distributions shifted of allomorphs of four “case” suffixes (a broad label for certain noun affixes, some of which might strictly be analyzed as inflectional, others derivational) . Some formerly phonologically conditioned alternations of single cases became distinct markers of separate cases. A bigger shift has been from a former rigid division between a conjugation set of verb roots, most of which were intransitive, and one that was mostly transitive, to a modern regularization wherein any verb can take either a transitive or an intransitive conjugation depending on circumstances of use. Dixon takes the unusual step of hypothesizing further stages to which Warrgamay might have evolved had it continued being spoken; for example, he suggests it could have shifted from ergative to accusative syntax.

Part IV, “Variation, Contact, and Change”, studies variability in Dyirbal through time and space. Chapter 11, “Dyirbal grammar: Variation across dialects” (227-249), is essentially a list of the varying forms of morphemes which nominals and verbals take; even reduplication, particles, and clitics take distinct forms, such that virtually every area of grammar betrays a speaker’s dialect identity.

Chapter 12, “Dyirbal dialectology: Lexical variation” (250-258), is a pilot study of 360 nouns, indicating that just over half are identical across all dialects. Another third have two forms, a broadly northern and southern one; virtually all of the remainder have three forms. Cognacy with neighbouring languages in the Queensland hotspot is the rule, averaging around 70% of lexemes, so it is often difficult to determine the direction of borrowing.

Chapter 13, “Compensatory phonological changes” (259-278), reconstructs the series of connected events in the Ngajan dialect that led it to merge two rhotic phonemes and develop a two-way vowel length distinction. Changes in root forms and in nominal and verbal morphology each are highlighted, and a timeline of changes established. Exceptions including recent loans are pointed out.

Chapter 14, “A study of language contact” in the Cairns rainforest region (279-299), spotlights complex lexical and semantic influences among Dyirbal, Warrgamay, and Yidiñ, and the latter’s neighbour and relative Ja:bugay, in a microcosm of Australia’s single “gigantic linguistic area” (280) in which it is very hard to determine genetic relationships. Shared features are revealing: the distribution of meanings in the demonstrative system of Dyirbal has been borrowed into the neighbouring dialect of Yidiñ; the northern Dyirbal dialects’ tense-suffix system is identical with that in Yidiñ; Yidiñ has borrowed a Dyirbal first-person dual pronoun into a system that is natively only singular vs. non-singular; northerly Dyirbal dialects lost initial rhotics under Yidiñ influence; they also innovated vowel length due to the same stimulus.

Part V, “Languages Fading Away”, introduces a schema useful in the environment of language obsolescence in which Dixon has spent a career researching these languages: older generations “T” (traditional, fluent speakers), younger “S” (semi-speakers), and youngest “N” (essentially non-speakers) (301-302). Chapter 15 “The last change in Yidiñ” (303-313) tells of observed variation in generation “S”, including sporadic loss of case suffixes, unpredictable allomorph distributions, and limited lexical knowledge, and the overall resulting shift into a less stable, more variable communicative system.

Chapter 16, “The gradual decline of Dyirbal” (314-329), gives a fairly detailed sociolinguistic sketch of post-contact Dyirbal generally, and specifically at the time of Dixon’s first work with it in 1963 and then from 1977 to 1984 and beyond. At each successive stage the speech community had contracted and fragmented; certain named individuals retained an extraordinary grasp of their Aboriginal language, but it became increasingly difficult and then impossible to proceed with field research.

All of this content is bracketed with a List of Tables, Diagrams, and Map (xi-xii), List of Abbreviations (xiii-xiv), Acknowledgments (331), References (332-338), and Index (339-342).


Most of the material in this book has been previously published, but its appearance as an anthology is very welcome, not only because it makes Dixon’s groundbreaking research more accessible, but also because he takes the opportunity to revise older work in light of newer insights and discoveries. “Edible Gender” is an excellent survey of varied topics in linguistic typology, and it will reward readers in settings ranging from specialists in typology, to seminars in Australian linguistics or linguistic anthropology, to those educated laypeople who might pick it up out of sheer curiosity at the title. Hardly any previous acquaintance with the jargon of linguistics is assumed, with every term more esoteric than “noun” or “verb” carefully explained and illustrated. Ample data appears, but it is limited to what is needed to illustrate a point. The tone is relatively conversational; Dixon relates many personal experiences from his fieldwork and quotes from conversations with late elders. All of this is to say that I can strongly recommend this volume to a fairly broad audience; linguists and others are bound to come away with deeper knowledge for having read it.

