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Calvin R. Rensch, Carolyn M. Rensch, Jonas Noeb and Robert Sulis Ridu, 2006, The Bidayuh language: yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Calvin R. Rensch, Carolyn M. Rensch, Jonas Noeb and Robert Sulis Ridu, 2006, The Bidayuh language: yesterday, today and tomorrow. Bidayuh Language Development Project. Kuching (Sarawak, Malaysia): Dayak Bidayuh National Association; xiv +449 pages, figures, tables, maps; soft cover, ISBN 983-2981-01-8.

Bidayuh is spoken in a number of dialects in the Kuching and Samarahan Divisions of West Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo. It belongs to the Land Dayak (or Bidayuhic) language subgroup, which is part of the (West) Malayo Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. Other Land Dayak languages are mainly spoken in neighboring West Kalimantan, Indonesia. They are among the least known subgroups in Borneo, which in turn is one of the least well-known linguistic areas in the Austronesian-speaking world. The Bidayuh language is therefore a very welcome addition to the literature on Bornean linguistics.

The book consists of three sections.

In the first section called "Language development in Bidayuh: past, present and future," Jonas Noeb and Robert Sulis Ridu give a general introduction detailing information about the speech community, language classification, language development, and the Bidayuh Language Development Project. The language classification is by location and "cultural traits," rather than by genetic affiliation. Until very recently, the Bidayuh language obtained virtually no attention. In fact, during White Rajah rule and British colonization, Dayak education in general received hardly any support and was largely in the hands of missionaries. The Borneo Literature Bureau (1959-1977) was the first organization that published Bidayuh texts other than of a liturgical nature. It also encouraged writing in Dayak languages. In 1977 it was taken over by the Sarawak branch of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (the government-sponsored literacy bureau in Malaysia), which practically meant that it ceased to exist. Other positive influences on the maintenance and development of Bidayuh have been the publication of Datuk William Nais' dictionary (Nais 1988), native language broadcasting by Radio Sarawak, the performances of Bidayuh singers and recordings of their popular music, the Majlis Adat Istiadat (Council for Customs and Traditions, Sarawak) established in 1974, the Sarawak Gazette (1870) and Sarawak Museum Journal (1911), the Oral Traditions Project (started in 1990 by the Sarawak government and aimed at recording oral traditions from all ethnic groups in Sarawak) and church publications (Bible translations, newsletters). Bidayuh is under threat of disappearance because of urbanization, intermarriage, and formal education in languages other than Bidayuh (foremost, Malay). Add to this the indifference of some of its speakers preferring to educate their children in Malay or even English because they believe that this will enhance their future, and Bidayuh qualifies as an endangered language. Efforts to turn the tide and to develop the language have led to the formation of the Bidayuh Development Committee in 2000, with representatives from all Bidayuh-speaking regions. With the help of linguists from the Summer Institute of Linguistics, it started in 2001 the Bidayuh Language Development Project, which aims at the preservation of Bidayuh and its promotion among community members, including in the home and in schools. Its activities are language research, spelling standardization, the training of language activists, the establishment of writers' workshops and dictionary workshops, and curriculum development. While the Project has achieved a unified spelling (in 2003), the establishment of a standardized "common dialect" remains problematic because of regionalism among the Bidayuh speakers.

The second section, "Nasality in Bidayuh phonology" by Carolyn Rensch, is a fairly comprehensive cross-dialectal overview of the basic phonology, phonotactics and morphology of Bidayuh, based on word lists representing 25 varieties of Bidayuh (as well as Rara', see below). This section is not just about nasality, although nasality is certainly very central to it, and Carolyn Rensch's approach to broader phonological and morphological issues is more descriptive than analytical. Nasality is manifested in three independent phenomena. (1) Nasal prefixation can be syllabic or non-syllabic. Prefixation of non-syllabic N- forms intransitive verbs: if the root begins with a consonant, it is replaced by a homorganic nasal; if the root begins with a vowel, [eta]- is prefixed to it. Prefixation of syllabic [??]N:- forms transitive and causative verbs. (2) Nasal spread happens when a nasal consonant influences adjacent vowels in such a way that they also acquire a nasal pronunciation. In Bidayuh, this spread is non-phonemic. Its effects are usually progressive (that is, they affect following vowels) but regressive nasal spread also occurs (whereby a nasal consonant nasalizes a preceding vowel, as in French words). Finally, (3) nasal preplosion is a phenomenon affecting final nasal consonants whereby an unreleased homorganic (voiced or voiceless) stop is articulated before the actual nasal (e.g. Gumbang dialect jadn, 'rain'). In Bidayuh, this preplosion is also non-contrastive. Finally, in some Bidayuh dialects, there is a nasal release of word-final stops.

