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Review of  The Jarawara Language of Southern Amazonia

Reviewer: Michael W Morgan
Book Title: The Jarawara Language of Southern Amazonia
Book Author: R. M. W. Dixon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Anthropological Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Jamamadí
Book Announcement: 16.1940

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Date: Thu, 23 Jun 2005 13:03:45 +0900
From: Mike Morgan <>
Subject: The Jarawara Language of Southern Amazonia

AUTHOR: Dixon, R. M. W.
TITLE: The Jarawara Language of Southern Amazonia
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2004

Michael W Morgan, Kobe City University of Foreign Studies


This book is a thorough descriptive grammar of the Jarawara
language, or the Jarawara dialect of the Madi language, depending
on which definition of language (p 7) you subscribe to. In either case,
it is not the language of any large group of people (the dialect is
spoken by less than 200 people, the larger language by less than
600). Nor is it a member of a large and wide-spread language family;
taking the second sense of language, Madi is one of only five
members of the Arawan (Arauan) language family, all (other members
being Sorowaha, Paumari, Kulina-Deni, and the extinct Arawa) spoken
around the Jurua and Purus rivers roughly in Brazil's Amazonas state
and vicinity (Dixon includes maps, a general picture of Jarawara and
its linguistic neighbors can be seen at Proel (2004)). However, though
numerically and geographically "minor", Jarawara is a linguistically
very interesting -- and thus, significant -- language, and Dixon's
treatment of it is an important work to be added to the libraries not
only of people interested in Arawan languages in specific, or
Amazonian languages in general, but of ANYONE doing comparative
and/or typological study of languages, or as an excellent example for
anyone attempting to write a descriptive grammar of any language.

Dixon's book is not the first book-length introduction to aspects of
Jarawara grammar; Vogel's (2003) 254-page University of Pittsburgh
doctoral thesis has that honor. The latter, however, has more limited
scope (verb classes), while Dixon's is a comprehensive grammar of
the language. Although I have only just started reading Vogel's work, it
appears to offer an alternative analysis to Dixon's on several issues.
Dixon (2000) is also an earlier treatment of one area not covered by
Vogel (2003). Also of interest for comparative purposes (the book
under review itself provides a good deal of comparison) are the
various works of Everett (n.d., 1999, 2003) on other Madi dialects and
also Paumari, and Salzer & Chapman's (1999) dictionary of Paumari
(which also includes a grammatical overview).

The length limitations of this review preclude a thorough presentation
of the contents of each chapter, or even an examination of ALL the
interesting things that are going on in this language; there are simply
TOO many of them. The body of the book consists of 27 chapters, not
specifically grouped into the normal sections of Phonology,
Morphology, Syntax, but generally organized so that the contents of
one chapter are related to those before and after. Chapter 1 (pp 1-15)
starts off with a description of the "linguistic type" of Jarawara, which
reads like a list of "100 reasons why you really should find this
language fascinating". It then goes on to give an overview of who the
Jarawara are, and where their language fits in the physical, cultural
and linguistic world. It also provides a very short summary of the
sources for the material analyzed, and a section on "Chances of

Chapter 2 (16-69) is one of the longer single chapters and deals with
all issues of phonology. Of particular note for Jarawara is the clear
need to distinguish between grammatical and phonological word. A
description and discussion of a variety of phonological rules take up
perhaps 2/3 of the chapter. As in all later chapters, comparisons and
differences between Jarawara and the other Madi dialects and also
between the Madi language and the other Arawan languages are
included. One interesting phonological feature of the Jarawara dialect
that distinguishes it from the other Madi dialects is a change in the
syllable-counting rule for stress assignment from the underlying proto-
Madi system of counting from the beginning of the word to a more
recent system of counting from the end found only in Jarawara. In
Jarawara certain phonological rules (e.g. the deletion of the initial
syllable -he-/-ha- in the reported suffix) follow the older system, while
other rules (e.g. actual stress placement) follow the newer one.

