it’s a comprehensive reference grammar, innit

Last Wednesday, Elizabeth Zeitoun’s recently published Grammar of Mantauran (Rukai) arrived in my mailbox at SOAS from Academic Sinica in Taipei. This is a beautifully produced description of a dialect of Rukai, one of the Endangered Languages of Taiwan and at 551 pages is a sizeable account of the language.
So I got to thinking: this is a pretty impressive comprehensive reference grammar of an endangered language. And then, well what counts as a ‘comprehensive (reference) grammar’? The term gets used quite a bit in relation to endangered and minority languages. For example the February 2007 newsletter [pdf] of La Trobe University’s Research Centre for Linguistic Typology, the most recent one available, contains over 25 uses of the term, and all 10 PhD students associated with the Centre are said to be writing a ‘comprehensive grammar’ of a small language. A Google search for “comprehensive reference grammar” returns 1,130 hits, and for “comprehensive grammar” 128,000 hits, though that includes things like A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Randolph Quirk,Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik, which doesn’t really count for our purposes, nor does Matthews and Yip’s Cantonese: A Comprehensive Reference Grammar.
So I then adopted a tried and true sampling method of language typologists, namely have a look at the grammars of smaller languages that are on my book shelves at SOAS and pick the fattest ones (ok, ok, I know real typologists don’t do sampling like this any longer, but bear with me for the purposes of this exercise). What I came up with is summarised in the following table (astute readers will notice that I am not controlling for factors like margin width, page size, font type size and line spacing, but I’m only human):

 

Author

Language

Date

Size

Elizabeth Zeitoun

Rukai

2007

551pp

Francesca Merlan

Wardaman

1994

617pp

William McGregor

Gooniyandi

1990

618pp

R.M.W. Dixon

Jarawara

2004

636pp

Jeffrey Heath

Nunggubuyu

1984

664pp

Nicholas D. Evans

Kayardild

1995

837pp

U.V. Joseph

Rabha

2007

858pp

Keren Rice

Slave

1989

1370pp

 

Now if we count the number of pages in each
book that actually deal with grammatical description we get a slightly
different picture (some of the fatter ones are padded out with Sample
Texts
; and Vocabulary at the back):

 

Author

Language

Date

Size

Grammar

pages

Notes

Elizabeth Zeitoun

Rukai

2007

551pp

490

pp491-524 are texts

Francesca Merlan

Wardaman

1994

617pp

330

pp331-610 are texts and wordlist

U.V. Joseph

Rabha

2007

858pp

488

pp489-663 is a chapter of ‘Correlative
analysis’

Nicholas D. Evans

Kayardild

1995

837pp

569

pp570-800 are texts and dictionary

William McGregor

Gooniyandi

1990

618pp

572

pp573-606 are texts and lexicon

R.M.W. Dixon

Jarawara

2004

636pp

582

pp583-632 are texts and vocabulary

Jeffrey Heath

Nunggubuyu

1984

664pp

664

 

Keren Rice

Slave

1989

1370pp

1332

pp1335-1354 are texts

And the winner is, on both counts, Keren Rice’s Grammar of Slave (and what a deserving language it is too, mind-bendingly complex in its morphology and having plenty of phonology and syntax too). Jeffrey Heath’s grammar of Nunggubuyu comes in second (it’s another mind-bendingly complex language, but unfortunately the grammar is now out of print) – complemented by his 556 page separate volume of Ethnographic and Narrative Texts.
Of course simple quantitative measures like page counts don’t give us a real picture of how we might determine what comprehensive means in qualitative terms in relation to grammars, but I think the exercise is interesting and informative none-the-less. Perhaps it is time to get to work on parameters for a reliable qualitative approach to determining what we mean when we refer to a work as a “comprehensive (reference) grammar” (cf. my previous blog post about possible qualitative measures for text corpora).
Now, back to reading about Rukai.

3 thoughts on “it’s a comprehensive reference grammar, innit”

  1. How do you measure comprehensiveness in relation to the degree of complexity of the language.
    I had to use Heath’s grammars heaps as part of my job at Ngukurr. (He covered five languages in the region).
    I’m impressed by all Heath’s grammars and yes the Nunggubuyu one is enourmous. But the Ritharngu one is probably only 100 or so pages and still just as great – it’s brevity is due only to the basics of Ritharngu being a lot more straightforward – I don’t even know if there is anything ‘basic’ about Nunggubuyu!
    If I was going to rate grammars on endangered languages, i’d include categories like readability, accessibility by the language community as well as comprehensiveness (not necessarily length).

  2. Readers familiar with grammars of Australian Aboriginal languages will have no doubt noticed that I failed to include Nick Evans’ 2003 Bininj Gun-Wok: A pan-dialectal grammar of Mayali, Kunwinjku and Kune from Pacific Linguistics. At 746 pages and in two volumes it falls between Heath’s Nunggubuyu and Rice’s Slave. Unfortunately, when I did my “grammar grab” for this blog Nick’s wasn’t on my shelves at SOAS.

  3. The index page of Randy Valentine’s fantastic Nishnaabemwin grammar starts on p1069. It’s another language that has a lot of morphology that takes a long time to describe.
    Doesn’t RMW Dixon have a list of features of comprehensive reference grammars? X number of pages, including Y on phonology, etc; a sample text at the back; coverage of certain key topics.
    Do the grammars you’ve listed talk about intonation? Do they have experimental measures of the phonetic claims in the grammar? Do they talk about focus and other syntax/discourse topics?

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