The third section is a phonological history of Bidayuh, in which Calvin Rensch uses the comparative method to reconstruct the phonologies and basic lexicons of Proto Bidayuh as well as of Proto Bakati', Proto Bidayuh-Bakati' and Proto Land Dayak, The basis for these reconstructions are the 25 Bidayuh and Rara' word lists mentioned above, augmented with data from a few Land Dayak varieties spoken in West Kalimantan. This is the largest section of the book, making up more than two thirds of the text.

All three sections are very informative, richly documented, and written in a very readable style. However, a few omissions and other awkward aspects need to be pointed out.

For instance, no estimation is given of the number of speakers for any of the languages, dialects and language groups discussed. The authors also tend to be vague in their definition of "Bidayuh" as a linguistic label. They give several accounts of the main dialect divisions of Bidayuh, sometimes dividing them into three groups (that is, a western, central and eastern group), and sometimes into five groups (through the inclusion of the Rara' dialect). It is only through careful re-reading (and a schematic representation on page 225) that we learn that, by and large, four Bidayuh dialect groups should be distinguished (an Eastern Group, Western Group, Central Group and "Sembaan" Group) and that Rara' is definitely a dialect of Bakati'. The latter is another Land Dayak language mainly spoken in West Kalimantan, although there are some Bakati' (Rara') villages across the Sarawak border in the Lundu District. Part of the problem appears to be that in Sarawak, "Bidayuh" is used as an ethnic terra for Land Dayak people in general. At any rate, this is the way Jonas Noeb and Robert Ridu use it. It is also the way Carolyn Rensch uses it in part II, and, while she is aware of the separate linguistic status of Rara', she does discuss it along with other Bidayuh varieties.

Jonas Noeb and Robert Ridu's concept of a "common Bidayuh dialect" remains vague. What would be the nature of such a dialect, and how do the authors think it should be realized? The options are limited: one could (1) use one Bidayuh dialect as a standard, (2) make one dialect the basis of a new standard dialect and then "enrich" it with terminologies from other dialects, or (3) try to create an artifact on the basis of common features (words, grammatical elements) shared by all or most existing forms of Bidayuh. Whatever one does, it is hard to see how the issue of dialect hegemony can be avoided. Either one chooses the dialect that has the most speakers and is (probably) more prestigious than other dialects, which would be linguistically more natural and feasible but would disappoint speakers of other dialects, or one creates an artifact which (hopefully) does not favor any group in particular but will be done at the cost of much effort, will appear unnatural, and will require even more of an effort to be learned from all Bidayuh speakers. Chances are that such an artifact will never be generally accepted. This is not a problem that can be solved to everyone's equal satisfaction.

Calvin Rensch basically applies a "bottom-up" approach to his linguistic reconstructions. His work is meticulous and systematic, and he should be commended for tackling the history of a phonological[y particularly complicated Austronesian subgroup. However, this mainly regards his reconstruction of Proto Bidayuh and Proto Bakati'. As far as Proto Land Dayak is concerned, he basically lacks the data to make a representative reconstruction, given that the spread and genetic variety of Land Dayak languages in West Kalimantan is at least as wide as it is in Sarawak, and he has lexical data of only three Land Dayak varieties in West Kalimantan other than Bakati' (namely Ribun, Kembayan and Semandang). Furthermore, there is no clear justification for the reconstruction of Proto Bidayuh-Bakati'. Proto-languages can only have significance if they are based on "exclusive shared innovations." Calvin Rensch did not adduce such innovations for Proto Bidayuh-Bakati', and even if he had tried to do so, it is unlikely that he would have come very far, given the lack of data regarding West Kalimantan varieties. He himself admits that Proto Bidayuh-Bakati' "may be a statement of common phonological features rather than a description of a period of development" (p. 243). But if that is the case, why reconstruct what seems to be a random proto-language?

