Language variation: Papers on variation and change in the Sinosphere and in the Indosphere in honour of James A. Matisoff.

Language variation: Papers on variation and change in the Sinosphere and in the Indosphere in honour of James A. Matisoff. Ed. by David Bradley, Randy LaPolla, Boyd Michailovsky, and Graham Thurgood. (Pacific linguistics 555.) Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, 2003. Pp. xii, 320. ISBN 085883541. $73.93.

Reviewed by Picus S. Ding, Macao Polytechnic Institute

This is a collection of nineteen papers in honor of James Matisoff, a leading figure in the linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman area. The volume starts with a brief biography of Matisoff, followed by David Bradley’s introduction, which highlights Matisoff’s major academic achievements (1–20). The themes of the papers can be roughly divided into seven groups: (A) phonology, (B) morphology, (C) syntax, (D) grammar and discourse, (E) language contact, (F) lexicon, and (G) orthography. Group A includes Martha Ratliff’s discussion of Hmong secret languages (21–33), Jackson Sun’s account of tonal developments in Tibetan (35–51), Robert Bauer’s description of the impact of English loanwords on the Cantonese syllabary (253–61), and Jerold Edmondson’s study of the phonological system of Phu Kha, Xá Phó, and Vietnam Lolo (305–20). Group B covers Carol Genetti’s account of some case studies on linguistic variation found in Newar (53–63), Balthasar Bickel’s proposal of prosodic tautomorphemicity in Sino-Tibetan word structure (89–99), and Benji Wald’s comparative notes on verb compounding in English and East Asian languages (201–18). Group C contains Aimée Lahaussois’s description of split ergativity in Thulung Rai (101–12), Yasuhiko Nagano’s remarks on negation particles in Gyarong (159–72), and David Peterson’s study of agreement and grammatical relations in Hyow (173–83).


Group D encompasses Randy LaPolla’s explication of why languages differ in terms of variation in the conventionalization of constraints on inference (113–44), and Martine Mazaudon’s study of the interface between discourse and grammar in Tamang (145–57). Group E consists of Michael Noonan’s study of language contact between Tibeto-Burman languages and Nepali (Indo-European) in the Himalaya (65–87), Graham Thurgood and Fengxiang Li’s account of contact-induced variation and syntactic change in Tsat (Austronesian) (185–200), and Michel Ferlus’s discussion of borrowing from Middle Chinese into Proto Tibetan (63–75). Group F includes David Bradley’s discussion of deictic patterns in Lisu and Southeastern Tibeto-Burman (219–36), and Boyd Michailovsky’s comparison of time ordinals in Kiranti languages (237–51). Group G comprises Mark Hansell’s study of variations in Chinese character choice in writing loanwords in Taiwan (277–90) and R. Sprigg’s analysis of features of the Lepcha and Limbu scripts (291–304).


As the majority of languages studied in this volume are ‘exotic’, the reader should find many interesting facts about languages that they probably have not heard of. Taking language variation as the basic theme, these papers concern differences observed within the linguistic system. While LaPolla advances an intralanguage explanation for the divergence of languages, Noonan has touched upon a crucial interlanguage factor: language contact, which is a double-edged sword to linguistic diversity. As noted by Thurgood and Li, the chronic language contact with Min and Cantonese has siniticized the typological profile of Tsat, but the acute language contact with Mandarin as a national language is threatening to replace it, just like what Nepali is doing to Kiranti languages.