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LINGUIST List 24.1353

Wed Mar 20 2013

Review: Language Documentation; Lexicography; Morphology; Syntax: Wistrand-Robinson & Armagost (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <monicalinguistlist.org>

Date: 25-Feb-2013
From: Avelino Corral Esteban <avelino.corraluam.es>
Subject: Comanche Dictionary and Grammar, Second Edition
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-4243.html

AUTHOR: Lila Wistrand-Robinson
AUTHOR: James Armagost
TITLE: Comanche Dictionary and Grammar, Second Edition
SERIES TITLE: Publications in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: SIL International Publications
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: Avelino Corral Esteban, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid


The Comanche language or ‘Nʉmʉ tekwapu’ is a member of the Uto-Aztecan family,
Numic branch and Shoshone group that is closely related to the Shoshone
language. Both tribes speak practically the same dialect, although a few
low-level sound changes hinder mutual intelligibility. The Comanche are a
Native American tribe whose historic territory, known as Comancheria,
consisted of present-day eastern New Mexico, southern Colorado, northeastern
Arizona, southern Kansas, Oklahoma, and most of northwest Texas. Nowadays, the
Comanche Nation is headquartered in Lawton, Oklahoma. There are believed to
exist 12 recognized divisions or bands, although there may have been even more
in former times: Detsanayuka or Nokoni; Ditsakana, Widya, Yapa or Yamparika;
Kewatsana; Kotsai; Kotsoteka; Kwahari or Kwahadi; Motsai; Pagatsu; Penateka or
Penande; Pohoi; Tanima; Tenawa or Tenahwit; and Waaih.

This book is the combination of a dictionary and a grammar. The dictionary is
based on the research of the late Elliot Canonge, who is well known to the
Comanche for his work during the 1950s and 1960s under the support of SIL
International. That work resulted in “Comanche Texts” (1958), a compilation of
folktales and personal anecdotes that includes a Comanche-English morpheme
list, several beginning Comanche readers, and a collection of Comanche hymns.
Now, in the elaboration of this volume, each of its authors has undertaken a
different task. Robinson has checked Canonge’s dictionary files and texts, and
enhanced the data for this dictionary in consultation with fluent speakers of
Comanche, and Armagost has provided an overview of Comanche grammar, with the
aim of helping those people who want to use this dictionary to improve their
command of Comanche. Thus, this combination makes this work, along with “A
Grammar of Comanche” by Charney (1994), “Comanche Vocabulary” by García Rejón
(1995), and the “Revised Comanche Dictionary” (2010) by the Comanche Language
and Cultural Preservation Committee (CLCPC), the most comprehensive source on
Comanche today.

Currently, this language is severely endangered with about 200 mainly elderly
speakers, out of a total Comanche population of 12,000. Consequently,
according to its authors, this book not only has a specific objective, which
consists in recording and preserving Comanche speech, but it also has a more
general aim, namely that of helping younger generations of Comanche learn
about their history and culture.

This volume comprises three parts excluding the preface and bibliography.
First, it contains an extensive bilingual dictionary, which is divided into
two different sections: a Comanche-English lexicon, which, with over 5,500
entries, constitutes the central portion of the dictionary, and an
English-Comanche lexicon, which indexes Comanche entries in order to
facilitate the task of locating a Comanche equivalent of an English term. The
Comanche-English dictionary is not only notable for its linguistic content,
but also for the historical and cultural information it provides, since it
lists a great number of Comanche words along with dialect variants,
grammatical categories, simple etymologies and illustrative sentences.
Following Part I, there are five appendices listing fauna, flora, body parts,
months of the year, and personal names. Part II contains the English-Comanche
lexicon, where each English word is followed by the corresponding Comanche
word or phrase. This English-Comanche lexicon is a bit shorter than the
Comanche-English dictionary, since it limits itself to providing the Comanche
term for each corresponding English word without including any explanation or
example sentence. For this reason, the authors recommend, after having found
the translation of an English word into Comanche, using the Comanche-English
dictionary to find a more complete explanation of the word in question.
Finally, following this bilingual lexicon, there is also a grammar section,
whose aim is describe briefly the structure of the language. This Part III
offers a summary of Comanche grammar, based on Langacker´s “Overview of
Uto-Aztecan Grammar” (1977), dealing with a wide range of phonological,
syntactic and morphological aspects of this Uto-Aztecan language. Despite the
conciseness of this section, it successfully presents the phonetic inventory
of the language, shows the major aspects of its pronunciation by analyzing the
vowel and consonant systems and giving an account of the stress rules,
explains very effectively the wide range of consonant gradations brought about
by various processes (i.e. spirantization, preaspiration, nasalization, and
metathesis) that affect the realization of stops, and explores the structure
of both simple and complex sentences by analyzing comprehensively the verbal
system in terms of its transitivity, mood, aspect and tense as well as
explaining the formation of such complex constructions as temporal and
relative clauses and describing the phenomenon of switch-reference. Finally,
it accounts for the inflectional and derivational morphological processes that
affect the formation of the different lexical categories.