The slight shortcomings virtually inevitable in any linguistic publication exist here. The List of Abbreviations predictably lacks reference to this or that convention; particular symbols could have been added, to many readers’ relief, such as the undefined : which appears in glosses of fused morphs (e.g. 145) and the • apparently representing core arguments (e.g. 188).

The text itself sports some terms that Dixon employs with apparent precision but that are idiosyncratic and/or undefined by him, such as a syntactic environment characterized as “only in complex combinations” (e.g. 25, 236). One stylistic habit in the text, that of translating an Aboriginal-language word just once into English but then involving it repeatedly in discussion for pages afterward, makes for most of the most demanding prose here. In another shortcoming more editorial than authorial, the unfamiliarity to most readers of Australian languages generally and of Yidiñ in particular can make for mild confusion in the rare instances where Dixon just mentions an existing structure without exemplifying it, e.g., “We can now have (31) as main and (29-ap) as relative clause ‘The woman who slapped the man laughed’” (151). And at least for this reviewer, whose linguistic training encompassed relatively few anthropology courses, the chapter on the Dyirbal kinship system is heavy going indeed, not due to its terminology’s opacity, but rather for its conceptual unfamiliarity. A single kin term in this language can label people of varying generations via a range of linking relatives, and I experienced quite a challenge in assimilating the data in detail, although Dixon’s exposition of the system’s uniqueness is perfectly clear.

Perhaps the most substantial subject in the book that I wished had been more fully explored is Dixon’s innovative and insightful typology of complement-taking predicates into Primary verbs (which can otherwise be predicates on their own) and Secondary verbs, “which serve to modify the meanings of Primary verbs” (189), each subdivided into clusters of meanings that tend to be expressed similarly. This analysis was previously laid out in crosslinguistic surveys such as Dixon (2010). His chapter on complementation strategies in Dyirbal, which lacks a dedicated complement-clause construction, is a compelling illustration of other ways of expressing the same senses as clause linkages in other languages, yet it only partially relates the approaches taken by Dyirbal speakers with that schema. We are left with a number of questions which presumably only Dixon could readily answer. He is conscientious about noting gaps in his knowledge, e.g., “I do not know what conditions th[e] choice” between instrumental or dative case with Warrgamay purposive inflection (212), and so we can hope that his not stipulating this in the Dyirbal instance does not indicate a lack of data.

Dixon’s clear thinking about decades of primary data gathering will have the benefit of opening many linguists’ eyes to possibilities they had not considered. Two points from the Yidiñ serial verb chapter can help show how. First, the book specifies that this language has no coordinating conjunction, yet its word ‘añja’ might be taken as such by a nonspecialist – for reasons including speakers’ ease of glossing it as ‘and’ (178) to its anomalous phonotactics in that it uniquely lacks a word-onset consonant (162). Dixon makes a good case by examples (e.g. 171, 178, 184) that ‘añja’ nevertheless is positionally quite free and functions as a signal of either a new “pivot” (roughly, a topical subject) or a new action by an established pivot (162).

Second, Dixon shows (many an introductory linguistics course’s generalizations to the contrary) that not all affixal functions have the same morphological status from language to language. Verbal valency-altering and aspectual-type morphemes, for example, are derivational, not inflectional, in Yidiñ (165). This language’s inflectional repertory includes just eight morphs (two tenses, positive and negative imperatives, purposive, apprehensive, relative-clause, and ‘-ŋurra’ “ S or O … is coreferential with the A NP of the preceding clause, and … the event … follows immediately after the event of the preceding clause”) (166-167).

“Edible Gender” is an approachable and exemplary model of high-quality linguistic research and of communicating the value of such research to a broader public.


Dixon, R.M.W. 2010. Basic Linguistic Theory (volume 1 and 2). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, fire, and dangerous things: What categories reveal about the mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
David Douglas Robertson PhD is an independent consulting linguist in Spokane, Washington, USA, specializing in historical sociolinguistics and in the documentation of under-researched languages of the region, including Chinuk Wawa (Chinook Jargon), ɬəẃáĺməš (Lower Chehalis Salish), and Natítanui (Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan). He also collaborates in the repatriation of indigenous intangible cultural heritage.

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