LINGUIST List 14.2413

Fri Sep 12 2003

Review: Language Description: Maslova (2003)

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  1. Vajda, A Grammar of Kolyma Yukaghir

Message 1: A Grammar of Kolyma Yukaghir

Date: Fri, 12 Sep 2003 11:20:16 +0000
From: Vajda <>
Subject: A Grammar of Kolyma Yukaghir

Maslova, Elena (2003) A Grammar of Kolyma Yukaghir, Mouton de Gruyter,
Mouton Grammar Library 27.

Announced at

Edward J. Vajda,
Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington

Description of the book:

This book is a major reference grammar of Kolyma Yukaghir, one of the
so-called ''Paleo-Siberian'' languages of Northeastern Asia. Its 14
chapters follow a rather traditional structural breakdown, covering
first phonology, then inflectional and derivational morphology by form
class, and finally a host of individual facets of the phrasal and
sentence-level syntax. There are also three appendices: a
Yukaghir-English glossary (541-56), a representative listing of
unproductive verb derivation types arranged alphabetically according
to the derivational suffix involved (557-62), and two texts with
interlinear morpheme glosses (the idiomatic English translations
follow in paragraph form). The first is a folktale entitled 'Perch'
(563-76), the second an episode from the informant's childhood
(576-82). Both were recorded by author Elena Maslova (henceforward M)
in 1992.

Chapter 1 (1-18), which serves as the book's introduction, provides a
cursory structural overview of the language. It also states that
''Yukaghir can probably be affiliated with Uralic languages'' (1), a
view that is becoming increasingly widely accepted. The introduction
also lays out M's purpose in writing the grammar, which fills a lacuna
in the published descriptions of Yukaghir, none of which treated the
Kolyma variety in any extensive detail.

Chapter 2, entitled 'Kolyma Yukaghir and its speakers' (19-28),
chronicles the language's evolving sociolinguistic situation during
the 20th century, throughout which Russian influence has produced an
increasingly greater effect on the vocabulary and grammatical
categories with every passing decade. For this reason, it is important
to speak not only of geographic linguistic variation, but also of
distinct generational forms of Yukaghir, with those speakers coming of
age before the 1940's speaking the least Russified form, and each
successive generation afterward borrowing growing numbers of Russian
words and morphosyntactic patterns. M states that the development of
these increasingly contact-influenced forms of Yukaghir by younger
speakers for whom Russian has become the dominant native tongue
resulted from a conscious preference on the part of native speakers
faced with the alternative of losing their traditional ethnic language
altogether (24). Consequently, the maintenance of this type of
modified Yukaghir means that the language's preservation is actually
greater than had been reported during the past few decades, when it
appeared that it was on the imminent verge of extinction. For
example, M discovered that about 50 middle-generation Yukaghir still
spoke a fluent form of the language to their elders, despite having
claimed no knowledge of their ethnic tongue in 1987 (23). This
strategy of ''survival through modification'', along with the
extremely rapid process of language change it entails, should be of
great interest to specialists in contact linguistics. The version of
Kolyma Yukaghir that M describes here is that spoken by the generation
older than 60 and living in the village of Nelemnoye (Upper Kolyma
District, Sakha Republic), where about 150 native Yukaghir of varying
linguistic abilities reside.

The remaining twelve chapters are devoted to individual aspects the
language's phonology, morphology and syntax. Chapter 3 (29-58)
provides a basic description of the phoneme inventory and the major
phonological and morphophonemic patterns. M states that much work
needs still to be done on the acoustic and articulatory properties of
Yukaghir (29), and her discussion of the phonetic properties of
Yukaghir speech sounds is more impressionistic rather than based on
sophisticated phonetic analysis. The sections on morphophonemics are
more authoritative. Of particular interest is the discussion of
palatal harmony, which is regulated by the existence of front and back
stem types (determined by the stem-initial vowel), which produce a
long-distance assimilatory effect on the place of articulation of the
vowels of a small, closed set of suffixes. Back stems begin with a
back vowel; front stems with a non-high front vowel, with /i/ often
being neutral with regards to palatal harmony. A few unproductive
suffixes also exhibit the effects of labial harmony. Because only one
productive suffix exhibits regular front vs. back allophones, both
labial and palatal harmony appear to be vestigial traits in the extant
forms of Yukaghir.

