A grammar of Semelai

A grammar of Semelai. By Nicole Kruspe. (Cambridge grammatical descriptions.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xxiii, 493. ISBN 0521814979. $180 (Hb).

Reviewed by Harald Hammarström, Chalmers University

This grammar of Semelai, a revised version of the author’s Ph.D. thesis (University of Melbourne, 1999), is the first-ever full-length description of an Aslian language, and Semelai itself has previously been known only through word lists collected fifty to one hundred years ago. Semelai has approximately 4,100 speakers, who subsist mainly by hunting and gathering. Despite Malay influence, it is not an endangered language at the present time.

The book begins with an overview of research on the Aslian languages, which consist of nineteen languages located in the jungles of the Malay peninsula. This section is complete but short, since there has been surprisingly little research on these languages; to K’s credit, she includes references to work by non-Western scholars. Summaries of the classification of Semelai within Aslian, Aslian within Mon-Khmer, and Mon-Khmer within Austroasiatic are all up to date.

The phonology section is authoritative. Minimal pairs show thirty-two consonants (including a series of unvoiced nasals), ten oral and ten nasal vowels, and no phonemic length, diphthongs, or tone. The section further presents phonotactics, loanword phonology, syllable structure, and comparative notes.

As for morphology, while Semelai has a rich inventory of prefixes, infixes, and suffixes, it is not isolating; but a cursory inspection of the glossed texts at the end of the book shows a morpheme-to-word ratio of not more than two to one—that is, the average word consists of one affix plus one root. A considerable amount of word-prosodic analysis would be needed to account for the affixation processes, which would result in a section that would be of special interest.

Kruspe shows that word classes in Semelai can be robustly distinguished by syntactic and morphological criteria. The open classes are nominals, verbs, and expressives (i.e. ideophones). Except for a small number of ambitransitives, verbs are either transitive or intransitive, with adjectives being a subclass of the intransitives. While expressives, which also occur in nonstandard Malay varieties of the region, exhibit vowel alternations that are irregular for Semelai, there is insufficient evidence for sound symbolism.

Syntactically, Semelai has fixed head-dependent order in phrases, but clause-level constituent order is fluid. For transitive clauses, the most common order is VSO, but SVO sentences exhibit less morphological role marking; for intransitives, neither VS or SV is dominant.

Everything one expects in a typologically oriented reference grammar has been worked on, generally with great systematicity; the discussion covers all kinds of clause combininations, serial verbs, locative prepositions and directionals, classifiers, and quotative constructions, but too little attention is devoted to the expression of tense and aspect. The descriptive style is typically modern; and there are plenty of glossed examples, comments on language contact, and comparisons with Malay and the three Aslian languages (Jah Hut, Temiar, and Jahai) for which grammatical sketches exist.

Crosslinguistic curiosities of Semelai include more number marking on third-person pronouns than on first- or second-person, and an avoidance speech style where mostly nouns but also verbs are tabooed and duly replaced.

This grammar is a must for reference libraries, Southeast Asianists, and typologists. I regret that this well-edited ‘Cambridge grammatical descriptions’ series has been discontinued.