Somewhat less forgivable is the fact that he and the other authors refer to hardly any literature concerning Land Dayak languages in West Kalimantan, such as Cense and Uhlenbeck's bibliography of Borneo languages (1958), the Borneo maps in Wurm and Hattori's language atlas (1983), or any of the Indonesian and Dutch sources (for instance, Darmansyah et al. 1994). Most importantly, no reference is made to Sudarsono's grammar of Bakati', which appeared in (2002), nor to the research efforts of the Institut Dayakologi in Pontianak, which also publishes literature in Land Dayak languages. In the historical section, Calvin Rensch makes use of works that are only marginally relevant to the linguistic history of Bidayuh. He makes no reference to any of Robert Blust's historical linguistic publications, although the latter has dealt repeatedly with the classification of Land Dayak (e.g. Blust 1981, 2006), and his Comparative Austronesian dictionary (Blust n.d.) and etymologies in several Oceanic Linguistics issues are standard reference works. Due to this lack of familiarity with the relevant literature, Calvin Rensch obviously missed some opportunities to fine-tune his proto-phonemes and lexical reconstructions, which sometimes remain ambiguous. For instance, he could have gone much further in making a critical distinction between inherited and borrowed vocabulary. In his phonological comparison, he somewhat hesitantly realizes that Land Dayak l is a loan phoneme, whereas from a wider comparative Austronesian perspective, its being borrowed is in fact the only sensible conclusion. He does not address the problem of variant forms with final n, which emerges in various Land Dayak languages. Although the occurrence of these final n variants is not easy to solve and may require a combination of explanations, in body-part and kinship terms it makes sense as a fossilized element suffixed to inalienable vocabulary originally ending in a vowel. The same phenomenon occurs in other Land Dayak languages (including Sungkung in West Kalimantan, cf. Adelaar 2005:25). Only part of the Land Dayak languages represent this suffix, and where they do, they do not always do so to the same extent: for instance, Bidayuh varieties have the suffix more often than Bakati' ones, and within the Bidayuh dialect group, some varieties exhibit it more systematically than others. It is consequently unlikely that this inalienable n can be attributed to any of the Land Dayak proto-languages.

These critical remarks notwithstanding, this book is clearly a milestone in the study of Land Dayak languages, and it is of crucial importance to the study of Bornean languages. We are looking forward with great anticipation to further research publications from the Bidayuh Language Development Project.


Adelaar, Alexander 2005 The Austronesian languages of Asia and Madagascar: a historical perspective, In: Alexander Adelaar and Nikolaus P. Himmelmann, eds., The Austronesian languages of Asia and Madagascar. 1-42. Routledge Language Family Series. London: Routledge.

Blust, Robert A. 1981 The reconstruction of Proto-Malayo-Javanic: an appreciation. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 137:456-469.

2006 Whence the Malays? In: James T. Collins and Awang Sariyan, eds, Borneo and the homeland of the Malays: four essays. 64-88. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa.

n.d. Austronesian Comparative Dictionary. Unfinished work available online.

Cense, A.A.; E.M. Uhlenbeck 1958 Critical survey of studies on the languages of Borneo. KITLV Bibliographical Series 2. 's-Gravenhage: Martinus Nijhoff.

Darmansyah, Durdje Durasid; Nirmala Sari 1994 Morfologi dan sintaksis bahasa Bedayuh. Jakarta: Pusat Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Bahasa (Dept. Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan).

Sudarsono 2002 Description of Bakatik Duyak language. Ph.D. thesis, Latrobe University (Melbourne). Wurm, S.A. and S. Hattori, eds. 1981-3 Linguistic atlas of the Pacific area. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

(Alexander Adelaar, Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne)
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Author:Adelaar, Alexander
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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