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Review of  The Languages of Native North America

Reviewer: Sonya Bird
Book Title: The Languages of Native North America
Book Author: Marianne Mithun
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Language Documentation
Language Family(ies): Caddoan
Issue Number: 12.707

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Mithun, Marianne (1999) The Languages of Native North
America, Cambridge University Press, 773 pages.

Sonya Bird, University of Arizona

The Languages of Native North America presents a survey of
Native languages of North America and of the linguistic
structures characteristic of these languages. The book is
split into two main sections: Part I looks at linguistic
structures found in the languages of North America. Some of
these structures are quite widespread, others are unique to
certain languages. This section includes chapters on sounds
and sound patterns (chapter 1), word formation (chapter 2),
grammatical categories (chapter 3), sentence structure
(chapter 4), and special language (chapter 5).

Chapter 1 offers a description of sound inventories
(1.1), transcription conventions (1.2), syllable structure
(1.3), tone (1.4), harmony (1.5), sound symbolism (1.6),
and Native writing systems (1.7).

Chapter 2 starts by introducing the notion of
polysynthesis (2.1). It continues with a section on parts
of words including roots, affixes, and clitics (2.2). This
section is divided into subsections on morpheme order
(2.2.1), general compounding (2.2.2), noun incorporation
(2.2.3), and the functions of roots and affixes (2.2.4).
Chapter 2 ends with a discussion of lexical categories,
more specifically nouns and verbs (2.3).

Chapter 3 focuses on grammatical categories: person
(3.1), number (3.2), gender (3.3), shape, consistency, and
related features (3.4), means and manner: instrumental
affixes (3.5), control (3.6), space: location and direction
(3.7), time - tense and aspect (3.8), and finally modality:
knowledge and obligation (3.9). Each section is further
divided into subsections covering almost every topic
related to grammatical categories as they are expressed in
the languages of Native North America.

Chapter 4 moves from the word level to the sentence
level. The topics covered are: predicates and arguments
(4.1), word order (4.2), grammatical relations and case
(4.3), pattern combinations - based on the patterns
discussed in 4.3 (4.4), obliques and applicatives (4.5),
possession (4.6), and clause combining (4.7). Again, these
sections are split into subsections dealing with various
topics related to each section.

Chapter 5 concludes Part I with a brief presentation
of special language: baby talk, 'abnormal speech', and
animal talk (5.1), 'men's' and 'women's' language (5.2),
narrative and ceremonial language (5.3), speech play (5.4),
and Plains Sign Talk (5.5).

Part II consists of a catalogue of languages and
language families found in North America. Chapter 6 starts
off by introducing the terminology used to discuss
relationships among languages: dialect, language, and
family (6.1), genetic relationship (6.2), stocks:
hypotheses of more remote relationships (6.3), and language
contact (6.4).

Chapter 7 contains of the actual catalogue of
languages. In this chapter, information is presented on
languages as available. The language situation is
described, references are given for published material on
languages where it exists, and the basic structure of the
language or family is outlined. Not all languages and
language families in the catalogue get equal
representation. Presumably, this is because not all
languages have been studied to the same extent. The first
part of the chapter (7.1) presents an overview of languages
families and isolates, and the second part (7.2) discusses
pidgins, creoles, and mixed languages.

Following Part II, there are a 11 pages of maps, taken
mostly from the various volumes of the Handbook of North
American Indians (two of the maps are from Roberta Bloom,
cartographer). The maps cover all regions of Native North
America: the northeast, the southeast, the plains, the
southwest, California, the great basin, the plateau, the
northwest coast, the subarctic, and the arctic.

The book finishes with an extensive bibliography of
published material on the languages discussed throughout
the book.

This is an excellent book to have as a reference. It
contains an incredible amount of information and
illustrative data. It is possible to look up almost any
topic relating to Native American languages and find not
only a presentation of the facts but also an extensive list
of references for further reading. As a textbook, The
Languages of Native North America is perhaps less useful.
This is because there is so much information that reading
the book through chapter by chapter is simply overwhelming.

A. Presentation

Splitting the book into two main sections, the first
based on linguistic topics and the second based on language
families, works well. It is very useful to be able to
access information either by looking up a linguistic
phenomenon or a language. Furthermore, Part I serves as
background for Part II, since the terms introduced in Part
I are referred to in Part II. On the down side, there is
rarely any cross-referencing in this book. In the sections
of Part II outlining structural properties of various
languages, it would have been useful to point the reader
back to the relevant sections of Part I for explanations of
the terms used. Cross-referencing in this book is all the
more important in that a vast amount of information is
presented. Specially for readers with limited background in
the field, it is hard to keep track of all the terms used
and what they refer to.

