Book Review: A Dictionary of the Kedang Language. Kedang-Indonesian-English, written by Samely, U.B., and R.H. Barnes

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
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  • 1 KITLV/Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
Open Access

Samely, U.B., and R.H. Barnes, A Dictionary of the Kedang Language. Kedang-Indonesian-English. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2013, vi + 785 pp. ISBN 9789004255326. Price: EUR 199.00 (hardback).

Eastern Indonesia is home to around three hundred distinct languages, and of these only a handful have dictionaries. The publication of A Dictionary of the Kedang Language is thus a rare and welcome document recording the vocabulary of a small Austronesian language spoken on the remote island of Lembata in the Solor archipelago between Flores and Timor in Nusa Tenggara Timur. With the assistance of native speakers A. Sio Amuntoda and M. Suda Apelabi, U.B. Samely, a linguist, and R.H. Barnes, an anthropologist, have come together to produce the dictionary out of their many years of fieldwork amongst the Kedang people. The principal authors have formidable credentials, both previously having completed impressive monographs on Kedang in their respective disciplines (Barnes 1974; Samely 1991). Their partnership in authoring this work represents what is today an all-too-uncommon pairing, but one that harks back to a bygone era in which anthropology and linguistics were not such distinct disciplines and the description of a new language-culture system was not a rigidly bifurcated pursuit.

The dictionary consists of three parts: an introduction containing very brief overviews of the linguistic position, phonology, and morphology of Kedang (pp. 1–36); the dictionary in three languages, Kedang—Indonesian—English (pp. 37–712); and finder lists, English—Kedang (pp. 713–750) and Indonesian—Kedang (pp. 751–785). The vast bulk of the work is contained in the dictionary, and this review will focus on that part.

Entries are unconventionally arranged in a three-columned table. The first (left-most) column has Kedang, the second Indonesian, and the third English. The typesetting is the same for the three languages in their three respective columns. Also, headwords in the dictionary are not written in bold (despite the fact that they are in bold in the finder lists), capitalized, or made to stand out from subentries in any way and can only be discerned from the linear ordering of elements. Senses of a headword are marked by superscript numbers, but nowhere is the reader told on what basis senses are distinguished. Examples appear indented and numbered, but are given with only a small portion of entries and are not separated for different senses. Figurative uses are also not distinguished from non-figurative uses in any way, both appearing as examples. All this goes to make the reading of entries awkward and interpreting them difficult.

Some of the above-mentioned difficulties can be illustrated on the basis of the entry for ribu reproduced (from p. 570) below.

In the first place it is not clear how senses (1) and (2) are distinct. That ribu occurs on its own with the meaning ‘thousand’ (sense 1), but then also with other numerals as a base denoting units of ‘thousands’ (sense 2), is not a matter of different senses of ribu but merely different constructions. It may be that the authors intended what are given as the two senses to be identified with figurative and non-figurative uses of ribu as expressed by examples (1)–(2) and (3)–(5), respectively. However, that must remain conjecture since the examples are not ordered in such a way as to be clearly associated with one sense over the other. In any event, the appearances of ribu in examples (1) and (2) are not straightforward figurative senses of ribu. Rather, in both cases, ribu is part of an idiomatic phrase which has a set meaning as a whole and is not specific to ribu. As such, it cannot be regarded as a sense of ribu and would be more properly coded as a subentry than as an example.

Analysis of words in the dictionary is wanting in other ways. No part of speech or morphological information is given with headwords. This makes it nearly impossible to discern, for instance, the existence of inflectional classes or derivational morphemes in the Kedang lexicon. The absence of such information is regrettable since it considerably reduces the usefulness of the work for the linguist. Borrowings, obvious or otherwise, are also unmarked. For instance, ribu ‘thousand’ is loaned from Malay (Proto-Austronesian *b is reflected as v or zero in Kedang, Doyle 2010), while mesang ‘Islamic gravestone’ is from Arabic via Malay. Perhaps it is not to be expected that every borrowing be identified, but the dictionary should at least have included a statement as to the rationale behind which words were included in and others excluded from the dictionary.

The strength of the dictionary is that it presents an extensive vocabulary of the parallel structures (compounds and four-part couplets) which pervade the Kedang language. This is particularly welcome given the recent resurgence in interest in verbal art amongst linguists and anthropologists and the increasing realization that parallelism is often just as important in everyday speech as ritual language. The rich data set of parallelisms provided by the dictionary will be fertile ground for the comparative scholar interested in reconstructing cultural history, since shared parallelisms across languages may point to past contact, with parallelisms often formed using one native word and one borrowed one.

Despite the criticisms mentioned here, there is no doubt that A Dictionary of the Kedang Language is a substantial book that will stand as a defining work on the Kedang language for a long time to come.


Barnes, R.H. 1974. Kedang: A Study of the Collective Thought of an Eastern Indonesian People. New York: Oxford University Press.

Doyle, Matthew. 2010. Internal divisions of the Flores-Lembata subgroup of Central Malayo-Polynesian. MA Thesis, Leiden University.

Samely, Ursula. 1991. Kedang (Eastern Indonesia): Some Aspects of its Grammar. (Forum Phoneticum, 46.) Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag.

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