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The Yimas Language of Papua New Guinea.

I think it is not unfair to say that many anthropologists have a deeply rooted anxiety towards linguists and things linguistic. They are repelled by the jargon, daunted by the analyses and intimidated by the fact that there are other professional academics around who know their field language a lot better than they do. At the same time, though, a large number of anthropologists are deeply interested in language - we often spend a great deal of time learning and trying to speak in difficult foreign tongues, and we all appreciate the essential role that language plays in the constitution of the societies we study and in our understanding of the people with whom we work. Moreover, it is not unusual for anthropologists, especially those who have worked in Melanesia, where the great majority of languages have barely been described, to return from the field with language material of their own that they would like to be able to systematize and analyze somehow.

This book is a perfect place to begin. It is the grammar to give a favorite colleague who is interested in language but who hates grammars and finds them impossibly boring to read. Not only is this a masterful grammar -- the book is a model for anyone ever wishing to attempt a description of a field language -- it is also extremely well written. Foley possesses the rare and infinitely admirable ability to explain linguistic minutae in accessible, engaging language. Take for example the following sentence: 'The strictly morphological processes of a language, of course, are a language-specific fact: some languages such as Vietnamese may have no morphological processes at all; others, like Yimas, have an exuberance of these (p. 81, emphasis added). Gentle poetic touches like this appear throughout the book, and they help the reader maintain interest as Foley lays out his description of the language. They also urge us to continually bear in mind that Yimas is not 'just' a language: it is a vibrant, quite beautiful instrument of communication between living people.

This is not to say that the book is jargon free -in order to get through it, readers should be able to take on a sentence like 'If the matrix verb is bivalent and the complement is functioning as O, then the controller is obviously the A participant' and emerge out the other end with unglazed-over eyes. Some parts of the book, especially the detailed discussion of Yimas's segmental phonological rules, are definitely not for the fainthearted. What makes the book so accessible, however, is that Foley is careful to define most of his terms, and he analyzes the language in a clear step-by-step process. Unlike most grammars, which simply present readers with a finished description, Foley argues for why he has come to analyze Yimas in the ways he has. He discusses the kinds of considerations he has taken into account in his analysis. At various points he even presents alternative interpretations of linguistic features, and he evaluates the merits of each approach. Again, this cool, didactic presentational style guides readers through the book's not-uncomplicated arguments about a language that by any standards surely deserves to be called 'hard'.

My most serious complaint is that the book has no index. This is simply unforgivable in a volume of this size and detail. It very undeservedly reduces its value as a reference work, and it makes it much more cumbersome than is warranted to extract information from. As an anthropologist, I was also surprised that in the ethnographic summary at the beginning of the book, Foley sometimes metamorphoses into Margaret Mead. In the middle of interesting and informative descriptions of life among the Yimas people, there suddenly appear passages spookily written in crisp Culture and Personality prose: at one point we are informed, for example, that 'Yimas women tend to have a practical, cooperative approach to life, and are interested primarily in caring for their children. They lack the competitive display so characteristic of men, but exhibit a down-to-earth self-confidence'. This is, incidentally, one of the few references to Yimas women in this book. They are otherwise conspicuously absent. All of Foley's language informants seem to have been male, and while he at one point mentions intriguingly that the Yimas spoken by older females is particularly 'highly complex and irregular', he does not pursue this observation to tell us more about how women talk.

This leads me to my final comment. The merits of this book are overwhelming. Still, in the final analysis, one has to conclude that Foley has produced a rather standard linguistic description of a language. He has worked in the traditional way, with a few well-chosen male informants, and he has divided Yimas up following the standard organization of a grammar: he begins with phonology, progresses through grammatical classes and ends with interclausal relations. (Anthropologists reading grammars by linguists tend to be reminded of the modernist monograph, in which whole societies were dismembered and organized into chapters entitled 'Oecology', 'Religious Beliefs', 'Kinship and Marriage', etc.). It is probably because I was so completely impressed by Foley's analysis of Yimas that I found myself lamenting, in the end, that he had not attempted a more daring work. I would have liked to have seen him try to squarely incorporate issues of variation and fluidity into his analysis of the language, and I would have liked to have seen him address some of the challenges to standard grammatical description that have been issued in the work of fellow Oceanic linguists such as George Grace, Peter Muhlhausler and Andrew Pawley. Perhaps grammars just aren't ready for postmodern shakeups yet. One might hope, however, that Foley, in his promised future publications on Yimas, will exercise his considerable mastery of both the Yimas language and linguistic theory to help bring about a change in that direction.

DON KULICK New York University
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Sydney
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Kulick, Don
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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