Another point worth mentioning involves the
presentation of data and generalizations. Data comes from
all sorts of different languages, and hundreds of sources
are cited, enabling the reader to look further into any
particular topic. One thing that might have been helpful,
due to the amount of information presented, is more tables
and charts summarizing the facts. These would help the
reader keep track more easily of what material has been
covered. Related to this, the introduction of data into the
text is not always done in a manner easy to process: often,
it is directly inserted in the text, rather than separated
from it using numbered examples. It is much easier to
follow the data when it is set apart. In the catalogue
(Part II), it would have been useful to include charts
illustrating the sound inventories of different language
families and isolates - rather than simply listing the
sounds in the text. Such charts make it easier for the
reader to determine what is special about the sound systems
(whether there are interesting gaps etc.).

The final point involves the maps included in the
book. It is not clear whether the maps represent the
location of different languages as they were originally, or
after European contact and relocation. This distinction is
an important one; it would have been useful to include maps
comparing the original (pre-European contact) and present
location of languages, where the locations differ.

B. Content

As already mentioned, The Languages of Native North America
contains an incredible amount of information. Almost all
topics relevant to the study of Native American languages
are covered, and data is introduced from a broad range of
languages, both living and extinct, in order to explain the
linguistic phenomena discussed. In terms of its content, it
serves as an excellent source of information on facts that
are known about Native American languages. Because it is a
reference book, there is a lot of description but hardly
any analysis. Where taking a theoretical stance is
unavoidable, the least controversial stance is chosen. This
book also assumes a certain amount of linguistic knowledge.
Many of the more basic linguistic terminology is assumed to
be already familiar to the reader. On the other hand, in
order to help the reader with little of the way Native
American languages are structured, topics are generally
introduced by explaining how English works, and then going
on to explain how languages of Native North America differ
(or not) from English. This is very helpful for readers,
who can relate to the material presented to how English
functions - presumably a more familiar language to them.

Related to the fact that controversial issues are
generally not addressed, it is often the case that standard
analyses of facts are assumed but not justified. For
example in chapter 2, Mithun assumes that roots, prefixes,
suffixes, etc. are distinct categories. She refers to
certain elements as roots and others as affixes, without
justifying why one element might be called a root while
another is called an affix. As another example, Mithun does
not offer an explanation of why some sentential elements
are called affixes while other are called clitics.

Another point to note is that in presenting the data,
Mithun sometimes gives the impression that things are more
cut and dry than they are. The data referred to illustrate
clearly the topics under discussion, such that it may seem
to the reader that there are less unknown or non-understood
facts about languages than there really are. The reader
should be made aware that a lot of linguistic
characteristics of Native American languages have yet to be
fully understood.

There are a couple of topics which are not covered in
Mithun. For example, split-ergative languages are not
discussed (languages in which the first and second person
follow the nominative-accusative patter, but third person
follows the ergative-absolutive), and neither are noun
classes. Also, when discussing a characteristic, the list
of languages given which exhibit this characteristic is not
always exhaustive. For example, in the discussion of
locational suffixes, Athabaskan languages are not
mentioned, although they have such suffixes. When reading
about a particular topic, it is hard to know whether the
languages mentioned are the only ones which are relevant.
Summary tables of languages which exhibit each
characteristic discussed would solve this problem. Another
point worth mentioning is related to the data covered in
the catalogue of Part II. As already mentioned, data is
presented as available. This means that certain languages
get more coverage, and certain topics come up fairly often
while other are mentioned but once or twice. For example,
there are only one or two references to stress patterns in
the catalogue. This is presumably due to the fact that
there are few materials on stress patterns. However, it is
sometimes hard for the reader to decide whether certain
topics are left out because there is no data on them, or
because they are do not involve facts which differ in
particularly interesting ways from other languages.

Finally, this book contains a couple of minor
inaccuracies. For example, in the discussion of Dakelh
dialects, the dialect "Lheidli" is spelled "Lheivli", and
there is no mention of Nak'azdli, the Dakelh dialect spoken
by the largest population and with the most published

In general, The Languages of Native North America is a
very impressive book, and worth having close at hand as a
reference for any kind of linguistic information on Native
American languages. One thing to note is that the
discussion is limited to purely linguistic facts. There are
no sections on peripheral topics like the history of Native
American people (their treatment by the US and Canadian
governments etc.).

Handbook of North American Indians. Smithsonian
Institution, Washington, D.C.

I am currently a 4th year graduate student in Linguistics
at the University of Arizona. I am working on timing issues
in the sounds and rhythmic structure of Lheidli, a dialect
of Dakelh (Carrier) - an Athabaskan language spoken in the
northern interior of British Columbia.


Format: Paperback
ISBN: 052129875X
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 795
Prices: U.S. $ 33
U.K. £ 23.95