LINGUIST List 12.165

Tue Jan 23 2001

Review: Mortensen: Grammar of Northern Embera languages

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  1. Jordan Lachler,

Message 1:

Date: Thu, 18 Jan 2001 02:37:23 -0700
From: Jordan Lachler <>

Charles A. Mortensen (1999) A reference grammar of the
Northen Embera languages: Studies in the languages of
Colombia 7. SIL International, xiv, map, 194 pp. ISBN 1-
55671-081-X. Paperback $29.00

Reviewed by: Jordan Lachler, University of New Mexico

- ------

This book is a reference grammar of two members of the Choc�
language family, Embera-Kat�o (EK) and Northern Embera
proper (NEP) -- treated together as Northern Embera (NE) --
spoken in southern Panama and adjacent areas of northern
Colombia. NEP has roughly 25,000 speakers across both
countries, while EK has 20,000 speakers, nearly all in
Colombia. Levels of bilingualism in Spanish are fairly low,
especially in Colombia, where NE speakers have had less
sustained contact with Spanish speakers. As such, both
languages are fairly healthy and not gravely endangered at

The grammar is organized into ten chapters, followed by
short texts in both languages with interlinear and free

Chapter 1 (pp 1-14) is an introduction to the grammar,
containing a sketch of the phonology and a useful
typological sketch of the language. NE phonology is fairly
tame, with an inventory of 19 consonants and 6 vowels.
Notable among the consonants is an opposition between an
aspirated fricative [sh] and a constricted fricative [s'].
The sixth vowel in the inventory is high, back and
unrounded. While nasal vowels are quite frequent in the
language, Mortensen does not treat them as phonemic, but
rather as the result of spreading a feature of nasality
which is attached to morphemes.

Chapter 2 (pp 15-28) discusses the word classes in NE.
Mortensen divides them into two sets: open classes,
including nouns, verbs, adjectives and time and manner
adverbs; and closed classes, including locational and
directional adverbs, proforms, auxiliaries, clitics,
vocatives and interjections.

Chapter 3 (pp 29-32) inventories the category changing
derivational morphology. This includes denominal adjectives
(e.g. "full of lies"), deverbal predicate adjectives (e.g.
"likely/bound to drink") formed with the addition of the
future tense suffix, and deverbal agentive nouns (e.g.
"soldier") formed with the habitual suffix. Mortensen also
notes interesting patterns of reduplication which are used
both for intensification as well as mitigation of

Chapter 4 (pp 33-46) discusses the structure of the noun
phrase. Articles, demonstrative adjectives, possessive
adjectives and modifying NP's all occur pre-nominally, while
postpositions, adjectives and numerals occur post-nominally.
Mortensen provides a nice discussion of the spatial and
discourse uses of the 3 demonstrative adjectives (pp 34-37).
The indigenous numeral system consisted of terms for 1
through 5, which were then combined with various body part
terms to coin larger numbers; today, however, most speakers
use numerals borrowed from Spanish. Nouns themselves can be
marked for case, number (optional), limit ("only") and with
a variety of postpositions. The pronoun system has 3
persons and 2 numbers, plus an inclusive/exclusive
distinction in the plural. Pronouns occur in five series:
ergative, absolutive, indirect object, coreferrential and

Chapter 5 (pp 47-58) deals with the case system. Case is
typically marked on the final element of the NP. The
ergative suffix is {-pa}, which also indicates instrument
and reason; based on this polysemy, Mortensen glosses the
case suffix {-pa} as "ablative". The absolutive is marked
by four different suffixes, depending on the discourse
status of the NP (nonactivated, nonfocal, introductory
focus, focus on given). The indirect object is marked by
{-a}. Other postpositions, suffixes and particles mark a
variety of meanings, including benefactive, possessive,
accompaniment, location, goal, movement downward, movement
from, origin, similarity and comparison.

Chapter 6 (pp 59-88) describes the verb and verb phrase. NE
has an incorporation strategy, wherein the incorporated
object occurs in its normal pre-verbal slot, but lacking any
absolutive marking, which instead shows up on the subject.
Verb to verb derivation includes causative, instrument,
volition, affected object and repeated action; there are
also two kinds of verb to noun derivations.

The verb is obligatorily marked for tense, either past,
present or future (as well as immediate past and immediate
future). Verbs are marked for number when the subject is
plural. There are a variety of aspectual distinctions,
including perfect, imperfective, habitual, perfective,
completive and progressive, some expressed by verbal
suffixes, others by auxiliaries after the verb.

Mood is the final suffix on the verb, and incorporates
notions of evidentiality as well. There are five moods:
declarative, marked by {-a}; information interrogative,
which is unmarked; polar interrogative, marked by {-kha};
imperative, marked by {-tua}; and verificational, marked by
{-ma}, which is found in NEP but not in EK. Other
categories of evidentiality include direct report {-pida}
and hearsay {-mana}.

Chapter 7 (pp 89-102) looks at the structure of the clause.
Main clauses typically follow an SIOV pattern. Temporal
expressions typically occur clause-initially, but can occur
post-verbally for emphasis. Information questions have an
initial wh-word, unless there is a topicalized NP which is
fronted; polar questions retain normal declarative word
order. Markers of negation occur immediately after the
negated constituent.

Chapter 8 (pp 103-112) describes the sentence. Mortensen
notes that NE sentences can be quite short, but on the
other hand, "In natural text, it is not uncommon for three
or four adverbial clauses to precede the main clause..." (p.
103). Mortensen also gives a nice elaboration of the types
of "sentence introducers," including temporal, additive,
logical, comparative and conditional relators, as well as the
uses of �m�w� "like this" as a pro-verb.

Chapter 9 (pp 113-134) gives a thorough accounting of
subordinate clauses. Among adverbial clauses, Mortensen
distinguishes between overlapping event, sequential event,
antecedence, purpose, conditional, reason, and concessive
clauses. Speakers often repeat subordinate clauses to
indicate that the action occurred over a long period of time,
ending with the action of the main clause. Relative clauses
are internally headed, but relativization is restricted to
absolutive arguments. Many relative clauses are headless,
roughly equivalent in meaning to "the one that...".
Mortensen notes that the relative clause strategy ("dog that
was white") is often preferred to a corresponding noun plus
adjective construction ("white dog"). Complement clauses
typically occur post-verbally and are marked with the {-ta}
absolutive focus suffix.

Chapter 10 (pp 135-154) covers discourse and pragmatic
considerations. The discussion centers around strategies
for participant introduction and tracking within a
narrative, the role of demonstrative adjectives in marking
the current discourse status of participants, the presence
versus absence of 3rd person pronouns, and methods of

After the main body of the grammar are found two interlinear
texts, the first in NEP (pp. 155-166) and the second in EK
(pp 167-192).

- --------

This grammar was an entertaining and enlightening read.
Mortensen displays a strong grasp of the grammar, as well as
the literature on Choc� languages, to which he makes
frequent reference throughout the text. A particular
strength is Mortensen's description of the role played by
discourse factors at various levels of the grammar. His
experience with both NEP and EK shows through, and makes
this a valuable contribution to our understanding of
languages in both Central and South America.

About the reviewer: Jordan Lachler is a graduate student at
the University of New Mexico, currently completing his
dissertation, /A Reference Grammar of Laguna Keres/. His
other research interests include Athabaskan and Iroquoian
languages, the typology of polysynthesis and morphological
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