Chapter 4 (61-72) introduces the parts of speech and their
characteristic inflectional paradigms. One interesting trait of
Yukaghir form classes is the absence of the adjective as a formally
distinct category, with qualitative verb forms generally filling this
functional role. Alongside the open classes of noun, verb, and adverb,
Yukaghir also has five closed form classes: pronouns (and related
pro-forms), numerals, postpositions (there are no prepositions),
particles, and interjections.

Chapter 5 (73-138) discusses the nominal morphology, providing tables
that illustrate the nine grammatical cases of the non-possessive
subparadigm, and the eight cases of the possessive subparadigm. The
functions of the individual case, number (singular vs. plural), and
possessive suffixes are discussed in great detail, with copious
examples. This section also introduces the complex system of focus
marking, which involves the use of certain case markers on subject and
object NPs. Nominal derivation is also covered. Noun stem derivation
mainly involves suffixes, though there are also derivational patterns
of root compounding and conversion.

Chapter 6 (139-231) covers basic verb morphology. There are four major
subparadigms: for finite forms, attributive forms, nominal forms, and
converbs (forms used in subordinate clauses). This chapter primarily
covers the inflectional patterns themselves, with subsequent chapters
dealing with issues of usage. Also covered are the various tense and
mood forms, as well as aspectual forms, verbs of possession (which M
calls 'proprietive verbs'), and valence-changing categories such as
causatives, detransitives, reciprocals and reflexives.

Chapter 7, titled 'Morphology of closed classes' (233-279), discusses
pronouns, numerals and postpositions. Personal pronouns have twelve
inflectional forms, some of which are required by the language's
system of grammatical focus. Demonstrative pronouns have proximal,
separated (distant but visible), and distal (invisible) stems.

The remaining seven chapters are devoted to syntactic patterns. Ch. 8
(281-323) discusses noun phrases and postpositional phrases, both of
which are head-final. Ch. 9, entitled 'Syntax of the clause' (325-68),
covers grammatical relations and verb government, with special
attention to the extensive affinity between the core participant roles
and the pragmatic factor of focus. Yukaghir, in fact, is a language
with a typologically noteworthy pragmatic split in subject/object
marking. As M puts it, ''Yukaghir appears to show a special
('Focus-oriented') case of split intransitivity'' (327). While the
subject NP alone controls verb agreement regardless of pragmatic
factors, there are two verb-internal agreement paradigms, whose usage
depends upon whether or not the subject NP is in pragmatic focus. In
terms of basic word order, Yukaghir is primarily SOV.

Chapter 10, entitled 'Clause chaining' (368-400), discusses the
grammatical means used in Yukaghir to connect several clauses together
in a complex sentence. Because the language lacks grammatical means
of creating coordinate structures between two or more finite clauses,
only the last clause contains a finite verb form. Any preceding
clauses contain the so-called converb forms, which are marked to
indicate whether or not the given clause expresses the same subject as
that of the main clause. In this way, non-finite verb forms (i.e.,
converbs) express switch reference and play a major role in referent
tracking in discourse.

Chapter 11 (401-35) discusses the role played by the nominal forms and
attributive forms of verbs in subordination strategies employed for
complementation, relativization, and adverbial clause formation.

Chapter 12, entitled 'Nominal predicates and grammatical focus'
(437-72), pulls together all of the information given about
information structure in previous chapters, and also illustrates how
descriptive clauses linking two NPs are configured both formally and
functionally. In summing up the semantics of grammatical focus, M
states that Yukaghir ''is not a language which marks which element of
a finite clause represents the Focus of this clause. Rather, it is a
language which marks each finite clause for whether or not its S/O
participant is the Focus'' (458).

Chapter 13 (473-512) discusses the differences between declarative,
interrogative, imperative, optative, and exclamatory sentences. Also
discussed here are formal negation patterns as well as various
speech-reporting strategies.