Chapter 3 (70-94) provides a Grammatical Overview of the language.
If time only permits reading a 25-page excerpt of the book, these are
the pages to read. They expand on the list given at the outset of the
book, and all are treated in detail in subsequent chapters. This is,
however, the place in the book where Dixon treats the Janus issues of
homonymy and redundancy most directly: Jarawara has a fairly high
level of homonymy (especially where it matters most), yet a fairly low
level of redundancy -- which information-theory tells us would
otherwise be one way to compensate for this redundancy. On
theoretical grounds I personally have my suspicions that some of the
proposed examples of homonymy are in fact merely different (context-
motivated) senses of one and the same item. Although a single
reading of the book (and only a couple weeks to absorb it all) did not
give me enough information to propose a Gesamtbedeutung for any
particular case, at times the connection seems probable ... and in fact
at times Dixon himself hints that this is the case. Still Dixon is probably
right: homonymy is at a higher level and redundancy at a lower level
than in MOST languages.

Chapters 4 through 9 (95-279) introduce the predicate structure of
Jarawara. As Dixon states at the outset of this "section", "[t]he
predicate is the most complex part of Jarawara grammar" (95). The
predicate, which is treated in chapter 4, is quite complex, and is
composed of eleven slots (some with "sub-slots"), as follows:
A) first pronominal slot,
B) second pronominal slot,
C) prefixes,
D) verb root,
E) auxiliary root,
F) miscellaneous suffixes,
G) tense-modal suffixes,
H) third pronominal slot,
I) secondary verbs,
J) mood suffixes, and
K) post-mood suffixes.

While this system already seems somewhat complex, it is in fact even
more complex, in that the items that go into many slots are more
numerous (or at the very least, different) than those in most the
languages that most of us are probably familiar with. For example, slot
G includes nine tense-modal suffixes, but of these no fewer than six
are different past tense markers.

To briefly mention a few of the interesting phenomena going on in
Jarawara, the first has to do with pronominal slots. First, in fact, is that
there is a fourth pronominal slot, in that slot C) includes first and
second person singular subject prefixes. For Jarawara, the first
pronominal slot is for the O argument, and the second pronominal slot
is for the S or A arguments (or the copula subject) ... a seemingly
straightforward accusative system. Which of the two previous
pronominal slots the item in the third pronominal slot repeats is,
however, much more complexly determined, and unlike the first two
pronominal slots, is not obligatory. It is in fact, too complex to get into

Another interesting morphophonological phenomenon has to do with
gender agreement. Since nouns in Jarawara are masculine or
feminine (which is the unmarked gender, and the gender of all
pronouns for the purposes of agreement), there is gender agreement
in the predicate, which involves (generally) final vowel alternation. The
interesting thing is that gender agreement can occur in slots D, E and
F (when word-final) and in slots G, J, and K (regardless of position),
and there are a number of different alternations. If the alternation
occurs in slots D through GIa, then the masculine is higher and
fronter; if in slots GIb, G-2, J, or K, then the opposite is the case. And
agreement alternation is in the negative suffix. If it follows a tense-
mood suffix or a secondary verb, then it is in slot K and acts
accordingly. If no such item precedes, then it falls back to slot F6d,
and is in the area where the other type of vowel-alternation occurs.

Also of special interest are the four auxiliaries (which provide a place
to attach the various suffixes, and, with non-inflecting verbs, a place to
attach the prefixes and suffixes that would normally go on an inflecting
verb), and an extensive series of more than fifty "miscellaneous"
suffixes, which are organized into six echelons (each averaging three
slots), both of which are treated in chapter 5, one of the longer single
chapters. Assignment of a given suffix to an echelon "slot" is generally
determined by the relative order when suffixes occur together in a
single predicate. Items within given echelons are not, generally
speaking, semantically related; for example, second echelon slot F2
includes three suffixes: 1) "two participants, a pair", b) "in the morning,
tomorrow", and c) "do first". Their morphosyntactic properties do,
however, tend to be similar; for example, with all three of the F2
suffixes, the -na- auxiliary, when present, is retained.

Although I can't get into any of the details, chapter 6 deals with the
tense-modal system (which includes eleven items, half of them
providing information about evidentiality), chapter 7 with a miscellany
of elements that close out the predicate (secondary verbs, mood and
negation), chapter 8 with verbal derivation, and chapter 9 with verbal
reduplication (of which there are three kinds, each with its own
semantics, and they can co-occur).

