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Outline of Rejang syntax


Author : Prof. Richard Mc.Ginn, Ohio University

Richard McGinn, Outline of Rejang syntax, NUSA Linguistic
Studies of Indonesian and other languages in Indonesia
14, Jakarta 1982, xvi + 76 pp.

Compared with the huge majority of languages in Indonesia, Rejang has
been studied quite extensively. Yet our knowledge (i.e. the knowledge
of the interested community) of it has never become more than just
potential. The reason is that until the publication under review most
studies dealing specifically with Rejang were never printed. Jaspan's
dictionary of the Musi dialect is only available in manuscript form. A
vocabulary compiled by Kahler has not been published, either. Voorhoeve's
material for a dictionary of the Lebong dialect became lost in the
second world war. Aichele wrote an article on Rejang sound changes
which never appeared in print. The only materials that have been published
are a glossary, a wordlist and some texts - all dating from the 19th
century and linguistically less reliable — and a one-page comment on the
older sources on Rejang by Voorhoeve (Voorhoeve 1955:20-21). Recently
four Indonesian study reports dealing with (aspects of) Rejang
grammar (Proyek Penelitian, 1979, and Atika S. M, 1980a, 1980b,
1981) have appeared, but there are only a few stencilled copies of these
available; moreover, these studies are of a (very) preliminary character.
Given this unsatisfactory state of affairs, the book under review, "a
slightly revised version of' the author's "1979 University of Hawaii
dissertation" (p. xiv), is a welcome contribution to our knowledge of

The author did fieldwork in the four major Rejang dialects (Musi,
Lebong, Kabanagung and Pasisir) from 1973 to 1976. The present study
is focused on the Musi dialect. McGinn duly acknowledges the valuable
contribution of his main informant, Mr. Zainubi Arbi, who not only by
himself collected over 70,000 words of text in the four dialects, but who
also carried out the initial analysis of these data (comprising a phonemic
transcription and the provision of phonetic and cultural notes).
Yet, in spite of this wealth of material, the actual number of Rejang
constructions in the grammar is extremely limited. I counted about 120
different (short) sentences/phrases, and besides fewer than 400 different
It is significant that the author not only acknowledges that "no
attempt has been made to achieve a total description of the language",
but also stresses the fact that the "focus of the dissertation has not been a
description for its own sake, but a description that supports the special
theory of a language type" (p. 70). This special theory - which is
repeated many times throughout the book - is the (hypo)thesis that in
Rejang grammar no transformational rules are necessary for the movement
of noun phrases; a (hypo)thesis which "is plausible only within
the theory of transformational grammar" (p. 8), and more specifically
within the so-called Revised Extended Standard Theory of Noam
Chomsky c.s. as it had been developed up to 1977-78. The author admits
in his Preface (p. xiv) that "in 1982 it would certainly have been possible
to revise the dissertation and bring it up to date in terms of developments
in linguistic theory since 1977-78, of which there have been many,
especially in Chomsky's camp". The importance of the theoretical
stands proposed in the study is deflated not only because of these later
developments in "the" theory, but also because of the (correct) picture,
evoked by the term "camp", of mutually opposing, belligerent sects
within "linguistic" — i.e. especially transformational generative — theory.
It is a well known fact that the transformational generative grammar
has been evolved and tested mainly by reference to English, if not to
unobservable "underlying" English. lts application to an "exotic"
language such as Rejang should therefore in principle be welcomed.
Typically, however, the author was unable to free himself from this
English bias, for example where he states on p. 7 that "the problem
[italics mine, H.S.] for any theory of Austronesian languages is to explain
why the analogues [whatever these might be] of the following English
sentences are ungrammatical: (i) What did John see?, (ir) I know what
John saw, (iii) I know the man whom John saw, (iv) Whose nose is long?,
(v) Who did John give the book to?, (vi) The book is easy to read, (vii)
What did John claim that Mary bought?, (viii) Who is Mary talier than?"
Characteristic for a transformational generative approach also is the
number of ungrammatical constructions that are discussed throughout
the grammar: 45, besides the 120 grammatical ones. In most cases they
are word-to-word translations of English syntactic constructions; in a
number of cases they are illustrations of lexical syntactic constraints; and
only in a few cases are they functional, i.e. where they refute generalizations
which are likely on the basis of Rejang constructions which are
It may be a matter of taste, but for someone working with a nontransformational
generative paradigm - as it used to be called - these
constructions are the most important and interesting. However, the
exigencies of the theory-centric approach make for their presentation
being rather unstructured and incomplete.
The structure of most simple sentence types that are possible in
Rejang seems to be discussed in one place or another; compound sentences,
however, are hardly presented at all. Neither have I found any
discussion with examples of "unusual word orders", which would have
to be accounted for by so-called rules of "scrambling", which are said to
be different from transformations and thus excluded from the core
grammar (cf. p. 4). By what criteria these orders would be unusual (by
those of "universal" typological considerations or of language specific
statistics) is not explained.
Furthermore, the grammar does not contain any discussion or inventory
of function words, while the only information on Rejang intonation
is limited to the prima facie, not very likely, observation that the intonational
features found for Indonesian by Amran Halim (cf. Halim
1974) are precisely the same as those operative in Rejang (p. 5).
The discussion of the apparent counterexample to the "Noun Phrase
Movement Prohibition Hypothesis", namely constructions such aspilem
?o coa si temoton "movie that not he see" (= "that movie he didn't
see"), is unsatisfactory. The solution to the problem these offer is highly
ad hoc, as the author proposes derivation by means of a deletion rule
from the "underlying" construction **pilem ?o coa si temoton ne, which
would be in accordance with the generative rules of the grammar because
of the grammaticality of Jon, si bi bélé? "John, he has gonehome".
Incidentally, according to McGinn's own grammar, it is impossible
for ne to be the form of the 3d person singular pronoun after an
active verb form such as temoton; one would have expected si. But more
important is that the proposed solution makes the ungrammaticality of
*pilem ?o si temoton inexplicable. On the whole the discussion of this
counterexample (p. 23-24) is too short. It is merely suggested that coa in
the above grammatical construction is replaceable by another "verbal
element", such as buléa? "may", bi "PAST", mulay "begin" and others
(McGinn's list is not complete, either). One would like to know whether
combinations of these forms may replace coa and whether si temoton
may be replaced by its passive counterpart, tenoton ne "seen by-him". If
the answer to the Iatter question is negative, probably the following
semantic proportion would apply:
si temoton pilem ?o : pilem ?o tenoton ne =
si coa temoton pilem ?o : pilem ?o coa si temoton.

