First steps towards a grammar of Makasae

First steps towards a grammar of Makasae: A language of East Timor. By Juliette Huber. Munich: Lincom Europa, 2008. Pp. 60. ISBN 9783895861406. $58.80.

Reviewed by Malcolm Ross, The Australian National University

This sketch grammar of the Ossu dialect of Makasae is a revised version of the author’s 2005 Zurich MA thesis, based largely on data collected from two speakers temporarily resident in Portugal. Timorese languages are either Austronesian or Papuan, and Makasae, the East Timorese language with the largest number of speakers after Tetun, is claimed to be a member of the Papuan Trans New Guinea family. It retains the subject-object-verb (SOV) word order typical of Trans New Guinea languages but does not reflect their morphological complexity. Instead, Makasae is largely isolating. Isolating languages are typically SVO, and much of this sketch is concerned with the mechanisms that allow speakers to identify the grammatical roles of noun phrases in Makasae in the absence of SVO order.

JulietteHuber’s strategy is to deal in detail with issues that reflect this concern although more briefly—sometimes very briefly—with other topics as well. This is reflected in the relative lengths of the ten chapters: Ch. 1 ‘Introduction’ (1–4), Ch. 2 ‘Phonology’ (4–6), Ch. 3 ‘Lexicon’ (6–7), Ch. 4 ‘Derivational morphology’ (7–13), Ch. 5 ‘The noun phrase’ (13–46), Ch. 6 ‘The verb phrase’ (64–70), Ch. 7 ‘Postpositions’ (half of page 70), Ch. 8 ‘Negation’ (70–74), Ch. 9 ‘Syntax’ (74–102), Ch. 10 ‘Conclusion’ (half of page 103), and Ch. 11 ‘A narrative text’ (103–13). Thus, the lion’s share of this book is devoted to the noun phrase (34 pages) and syntax (29 pages).

Ch. 4 shows that reduplication is the only productive derivational process. There is no inflectional morphology in Makasae, so the language is indeed isolating. Within the chapter on noun phrases (26–28) and in the discussion of transitive clauses in the chapter on syntax (80–81), H demonstrates how the distinction between reflexive and nonreflexive third person pronouns is sometimes crucial to disambiguating the subject and the object. In the chapter on verb phrases, H discusses the object marker ma (60–64), which marks the recipient or beneficiary argument in ditransitive clauses (as well as instruments). Almost half the chapter on syntax (75–93) is devoted to markers of grammatical role, in particular the morpheme ini, the exact analysis of which is puzzling, as it appears to have both agentive subject marking and an information-structural function (seemingly as a focus marker, because it cooccurs with question words). It is noteworthy, however, that ini occurs only five times in the 9-page narrative text, implying that its functional load is not as great as appears from elicited examples, and that this puzzle will be resolved when a larger corpus of naturally occurring texts is collected.

This sketch is clearly written and, where H focuses on an issue, she provides detail and does not shy away from counter-examples, a fact that makes these parts of the description typologically useful. However, an inevitable consequence of H’s strategy is that parts of the grammar receive little or no attention. There are just hints that adjectives are a subclass of verbs (29) and that evidentiality is explicitly marked (57), and no description of complementation other than indirect speech (101–02). If one accepts the wisdom of the author’s strategy, then the only weak points in content occur when she touches on diachronic issues. H’s references to the Trans New Guinea family are decidedly outdated (2–3, 17), and her analysis of the numeral system is undermined because she overlooks the fact that not only lima ‘five’ but also at least pitu ‘seven’ and siwa ‘nine’ are Austronesian loans (22–23).