Chapters 10 through 12 (280-376) treat the noun phrase, and related
issues. Chapter 10 deals with general noun phrase structure. Of
interest is the fact that, of the two genders, feminine is the unmarked
member, and, for example, if any element in the predicate agrees with
the subject and that subject is a pronoun, then agreement is feminine.
On the other hand, as in many languages, women can be accorded
masculine gender as a sign of respect. And such traits as gender,
number, animacy, etc. are not generally marked in the noun phrase
itself, but are only manifest by agreement in the predicate. Also, while
determination of the head of a noun phrase might be straightforward
in most languages, one interesting phenomenon is noted for
Jarawara: for example, while the noun "mano" 'arm' is masculine, in
the sentence (part of example 10.10) "o-mano koma-ke" 'my arm is
sore' agreement is feminine, due to the inherent feminine gender of
the pronominal possessor "o-" 'my' (here we have to do with
inalienable possession), and indicated by the form of the declarative
suffix "-ke" (which would be "-ka" if masculine). Chapter 11 goes on
into greater detail about possessed nouns, and chapter 12 treats
demonstratives and related forms.

Chapters 13 through 19 (377-487) deal with a wide range of clause
types, which include in addition to copula clauses (chapter 13), the
verbal main clause (chapter 14), complement clauses (chapter 17),
dependent clauses (chapter 18), and nominalized clauses (chapter
19). Chapter 15 is a discussion of commands and questions, two
seemingly unrelated topics, which also seem a bit out of place in a
sequence of chapters dealing NOT with morphology per se, but with
clause and construction types.

Of these chapters, chapter 16 (a "mere" thirty pages and so NOT the
longest chapter in the book) is called "a central chapter in the
grammar of Jarawara" (417). To a certain extent this might be viewed
as Dixon, author of Ergativity (1994), going on once again about his
pet topic. But in fact, it is much more. In general, Jarawara can be said
to have two types of verbal-clause constructions: A-constructions
(where the A(gent) argument is used as a pivot), O-constructions
(where the accusative or O(bject) argument serves that function).
There are multiple contrasts between the two constructions (as
summarized in table 16.1 on page 420), but no single morphological
or syntactic marker of the difference. Some of the features are cut and
dried (e.g. the prefix "hi-", used where both A and O are third person,
is not used in the A-construction); others are mere tendencies (e.g.
the preferred order of A and O are statistically in opposition: 85% A-O
in A-constructions, 73% O-A in O-constructions). From the overall list,
though, it is generally possible to determine whether a given clause is
an A- or O-construction. In fact, we do get minimal pairs: for instance,
the two examples in 16.13: A-construction: "mee o-wa.katoma-ra o-ke"
versus O-construction "mee o-wa.katoma-ra-ke", both meaning 'I
stared at them', but distinguished by the absence of the repeated "o-
" 'I' in the third pronominal slot in the second O-construction example.
The structure of A- and O-constructions is analyzed in great detail
later in the chapter, but for the general reader, perhaps the most
interesting part of the chapter is where Dixon gives examples of the
discourse roles of these constructions. Sixteen short passages are
presented, and the role of the constructions to provide a pivot in
discourse is demonstrated. Although I can imagine that it is not a
totally uncommon occurrence for a given clause to be indeterminate
out of context (though I could not find any clear examples in a quick
search), context would most likely disambiguate.

These are followed by a series of "minor" and miscellaneous chapters.
This includes a discussion of peripheral markers in chapters 20 (488-
497) and 21 (498-508), and a relational noun in chapter 22 (509-516),
all of which in more traditional grammars might be dealt with in a
chapter on postpositions and conjunctions. Of interest is the presence
of a very generic postposition "jaa" with a full range of locative, allative
and ablative uses with noun phrases, and temporal, conditional and
causal senses nominalized clauses. Context (and the semantics of the
verb) disambiguates.

Chapter 23 returns to a last type of construction, the list construction.
It is similar to the preceding three chapters in that it is a construction
type which occurs either with noun phrases or with clauses. The
interesting feature of this construction with clauses is that otherwise
inflecting verbs do not inflect as usual.

