A grammar of Warrongo

A grammar of Warrongo. By Tasaku Tsunoda. (Mouton grammar library 53.) Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2011. Pp. xi, 751. ISBN 9783110238761. $210 (Hb).

Reviewed by Philip W. Davis, Rice University

Warrongo was an Australian language spoken in northeastern Queensland, and Tasaku Tsunoda worked with the last fluent speaker of the language, Alf Palmer, who died in 1981 at over 100 years of age. Prior to Palmer’s participation in the description of his language, beginning in the 1970s, there was a period of fifty years during which he had not spoken Warrongo (45). Since 2000, T has made extensive efforts to promote the revival of Warrongo (v, vii), and this book ‘is almost entirely based on the lecture notes’ (v) from a course on the language taught at the University of Tokyo (2003–2009).

The book is organized into four chapters: The language and its speakers (1–52), Phonology (53–155), Word classes and morphology (156–317), and Syntax (318–699). The book concludes with excerpts from three texts (700–22), followed by indices of subjects, languages, and names.

Ch. 1 contains information about Warrongo’s language type, its dialects, the territory in which it was spoken, the anthropological context, speech styles, post-contact history, other studies on Warrongo, and present day situation. There were two fluent speakers in the 1970s, but the data from the second are ‘severely limited’ (3). Each speaker probably represented a different dialect, and the exact geographical extent in which Warrongo was spoken is not known (4). The Warrongos were never the focus of archaeological or anthropological study (15).

Ch. 2 presents Warrongo phonology in a phoneme-allophone format. The language had three vowels, with a marginal fourth, a long /a:/. There were two semivowels and eleven consonants at the bilabial, apico-alveolar, retroflex, lamino-palatal, and dorso-velar positions. Together they composed ‘one of the smallest phoneme inventories among Australian languages’ (53). Of interest is the non-discrete use of voice as a distinctive feature among the stops (60). Stress (133) and pitch (141) were not distinctive.

Ch. 3 identifies five word classes: nouns, personal pronouns, adverbs, verbs, and interjections. Adjectives are included among the nouns (157). The chapter is generally organized upon a distinction between derivational and inflectional morphology, and noun cases are presented according to their meanings and functions. Warrongo was a syntactically ergative language, ‘and word order is ‘fairly free’ (2, 318). This sets the task for Ch. 4, which is organized generally by types of sentences, clauses, then by constituents of clauses, and types of phrases. Among the construction types, a discussion of the antipassive occupies seventy-eight pages.

The treatment of the texts deserves special commendation. They are presented in the Warrongo, accompanied by a line of grammatical glosses and then by an English translation. T additionally accompanies the whole with running comments on Warrongo usage and includes reflective remarks by Alf Palmer himself.

T has performed an admirable job of language documentation. Against this background, it is a small quibble to note that we are not told certain sorts of information, such as how to say something like Alf shot the snake as a specific response to a question like Who shot the snake?