Regarding the spelling system, this book makes use of the Comanche alphabet,
which was first developed by the linguistic anthropologist Alice Anderton and
subsequently adopted in 1994 by the CLCPC as the official Comanche alphabet.
This alphabet contains a combination of 16 English letters and two letters
that don’t exist in English, namely “u” and “Ɂ”, which represent a short
spread vowel /u/ and the glottal stop respectively. Comanche has the typical
Numic inventory of 6 vowel symbols and 12 consonant symbols. Furthermore,
other symbols are used to indicate the voice and length of vowels and the
position of stress: vowels written with double symbols are long; underlining
is used to mark voiceless or whispered vowels, which are almost inaudible;
and, as in this language stress normally falls on the first syllable of a
word, an acute accent is used to note when stress falls elsewhere.


This Comanche dictionary and grammar is the revised version of a former very
appreciated dictionary published in 1991 by the same authors. New data have
been incorporated into this new edition, both for the correction and
improvement of existing entries and for the addition of new items that have
been suggested by the native consultants. All in all, this second edition is
offered with the confidence that it represents a great all-round improvement.

The bilingual lexicon has been improved for user-friendliness with respect to
the first edition, especially in the English-Comanche section, making it much
easier to locate a Comanche form from the point of view of its English
equivalent. Although the Comanche spelling scheme makes use of some symbols
that do not exist in English, the fact that these symbols are explained in the
introductory section preceding the lexicon allows one to locate the terms very
easily. Likewise, Armagost’s presentation of the grammar of the language is
concise, clear, and accurate. Comanche is classified as a synthetic
agglutinative language and therefore, owing to its extremely complex
morphology, a fair number of morphological processes such as prefixing,
suffixing, compounding and incorporation occur. Nevertheless, despite its
morphological complexity, it is possible to acquire a basic knowledge of this
language quite easily thanks to this second edition of the “Comanche
Dictionary and Grammar”. This quite detailed grammar section provides a broad
overview of Comanche grammar by addressing all of the important aspects of
Comanche structure and in a way that is accessible to people who want to know
about this language, thanks to the clarity and accuracy of its explanations
and the inclusion of carefully chosen examples of words and an abundance of
illustrative sentences that help readers understand better this complex
language and enable them to use the dictionary more effectively. Furthermore,
it is also worth mentioning that some photographs and names of outstanding
Comanche tribal members as well as historical dates and facts have been
included in this book in order to highlight the history and culture of this
tribe, which enhances the volume.

Finally, as regards the layout of this dictionary, the definitions, phonetic
symbols, grammar explanations, and example sentences included in this current
edition are laid out in such a clean and readable way that the task of
locating words in this dictionary turns out to be really simple. Thus, this
book, a grammar and dictionary combined, compiles a wealth of information in a
single volume, which makes an outstanding addition to the growing corpus of
descriptions of Native American languages.

Nevertheless, there is more work yet to be done on this dictionary: for
example, this dictionary could be further improved if it were accompanied by a
CD, so that the pronunciation of the Comanche words could be heard. Thus,
those readers interested in learning this language would be able not only to
see how a word is spelled and what it means, but also to hear how it sounds,
since hearing words clearly is an important part of learning a language.
Regarding the grammar, it could be further improved by including a section
explaining how to form the comparative and superlative and giving an account
of the Comanche constructions that could be analyzed analogously to the
English passive constructions.

All in all, this dictionary is an invaluable resource and a “must have” for
any serious student of the language. This is an important time to have a new
dictionary of the Comanche language, which is an important contribution to our
knowledge of this Uto-Aztecan language. Due to government policy, rather than
to personal choice, the Comanche language was not taught in the schools and,
despite the fact that efforts are now being made to ensure the survival of
Comanche, most speakers of this language are elderly and less than one percent
of the Comanche can speak the language. There are, of course, some younger
speakers who are learning Comanche, but not many of them are learning it as
their first language. There is a fear that unless parents and grandparents
teach more of Comanche to the children, and unless the school
language-learning programs are more successful, the Comanche language will die
out in a few generations. Because of this, this dictionary can be part of this
effort to keep the Comanche language alive and become a reference tool for
future generations to learn about this language.


Canonge, Elliott D. 1958. Comanche Texts. Norman: Summer Institute of
Linguistics and the University of Oklahoma.

Charney, Jean Ormsbee. 1994. A Grammar of Comanche. Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press.

Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation Committee. 2010. Revised Comanche

García Rejón, Manuel. 1995. Comanche Vocabulary: Trilingual Edition (Texas
Archaeology and Ethnohistory). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Langacker, Ronald W. 1977. An overview of Uto-Aztecan Grammar (Studies in
Uto-Aztecan Grammar). Arlington: Summer Institute of Linguistics and the
University of Texas.


Avelino Corral Esteban is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English
Philology at both Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Universidad Complutense
de Madrid, Spain. His main research focus is the study of the grammar of the
Native American languages spoken in the Great Plains area, such as Lakhota,
Cheyenne, Blackfoot or Crow, within the Role and Reference Grammar framework.
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