Chapter 25 (532-538) returns to morphology, in this case derivational

Chapter 26 (539-565), the penultimate chapter, deals with a range of
topics in semantics; in many ways, it is a hodge-podge chapter. For
nouns, notable are the concreteness of the lexicon, the relative lack of
abstract nouns, and also a relatively small set of generic nouns. For
verbs, things are bit more interesting: there is a good deal of
suppletion. For example, corresponding to English "lie", Jarawara
distinguishes between whether the thing doing the lying is singular,
dual or plural. In addition, if it is singular (but NOT in the dual or
plural), it distinguishes between whether it is lying on the ground, on a
raised surface or in the water. While this is perhaps an extreme case
of suppletion, the distinction of singular versus plural is reasonably
widespread: for subject argument for intransitives, and for the object
argument for transitive verbs. This is basically an ergative alignment
(S=O). In this chapter, Dixon also examines the sub-classification of
verbs into inflecting versus non-inflecting, and into intransitive versus
intransitive, plus S=A and S=O ambitransitive sub-classes. It is a
remarkable feature of Jarawara that of the last four classes, S=O
ambitransitives are the second largest group (28% of verbs). This
leads to a discussion of semantic roles and syntactic functions, and
finally to an interesting typological characterization of Jarawara:
Jarawara is an action-oriented (as opposed to an argument-oriented)
language, and the relationship between semantic roles and syntactic
functions is much more fluid. (For the record, the example Dixon gives
of an argument-oriented languages is Dyirbal, another language for
which he wrote THE descriptive grammar. English, Dixon says, falls in
the middle.) All this leads to where, for example, a verb mii -na- 'shit'
can be used intransitively (ex. 26.26), transitively with a normal
accusative-like object argument ('blood' in ex. 26.27) or with a locative-
like object argument ('top of the table' in ex. 26.28); structurally the
last two are the same.

For the historical linguist, and for anyone who has made a careful
reading of this book and noted all the instances where something
quirky is going on in present-day Jarawara (either in and of itself, or
when compared to the other modern Madi dialects), chapter 27
("Prehistory", pp 566-582), is one of the most interesting. In this
chapter, Dixon proposes a sequence of ordered diachronic
developments which account for those points.

As mentioned above, the 27 chapters are followed by appendices,
which include 3 "short" texts (averaging 8'42" delivery time; 583-611),
references (612-614: Arawan languages have not been so widely
studied as to have produced a long bibliography), a vocabulary of the
approximately 1200 words occurring in examples, texts and
discussions in the book, a list of affixes (630-632) and finally an index


This is, in many ways, a near-perfect model of how a descriptive
grammar of ANY language should be presented. Although the
grammatical treatment and exposition are excellent, for me, one of the
best parts of the book are the examples and how they are presented.
Examples are rarely given singly to illustrate a grammatical point. They
are most often presented in pairs; sometimes contrastive pairs,
sometimes complementary pairs, but always jointly to better explicate
the issue at hand. And when two do not suffice, Dixon gives a third
and fourth, and then a cross-reference to further examples of the
same or related phenomena given elsewhere in the book. In addition,
examples are almost NEVER given without (detailed) context. As
Dixon says (433): "the full significance of a clause in Jarawara can
only be appreciated if it is considered in a discourse context". While
Dixon makes it clear that this is the case for Jarawara, I think it should
be clear that this is equally the case in EVERY language. While
examples can be given that are more or less clear more or less
independent of context, such are rarely really interesting examples
that get to the heart of how the given language really works. All
descriptive grammars should follow Dixon's lead and provide the
illustrative context for the sentences they present. (This would also,
no doubt, lead to a reduction the number of so-
called "ungrammatical", starred sentences cited; in my experience
many (perhaps most) such sentences simply show the linguist is too
unimaginative (and too lacking in a convincing command of the
creative potential of the language they purpose to analyze) to come
up with the perfect context in which such sentences could in fact be
used and make perfect sense.) And Dixon's exposition of the contexts
provide the added bonuses of being an introduction into the cultural
and cognitive world of the Jarawara (which, Victorians beware,
includes not infrequent references to bodily functions and bodily
fluids), and often explicative of how one does linguistic field work ...
and are also just plain amusing anecdotes. Who said a descriptive
grammar should not also be a good read?

All this said, a couple aspects of the book were disappointing.

The first one, a mere pet peeve, is the consistent intrusion of elements
of analysis into the top line of the multilinear presentation of example
sentences. While it is common, and I believe quite acceptable, for
elements of phonemic analysis to be incorporated into this line, and
even morphemic segmenting (IF the language allows you to do that
without getting too far from the surface form), ALL other additions
should be relegated to the second line (the gloss line) ... and an
additional line if multiple layers of analysis are required or preferred.
However, Dixon, in a work that is otherwise a model of descriptive and
theoretic "neutrality", consistently and constantly inserts ONE element
of analysis into the first line: the assignment of S, A and O roles. It
does not, I think, really get in the way; in fact, some may argue that it
adds clarity (perhaps Dixon's motivation). It is, however, I think NOT
good practice.

