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LINGUIST List 24.844

Sat Feb 16 2013

Review: Language Documentation; Typology: Kroeber (2012)

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

Date: 15-Jan-2013
From: David Robertson <ddr11columbia.edu>
Subject: Shoshonean Dialects of California
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-465.html

AUTHOR: A. L. Kroeber
TITLE: Shoshonean Dialects of California
YEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: David Douglas Robertson


With this slim volume Lincom Europa reissues Kroeber’s well-regarded 1907
publication (originally Berkeley: University of California Publications in
American Archeology and Ethnology, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 66-165). The publisher
thereby commits an act of scholarly generosity paralleling Kroeber’s in making
available again this quite detailed set of Northern Uto-Aztecan comparative
lexical data (pp. 71-89 and 93-96) and ethnological notes on the distribution
of California dialects (pp. 101-153, the bulk of the monograph). It should be
noted that a companion piece, Kroeber’s “Notes on Shoshonean Dialects of
Southern California”, is republished as number 07 in the same series. This
work has already become reasonably well-known to specialists in Uto-Aztecan,
so that it seems appropriate to focus somewhat more in this review on a
factual précis of its contents than on the evaluation of its merits.

Kroeber musters cognate lists largely based on his own and Albert Gatschet’s
pioneering fieldwork on several dialects of around a dozen languages spoken in
the state, comparing these against counterparts from Ute, Bannock, Hopi,
Comanche and Shoshoni, then against Nahuatl. In Part I (pp. 66-153), he
arrives at an admirable four-way subclassification of what he takes as the
Shoshonean ‘family’ within the “still larger Uto-Aztekan family” (ibid.).
These subdivisions are described as follows (pp. 97-101):

1. Pueblo (Hopi)
2. Plateau (Ute-Chemehuevi group; Shoshoni-Comanche group; Mono-Paviotso
3. Kern River (Tübatulabal)
4. Southern California (Serrano group; Gabrielino group; Luiseño-Cahuilla

A fairly abstract diagram of the relationships among these four (p. 100)
suggests that Hopi is quite distinct. The rest cluster closely, with Kern
River intermediate between the Plateau and Southern California languages.

In Part II, Kroeber takes on the “relationship of Shoshonean to Nahuatl”.
Pages 154-158 survey the then-recent previous literature on this question,
referencing Buschmann (e.g. 1857), Brinton (e.g. 1886), Powell (e.g. his 1891
map), León (1902) and Pimentel (1874-5). Pages 159-161 are again a brief
comparative vocabulary, followed by the conclusion that the evidence in favour
of genetic relation “leaves room only for wonder how the fact could ever have
been doubted” (p. 162). No appreciable difference in closeness of relation to
Nahuatl is found among the California branches (p. 163).

Part III, on “historical conclusions” (pp. 164-165), summarizes the
ethnolinguistic inferences to be drawn from the evidence presented. Nahuatl,
‘Piman’ and ‘Shoshonean’ are in reality a single great language family.
Californian Uto-Aztecan groups appear to be of long-standing residence. The
Pueblo branch is not especially close to any other branch, whether Californian
or Nahuatl, and are therefore long-established in Arizona. Nahuatl too is so
specialized that it must have separated from the rest of the stock at a date
of considerable antiquity. The Urheimat of the Uto-Aztecans, while not
specified, is unlikely to have been where Brinton suggests, between the
Rockies and the Great Lakes.


The present contribution was one of the important steps forward in the history
of typological analysis of this language family. The method used is somewhat
impressionistic, without explicit morphological segmentation, which Kroeber
however calls for in future research (p. 92). Nor was comparative
phonological reconstruction done, which might perhaps have led to somewhat
more refined and firmer conclusions. In consequence, the author does not
overtly discuss or tabulate which sound correspondences he sees, or where he
finds them, so that the reader is left to pore over the comparative lexical
tables -- an exercise in firsthand data manipulation that is not entirely
unwelcome, but which is intensive of effort. Kroeber does however devote some
space to discussing similar or corresponding sounds among the dialects (pp.
90-92). His explicit caveat in fact notes the lack at the time of published
grammatical analysis on these languages (p. 66), and he does specify that
“[t]his vocabulary is therefore an abstract or ideal one rather than an
attempt at an actual and accurate representation of the several dialects” (p.

