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Review of  Comanche Dictionary and Grammar, Second Edition

Reviewer: Avelino Corral Esteban
Book Title: Comanche Dictionary and Grammar, Second Edition
Book Author: Lila Wistrand-Robinson James Armagost
Publisher: SIL International Publications
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Comanche
Issue Number: 24.1353

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The Comanche language or ‘Numu 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 Dictionary.

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.

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9781556713309
Pages: 415
Prices: U.S. $ 38.95