On the much more serious side, the index is EXTREMELY
disappointing (without a doubt the MOST disappointing thing about
the book) ... not quite useless, but far less useful than it could and
SHOULD have been. Produced in the age of computers, one would
think that a more or less thorough index could be provided with
minimal effort; for a book of more than six-hundred pages, it really is a
necessity. The index found on pages 633-636 is, however, extremely
superficial and incomplete. When, for example, a mention on p 571 of
how Banawa (another Madi dialect) speakers exaggerate sentence-
final nasalization when they imitate Jarawara speakers, I had forgotten
Dixon's ever mentioning final nasalization in Jarawara -- since none of
the examples have it indicated. Yes, the index, when consulted
under "nasalization", did in fact lead me back to the original statement
(with three examples where nasalization IS indicated) on page 28, but
the instance on p 571, more rememberable because of the context, is
itself NOT listed in the index under nasalization. It can be found by
following ALL the leads given under the heading Banawa dialect,
where it seems to fall under the general sub-entry "grammar", where
the reference is to a longish 12-page section which mentions a score
of various phenomena, none of them remotely phonetic in nature (the
subentry heading IS grammar), EXCEPT the one in question. While
reading the book and trying to follow up links between related topics,
in general my own memory of what I had read and where was much
more helpful than the index ... and that simply should NOT have to be
the case.

In addition, there are a few things which I would have found desirable,
though their absence does not mark Dixon's book as falling in any way
short of what passes as acceptable; they are merely among my list of
desiderata for a more ideal descriptive grammar. I will not give a
complete list, just one example. Although the vocabulary in fact
appears to be complete (at least in the sense of accounting for all the
Jarawara words that occur in this book), and the glosses are
acceptable (though not "complete" dictionary entries, which Dixon
readily states), and though sufficient grammatical information is
probably given for all items, only about 2% of the entries have any
cross reference to a sub-section in the body of the text where they are
discussed. While cross-referencing every item to every possibly
connected discussion in the book is too much even for me to ask, it
would be instructive, and helpful, if there WERE a cross reference for
EVERY item to its occurrences not only in grammatical discussion but
even more so in examples. Whether it is an issue of semantics (and
range of usage) or grammar (and range of usage), being able to see
and compare different occurrences of the same items is something
any inquisitive reader would want to do. Within the body of the
grammar, as mentioned above, Dixon DOES have frequent cross-
references to further examples. It would just be more helpful if this
information could also be found based on individual lexical items. Of
course for items occurring hundreds of times, there need not be a list
of ALL the citations. However, I would think up to five occurrences for
each and every item would not be unreasonable in this age of
computer-generated cross-references.

Lest I close on a negative note about a book that I feel extremely
positive about, and to make one last attempt to interest anyone not yet
so inclined in this fascinating book and this fascinating language, I will
give one of MY (dozens and dozens of) favorite examples: the
Jarawara description of "whiteout" correction fluid is: "jama hani mese
ke-teha-ni fawa", literal morpheme-by-morpheme translation: 'thing(f)
writing(f) top.surface.of applicative-put.on-
immediate.past.noneyewitnessed(f) disappear' ... an apt description


Dixon, R.M.W. (1994) Ergativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Dixon, R.M.W. (2000). Categories of Noun Phrase in Jarawara. J.
Linguistics 36, 487-510.

Everett, Daniel L. (n.d.) Optimality Theory and Arawan Prosodic
Systems: Chapter One: Prosodic Levels and Constraints in Banawa
and Suruwaha.

Everett, Daniel L. (1999) Syllable Integrity. WCCFL 16 Proceedings,
CSLI/University of Chicago Press.

Everett, Daniel L. (2003) Iambic Feet in Paumari and the Theory of
Foot Structure. Linguistic Discovery 2/1:22-44.

PROEL (Promotora Espanola de Linguistica) (2004). Lenguas
Amerindias: Tronco Arahuacano.

Salzer, Meinke & Shirley Chapman (1999). Dicionario Bilingue nas
Linguas Paumari e Portuguesa.

Vogel, Alan R (2003) Jarawara Verb Classes (Univ. of Pittsburgh PhD


Michael W Morgan has a doctorate in Slavic Linguistics (with a minor
in Indo-European Studies) from Indiana University (1990), and his
current research interests focus on historical, comparative and
typological topics, especially but not solely relating to sign languages,
and also various issues in a Sign Theoretic (aka Jakobsonian-van
Schooneveldian) approach to linguistic analysis. He also currently
teaches at Kobe City University of Foreign Studies.

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