Nauru grammar. By Alois Kayser, MSC, edited by Karl H. Rensch. Yarralumla (Australia): Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, 1993. Pp. xix, 228.
Nauruan is the indigenous language of the Republic of Nauru. It appears to be the most distantly related member of the Micronesian subgroup of Austronesian; Geoffrey Nathan, 'Nauruan in the Austronesian language family', Oceanic Linguistics 12 (1973): 479-501, presents evidence of innovations shared by Nauruan and other Micronesian languages. This grammar was completed in 1936 by Father Alois Kayser (1877-1944), a missionary who spent almost 40 years on Nauru; it was presented to the administration, retyped on stencils, and duplicated. It is this version that has now been published in photocopied form. Father Kayser was also working on a substantial Nauruan dictionary, whose whereabouts, if indeed it still exists, are unknown (ix). One might wonder why it is necessary to reissue a grammar from over half a century ago. In 1971, Byron W. Bender, writing in Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Current Trends in Linguistics, vol. 8, page 438, noted that: 'Little or no work seems to have been done on the language since that of Kayser ..., who is not very helpful as to phonology, but gives extensive paradigms exemplifying 39 noun classes and the concord of adjectives and numerals with them.' Karl H. Rensch, in his introduction to the grammar, echoes the same sentiment for the present day: 'What is reliably known about the structure of Nauruan is contained in this grammar' (ii).
By all reports Father Kayser had a superb knowledge of Nauruan, but he was not a professional linguist. This no doubt accounts in part for the opaqueness of his discussion of Nauruan phonology, although in fairness one should note that Nauruan phonology is recognized to be difficult; Nathan (op. cit.) gives a more up-to-date treatment. Kayser's grammatical terminology, though basically that of traditional European grammar, is occasionally quaint, as when he uses subjective clause to mean a relative clause construction where the head noun is subject of the main clause (211), but in the grammar itself at least I felt that I could understand what he is trying to say. And his noun class concord tables, comprising over half the book, may well be otherwise unrecoverable data: Bender (loc. cit.) continues 'George Pittman, who was Director of Education on Nauru for a number of years ..., reports ... that the present-day language of the younger generation has dropped much of this elaborate apparatus.'
Other Micronesian languages have played an important role in recent general linguistic discussions, and there is no reason to suppose that Nauruan would not supply equally fascinating data, as it clearly does in such transparent domains as its noun class system, and the unmarked use of female rather than male lexical items to denote mixed groups, as in 'the two women there are married', i.e. 'the man and the woman' (200). If we know little about Nauruan beyond what Father Kayser tells us, the fault is ours, not his. And if the twelfth edition of Ethnologue (Dallas, 1992) is right in saying that 'children are apparently not learning Nauru[an]' (803), then the task of building on the groundwork provided by Father Kayser is urgent.[Bernard Comrie,
University of Southern California
and Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.]