If, on the other hand, the answer were to be affirmative, the additional
problem of the semantic difference between pilem ?o coa si temoton and
pilem ?o coa tenoton ne would have to be solved.
For me, the most unsatisfactory part of the book is the description of
Rejang morphology. This "reasonably complete discussion of Rejang
morphology" (p. 37) is unfortunately confined to an inventory of morphological
processes with hardly any concrete examples and only traces
of a semantic qualification. Not the slightest indication is given of semantic
relations between different morphological extensions of the same
root, or of the classes of roots to which the morphological processes can
be applied. The function of the roots themselves, when they occur as
words, is apparently not considered part of morphology and is nowhere
discussed. Neither is the matter of the (im)productivity of morphological
processes; what seem to be fossilized and what are highly productive
processes are both dealt with as completely similar cases.
The curious formal parallelism between passive and causative constructions
(cf. si kemléa? Jon/ Jon kemléa? si "he saw John/ John saw
him", Jon kenléa? nel si kenléa?Jon "John was seen by him/ he was seen
by John", and si kemlaley "he looked around", Jon kenlaley ne "John
made him look around") would certainly have deserved a morphological
discussion in terms of (im)productivity and predictability.
The morphophonemic side of the morphological processes is discussed
only cursorily (p. 56-58) and leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
According to the rules on infixation (p. 57), for instance, roots
beginning with //p/7 behave differently from roots beginning with one of
the other voiceless stops; how they behave is not explained, however,
nor is any example given.
Many similar inconsistencies as well as contradictions can be pointed
out. I will not list them here. They are partly the result of printing errors,
of which there are many. The circumstance that cross-references often
refer the reader to wrong or non-existing paragraphs is probably also a
result of these.
The critical remarks of this review are directed not so much against
the author of Outline of Rejang syntax, as against a school in linguistics in
which attention to theory for its own sake and to theoretical facts is more
important than attention to observable facts about specific languages. A
striking example is the following quotation (p. 62): "A great many
doublets are exemplified by the following pairs: tedung ~ ?dung 'snake',
tejé ~ ?jé 'stand', *bebet ~ ?bet 'belt' ", in which the asterisk is not a
printing error!
The conclusion must be that Outline of Rejang syntax, in spite of its
importance as a printed source of information on modern Rejang, still
leaves many questions unanswered. Let us hope that the "several pro-,
jected works" on Rejang, such as the dictionary announced on page 2,
will offer us a more satisfying picture of the language.

Atika S. M.
1980a Kata kerja Bahasa Rejang, Jakarta, stencilled report.
1980b Bentuk m- dalam kata kerja Bahasa Rejang, Jakarta, stencilled working paper.
1981 Sistem perulangan kata dalam Bahasa Rejang, Jakarta, stencilled report.
Halim, A.
1974 Intonation in relation to syntax in Bahasa Indonesia, Jakarta.
Proyek Penelitian Bahasa dan Sastra Indonesia dan Daerah
1979 Struktur Bahasa Rejang, Palembang, stencilled report.
Voorhoeve, P.
1955 Critical Survey of Studies on the Languages of Sumatra, Koninklijk Instituut
voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. Bibliographical Series 1, The Hague.
Yeo Kim Wah, The Politics of Decentralization. Colonial
Controversy in Malaya 1920-1929; Oxford University
Press/Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Kuala Lumpur,
1982, xiv, 395 pp., map and photographs.


Rejang Land Pal

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