The final chapter is called 'Coreference and discourse coherence'
(513-39) and returns to the topics of reflexivization and clause
chaining from the perspective of the entire text. In addition to
providing an encapsulation of the language's referent tracking
strategies, it also discusses discourse-level particles and other
connective devices.

The grammar closes with a list of 107 notes (583-91), a list of
references (593-6), and a subject index (597-609).

This important publication, augmenting M's earlier work, finally makes
it clear that what was once referred to as ''Yukaghir'' is actually a
family of distinct language forms, most now extinct. The two
remaining languages, Tundra (Northern) Yukaghir, and Kolyma (Southern)
Yukaghir are not mutually intelligible and appear to have diverged
from a common ancestor at least a couple thousand years ago (p. 28).
Previous studies of Yukaghir (notably Krejnovich 1982), surveyed all
of the known Yukagir ''dialects'' together, but none of them
exhaustively. This is the first attempt to describe a single Yukaghir
language form in as much detail as is possible. Together with M's
shorter sketch on Tundra Yukaghir (Maslova 2003), this book provides a
fairly complete picture of the grammatical resources of this
understudied microfamily. Information on language maintenance and the
differential effects of Russian language contact on successive
generations of speakers likewise sets a new benchmark for the received
understanding of the sociolinguistic situation among the remaining
1100 or so native Yukaghir. On the other hand, the information given
on suprasegmental features such as word and phrasal stress and
sentence intonation is rather sparse. M's description of the Kolyma
Yukaghir lexicon is likewise somewhat cursory (though the example
sentences themselves are quite rich in vocabulary) and could only be
supplemented in a similarly thorough fashion by a full-length
dictionary. Since it is not clear whether such a project is planned,
linguists interested in Yukaghir should avail themselves of the much
richer lexical data provided for both Tundra and Kolyma Yukaghir in
the glossaries of M's compilation of Yukaghir texts (Maslova 2001).

With its clear organization and numerous carefully glossed and
carefully checked examples, this book is a boon for typologists
interested in ''exotic'' languages of Eurasia. The form of Kolyma
Yukaghir described is mainly the highly synthetic, agglutinative
variety used by native speakers over 55-60 years old, which shows
relatively little intrusion of more analytic Russian grammatical
patterns. By contrast, Russian influence is pervasive on all aspects
of the grammar in the speech of younger generations of Yukaghir
speakers, who have chosen to maintain an increasingly Russified
Yukaghir language rather than lose the language altogether (24). The
example sentences are largely taken from prior recordings of connected
texts and do not represent artificial elicitations, as is often
typical of material gleaned for descriptive grammars from
native-speaker informants. The rich trove of data that M assembles
captures in great detail the form of Kolyma Yukaghir acquired natively
prior to massive Russian influence. One highly effective feature of
this comprehensive description is the author's traditional arrangement
of material in chapters according to the scheme 'function to form',
while using the format 'form to function' within each subsection.
This allows for a detailed cross-analysis of individual that straddle
several formal areas of the grammar topics (for instance, the focus
system, which involves case marking, the expression of grammatical
roles in the finite verb clause, as well as the finite verb
subparadigms themselves). Also refreshing is M's determination to
describe Yukaghir syntax from a functional perspective, taking her
lead from the categories of form and usage that are significant for
this particular language, rather than trying to pigeon-hole the
available data into preconceived slots reflecting the latest version
of this or that linguistic theory.

Elena Maslova's grammar of Kolyma Yukaghir is a masterful achievement
in Siberian linguistics that finally sheds the full light of day on
this fascinating, hitherto understudied language.


Krejnovich, E.A. (1982) Issledovanija i materialy po jukakirskomu
jazyku, Nauka: Leningrad.

Maslova, Elena (2001) Yukaghir texts. Lincom: Munich.

Maslova, Elena (2003) Tundra Yukaghir. Lincom: Munich.


Edward J. Vajda is a professor of Linguistics, Russian Language, and
Eurasian Studies at Western Washington University. He is an editor of
the journal Word. His research interests include minority languages of
the former Soviet Union and other areas of Eurasia. For the past
several years he has been intensively involved in linguistic research
on the structure of Ket, a language isolate spoken by a few hundred
people in Central Siberia near the Yenisei River.
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