A Grammar of Guìqióng

David Bade

How does one review a grammar of ‘a hitherto unwritten’ language spoken by fewer than an estimated 10,000 people, a language which, going by the citations in the book under review, has been studied by only six linguists, all from China? Who, other than one of those approximately 10,000 speakers and six linguists, could competently have anything to say about Jiang Li’s claims concerning the language? As the present reviewer is not among either of those groups, the remarks that follow of necessity do not address any issues of language data – transcription, meaning, choice of presentation – rather, certain theoretical issues will be examined.

The author nowhere mentions any theoretical orientation or assumptions, and no matter how carefully the book is read, a reader will find no explicitly theoretical discussion. The author thanks George van Driem, his academic supervisor, but there is nowhere any indication that his description of Guìqióng owes anything to van Driem’s ‘symbiosism’ (or ‘symbiomism’), a theory of language as a parasitic (symbiotic) organism inhabiting homo sapiens. Whether or not Jiang is presenting a description of a human parasite (following van Driem) or a human biological organ (as in more orthodox Chomskyan biolinguistics), there is nothing biological about the description other than the term ‘morphology’ which was already long established in linguistics terminology prior to Noam Chomsky and van Driem. We find, for instance, sections on syntax and pragmatics but none on ethology or physiology. Thus it seems we can ignore whatever biological assumptions the author entertains as biology makes no appearance and the terminology follows that established a century ago (with a few more recent innovations due to linguists other than Jiang and van Driem).

The structure of the book, however, reveals a certain theoretical orientation, namely that a ‘comprehensive grammar’ should consist of certain ‘core aspects’, namely ‘phonology, morphology, syntax and information structure’ (p. 1), the latter – called ‘pragmatics’ in the table of contents and chapter heading – being one of the more recent innovations in the writing of grammars that did not appear in grammars even 60 years ago. In addition to the core elements of grammatical description the author provides a selection of texts (pp. 325–47) and glossaries Guìqióng–English and English–Guìqióng. Nothing surprising here, the classic triple play: grammar, texts, dictionary.

The introductory chapter on ‘Guìqióng speakers, their situation, origin and lifestyles’ was interesting on several matters. For instance we read that ‘the academic name Guìqióng denoting both the language and the people is unknown to most Guìqióng people’ (p. 5). So why do academics insist on calling these peoples and their speech by a name they themselves do not know? Another matter of particular interest to this reviewer – a Mongolist – is the possibility that the Guìqióng are descendants of Mongols or Tangut. There seems to be no linguistic evidence for this in the material described here, but apparently there is ‘documentary research’ suggesting such a connection.

There is an obvious disparity in these core sections that is apparent in the length of each: 40 pages for phonology, 215 pages for morphology, 30 pages for syntax, and 15 pages for pragmatics. The brevity of the section on phonology may be in part due to the author’s choice to ignore variation: ‘Phonemic and lexical variation occur between dialect areas, villages, families, generations and continues down to the individual level’ (p. 61). This statement is followed by one paragraph describing certain differences between the speech of one speaker from Changma (厂马) and another from Qianxi (前溪), and two sentences on the differences between the speech of the older and younger generations. The extent of variation noted merits attention: why does it not matter in a description claimed to be comprehensive? We may note further that the entire grammar is based upon the speech of two men of about 80 years of age. When a speech community is reduced to two old men, just how comprehensive is the description? We note further that the section on pragmatics includes only a few remarks on discourse markers for distinguishing new versus old information, the structure of topic–comment focus–presupposition constructions, and nothing at all on the social aspects of linguistic interaction.

A few other matters to note in the chapter on phonology, beginning with the chapter’s opening sentence: ‘In this chapter, the Guìqióng phonemes will be introduced’ (p. 23). Sort of like ‘How do you do, my name is …!’ when in fact what we are presented with is one linguist’s analysis. Phonemes are always the results of an analysis and not naturally occurring objects to be described, and this is especially important to keep in mind given the absence of discussion of variation and the extremely limited sources (two old men) upon which the analysis is based. The same theoretical issue is at stake when the author claims ‘Guìqióng distinguishes eight different vowel qualities’ and ‘nasalisation and diphthongs are also used to distinguish vowels’ (p. 23). Does Guìqióng really distinguish between vowels or do Guìqióng speakers? This is no mere quibble, especially in light of the statement in the very next paragraph:

Provisional nasalized vowels are much more capricious and either can hardly be predicted because it seems to be a whimsical creation by the speaker on the spur of the moment, or it can only be predicted to a limited extent … But such conjectures do not help explain the frequently heard nasalized single-syllable words. In this grammar, only permanent nasalized vowels bear the tilde over it except in the illustration (p. 23).

If the data do not fit or the linguist can find no explanation, the data do not matter and can be ignored? Could language as a whimsical creation ever achieve communicational efficacy? We read that ‘there is also a triphthong [uɐi] … though some speakers are heard to use the diphthong [uɛ] instead’ (p. 24) which makes us wonder whether we are dealing with a variation that correlates with some social or situational factor, or merely a whimsical creation? A similar problem occurs in the discussion of tones, but the solution differs since it presents a case for disagreement between linguists:

The tone of the animate existence verb in Guìqióng can be medial level or high rising according to my investigation … As for the transcription of the animate existence verb, Sòng did not use the essential near-open central vowel [ɐ], but the open-mid back vowel [ɔ], a significant discrepancy because the two vowels are basically distinguished in Guìqióng …. (pp. 50–1).

Since Song Lingli and Jiang recorded the speech of different speakers, how can the observed variation provide the basis of a theoretical argument regarding which analysis and transcription is correct? Jiang does not stop here, continuing with remarks on Song’s contrast between high level tones and high falling tone, arguing that in the speech of Jiang’s informants, the words in question are homonyms etc. When Jiang complains of Song’s analysis, ‘one cannot make out why the same word cannot stick to one tone’ (p. 52). It seems that Jiang has forgotten his own explanation of nasalized variation as a ‘whimsical creation by the speaker on the spur of the moment’ (p. 23). And when Jiang remarks that ‘a considerable number of local speakers prefer to use the high rising tone for syllables with the medial level tone especially when it needs to be distinguished from the high level tone’ (p. 55), it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the theoretical difficulties here run very deep, and it is precisely in the presence of observed and recorded variation that the issues are clearest and present the greatest problems for the linguist. Jiang’s solution is classic: earlier linguists must have been wrong or it must be a different dialect (which can be ignored).

The problem of recording, transcribing, understanding, explaining (homophony?, allophony?, whimsical creation on the spur of the moment?) and analyzing linguistic variation is acute in the presence of a language that is written only by linguists: there is no standard orthography, no standardized list of phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, syntagmemes etc. on which the linguist can rely, thereby avoiding the problems presented by variation. The issues noted above continue to rear their ugly heads throughout the book; sometimes Guìqióng does this or that, other times Guìqióng speakers do this or that for one reason or another. The choice of Guìqióng or Guìqióng speakers as the ontological basis of the recorded phenomena appears to depend on whether the linguist believes he can explain the phenomena without reference to the speakers or whether they must be brought in to the comprehensive grammar in order to make it intelligible. For Jiang, like many other writers of grammars, the theoretical implications of the linguist’s descriptive choices appear to be invisible. And that is a pity, given that the only important participants in all this are the rapidly vanishing Guìqióng speakers.