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Review of  A Grammar of Kolyma Yukaghir

Reviewer: Edward J. Vajda
Book Title: A Grammar of Kolyma Yukaghir
Book Author: Elena Maslova
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Yukaghir, Northern
Issue Number: 14.2413

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Date: Mon, 08 Sep 2003 14:26:49 -0700
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

Reviewed by 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.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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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