Kroeber’s treatment is nevertheless deeply well-informed, given his own
fieldwork on these and many other California languages, and his extensive
record of publication (cf. Kroeber 1909a, b, 1934). His notes especially on
tribal distributions and synonymy expose a wealth of detailed firsthand
knowledge of individual and community history, tradition and language use.
His “linguistic notes on the vocabularies” (pp. 90-92) draw apt comparisons
and contrasts among selected acoustic and articulatory phonetic aspects of
some of the dialects under investigation. And Kroeber attempts to provide a
consistent orthography for the phonetic representation thereof, with what is
by present-day standards a remarkably large and complex set of Boas-style
(pre-APA and -IPA) symbols (a key to which appears on pp. 70 and 90). The
result is a document that serves excellently both as a typological essay and
as a reference work.

Bibliographic references are inconsistently provided, so that Buschmann’s and
Gatschet’s admittedly important contributions are not fully credited in this
respect, complicating the task of pursuing their materials. But the breadth
and depth of knowledge being brought to bear in taxonomizing this subset of
Uto-Aztecan languages is evident, and Kroeber’s four branches appear to have
largely withstood the test of time (in the view of Miller 1983:118). The main
question that goes begging is the subclassification of the remaining branches
of the language family, that is, those languages spoken between ‘Shoshonean’
and Nahuatl territories; this is only due to Kroeber’s maintaining a strict
focus on California, and has been addressed in depth since (cf. Miller 1983).

Modifications which might have been profitable for the (re-)publisher to have
made could include providing a key equating Kroeber’s phonetic symbols with
APA and/or IPA, in order to ease comparison with the majority of materials now
in use by linguists. The addition of a separate and more complete
bibliography would prove particularly valuable. And given the extensive
citation of this monograph in the literature (a quick Google Scholar search,
for example, shows 45 references to it), it seems clear that such a valued
study deserves, after 105 years, a prefatory essay by an expert assessing its
provenance, its significance for and its impact on the field. The price for
such a slender paper volume seems rather steep, too, and it can be imagined
that a less-expensive edition could achieve reasonable sales not only in
scholarly circles, but also among native communities and museum bookshops.


Brinton, Daniel G. 1886. The study of the Nahuatl language. [Media, PA]:

Buschmann, Johann Karl Eduard. 1857. Die Lautveränderung aztekischer Wörter
in den sonorischen Sprachen und die Sonorische Endung ame. Berlin: K.
Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1909a. The Bannock and Shoshoni languages. Washington,
DC: American Anthropological Association.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1909b. Notes on Shoshonean dialects of California.
Berkeley: University of California Publications in American Archaeology and
Ethnology, Vol. 8, no. 5, pp. 235-269.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1934. Uto-Aztecan languages of Mexico. Berkeley:
University of California Press.

León, N. 1902. Familias lingüísticas de México. México: Museo Nacional de

Miller, Wick R. 1983. Uto-Aztecan languages. In Sturtevant, William C.
[ed.]. Southwest, pp. 113-124. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.
(Handbook of North American Indians volume 10.)

Pimentel, Francisco. 1874-5. Cuadro descriptivo y comparativo de las lenguas
indígenas de México. México: [s.n.].

Powell, John Wesley. 1891. Linguistic stocks of American Indians north of
Mexico. New York: Sackett & Wilhelms Litho Co.


David Douglas Robertson received his PhD in Linguistics from the University of
Victoria in 2012 for his dissertation documenting the extinct Kamloops pidgin
dialect of Chinook Jargon and its endangered Chinuk pipa script. His research
interests include language contact in western North America, missionary
linguistics, and Salish languages.
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