Foundation for Endangered Languages

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11. Book Reviews

(both reviewed by the editor, Nicholas Ostler)
Review of Robert A. Scebold: Central Tagbanwa - a Philippine Language on the Brink of Extinction Manila: LSP 2003; ISBN 971-780-014-6

This is a sketch grammar of Tagbanwa, an Austronesian language spoken in the north-west of the island of Palawan in the western Philippines. The speakers live in the Taytay and San Vicente municipalities. The book is based on Scebold's field work in Binga, a village more or less in the centre of this area, over two years from May 1991.

As an approach to writing this kind of work, it is interesting in that it begins with a sociolinguistic assessment of the past and current vitality of the speaker-community. Scebold gives case histories of the language abilities of members of three families, and gives a fair number of statistics.

It is unsurprising that Tagbanwa is heavily threatened, when one reads of the changes in relative population figures. In the whole of Palawan Island, the population, which stood at 6,200 in 1903 (all speakers of Tagbanwa and the closely related Palawanon), grew to 56,000 in 1948, and has now reached 600,000. The growth has come exclusively from settlers from eleswhere in the Philippines, who came to farm after the Second World War when development of anti-malarial drugs had made it easier for outsiders to survive in the region. Tagbanwa traditions, in any case weakened by the short-lived Japanese invasion, had been to use low-intensity methods of slash-and-burn farming.

Now the few remaining Tagbanwa (under 1,000 in number) are of mixed parentage and highly bilingual, dominant in the local trade language Cuyunon (a Bisayan language with some 123,000 speakers) and Tagalog (the Philippine national language with 17 million). Scebold believes that the language is moribund given the population dynamics and the language attitudes he discovers, although at present there is still language use in all generations.

After 26 pages of history and sociolinguistic description, the book devotes 13 pages to phonology and 52 to grammar. It has a vocabulary with about 2400 head-words and some phrasal examples, and an English index to it. Finally, it has three texts, which are short narratives that give some cultural colour, "The Tagbanwa Man who Found Gold", "The Boy that was Gotten by a Crocodile", and a conversation about ashfall from Mt Pinatubo, a volcano in Luzon island that erupted in 1991. A taste of the language from this last:

ˇ Kita kuno magisturian kaya paglīpak ka Pinatubo; ay ya gusto niya matawanan ing ono ya damdamin o isipan ka mga tao kaya pagtīgpa ka avo. (He says we are to tell of the past eruption of Mt Pinatubo; he wants to know what the feelings or thoughts of the people were back when the ash fell.)

ˇ Isus! ay aburido ya mga tao ay disti liti maka inta a oras a nangyari. (Wow! People were anxious about it from the very time it happened.)

ˇ Ako ing ka vahay, alam ko no talaha ya hula ka Biblia. (As for me in this matter, I know that the prophecy of the Bible is true.)

Tagbanwa phonology is interesting in having received a far greater number of Spanish loans (italicized above) than Tagalog: the result has been a separate "phonology within the phonology" for this part of the lexis. The morphology is highly inflected apparently on an agglutinative basis, but with copious morphophonemic processes, e.g. of infixation and metathesis. The clausal grammar is expounded on a straightforward semantic basis (e.g. Conjunction/Addition, Temporal Relations, Condition-Consequence). While not a "teach-yourself" manual, this is the kind of exposition that would make it relatively easy for outsiders to quickly grasp the basics of expression in the language, or perhaps for a linguist to reorganize as a pedagogical grammar. As such, it does not concentrate on any details of language relationships, or theoretical properties of the grammar.

There are four pages of bibliography, which range over the sociolinguistics of education and language survival, the analysis of related languages, and fields of theoretical linguistics.

The work should serve as a useful document of the language (though Scebold, especially in his vocabulary, is quick to point out its incompleteness) as well as a well-informed description of what the last stages of a language-endangerment situation look like, when the incoming languages are just the neighbours, not globalized mega-languages.

Review of G. Tucker Childs: An Introduction to African Languages.
Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins 2003
ISBN 9027226067 (Europe), 1588114228 (USA) Includes CD-ROM with recordings illustrate phonetics (including talking drums) and sociolinguistics.

This book can be seen as an attempt to break out of the constraints that usually surround linguistics, by focusing on a geographical (and cultural) area - namely Africa - but finding in it material for a survey of the full range of linguistic phenomena, from language classification through phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantic, to historical and typological issues and finally sociolinguistics. In this, the author offends the dictum of P.E.H. Hair that he quotes at the outset (p. 14):"The curse of African studies is that it is limited to Africa." But one has to admit that the effect is very refreshing.

Africa has indeed been the victim of 19th-century attitudes which characterized it as "The Dark Continent", with long-term effects in hiding its linguistic lights under a capacious bushel. I say this with feeling, having just come to the end of my own attempt at a global history of language spread but without ever having encountered even a hint of the interesting linguistic effects of the expansion of Mande in western Africa, which are outlined in pp. 195-202 here. As Childs points out, "it shows what effects an empire can have even well after it has collapsed." Plenty of scope for global comparisons there.

Childs' accounts are particularly interesting because he is able to weave concrete linguistic details of phonology and morphology into his sociolinguistic stories, making it much clearer that the linguist and the historian (or sociologist) can - and must - be friends: it may be a well-known story in Africanist circles, but as an outsider I was fascinated by his discussion of the social basis for the borrowing of click phonemes across the linguistic divide from San into Bantu languages, in the pre-history of southern Africa (pp. 190-193): what, after all, do you expect to happen when Bantu invaders are gathering San wives, and there is hlonipha, a widespread taboo on young wives using syllables from their husband's names? What could be an easier stratagem than to mispronounce them with phones guaranteed not to be in the language? (And there is even a tantalizing suggestion that the causation may have run in reverse, with hlonipha arising as an extension of the desirably submissive behavour of San wives, then to be required of all wives.)

The book as a whole is demonstrates how much can be learnt about human diversity from the ancient traits preserved in language traditions. Childs writes engagingly, and appears to have an unerring instinct for telling detail, the "neat fact" which illuminates a lesson, even if - perhaps especially if - a theoretical explanation is hard to provide.

"Endangered languages" do not appear as such in the index: but students will be motivated world-wide to look for the treasures that any language may turn up, if they absorb just a little of this work, and its expansive and imaginative view of Africa's linguistic plenty.

Contents.