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Review of  A Grammar of Eton

Reviewer: Picus Sizhi Ding
Book Title: A Grammar of Eton
Book Author: Mark L. O. van de Velde
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Eton
Issue Number: 22.1573

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AUTHOR: Van de Velde, Mark L. O.
TITLE: A Grammar of Eton
SERIES TITLE: Mouton Grammar Library [MGL] 46
PUBLISHER: Mouton De Gruyter
YEAR: 2008

Picus Sizhi Ding, Department of Linguistics, University of Hong Kong


Based on the author's doctoral dissertation, this grammar provides a detailed
description of Eton, a Bantu language spoken in Cameroon. It consists of nine
chapters, with an Eton-English lexicon (pp. 373-397) and two texts (pp. 398-421)
in the appendix. There is also a two-page user manual preceding the chapters,
which contains a table showing gender markers and their agreement pattern on the
nominal as well as a list of TAM forms on the verb.

Chapter one: Introduction (pp. 1-7)
This chapter gives a brief introduction to Eton. Two maps show neighboring
languages and the position of Eton within the large group of Bantu languages. A
typological sketch is drawn for this little-studied language of West Africa.

Chapter two: Phonology (pp. 8-68)
This large chapter comprises phonology, morphophonology and tonology. The sound
form in Eton requires three levels of analysis: |Structural|, /Phonological/ and
[Phonetic]. These are indicated notationally as shown with their names above.
The phonetic level, representing the surface form, is generally omitted in most
parts of the grammar. Consonant and vowel phonemes are exemplified with a long
list of (near-)minimal pairs. The first syllable of the prosodic stem in Eton is
prominent, which has the phonetic correlate of lengthened onset. The
morphophonology sections mainly deal with how underspecified consonants such as
|N|, |B|, |V| and |S| are realized in the surface form. There is also a section
on syllable structure, although the author argues that 'there are no structural
syllables' (p. 40). Eton has three structural tones: à (low), á (high) and a̋ (a
dissimilating high tone). The low and high tones, under various combinations,
can give rise to five surface tones on a syllable: à, á, ǎ, â and ↓á
(downstepped high). Given |H L H| over two syllables, the second H will become
downstepped when the L is not linked to a syllable.

Chapter three: Nouns (pp. 69-113)
Chapter three concerns the morphology of nouns, covering reduplication, gender,
and derivation. There are as many as ten genders, numbered from 1 to 10. Eton
classifies nouns into eleven morphological classes: any of the ten genders plus
the genderless. Plurality of nouns with an odd-numbered gender is often
expressed through an even-numbered gender, although this is not always

Chapter four: Verbs (pp. 114-135)
This chapter describes derivational morphology of the verb. While there are more
than ten verbal suffixes, not a single prefix is found in verbal derivation. The
suffix -ì has the function of reducing valence or increasing valence.

Chapter five: Other word classes (pp. 136-210)
Closed classes of words are covered in Chapter five, and these include
pronominals (various kinds of pronouns), adnominals (demonstratives, possessives
and interrogative promodifiers 'which' and 'how many'), quantifiers (numerals
from '1' to '6' and -sè 'all, entire, every, each') and the connective
proclitic. Some of them show different inflections. Uninflected words include
numerals from '7' upward, all ordinal numbers, adverbs, and prepositions, etc.

Chapter six: Nominals (pp. 211-230)
This chapter deals with the noun phrase. The augment í- can be prefixed to
simple as well as complex nominals. The connective proclitic introduces genitive
and modifying relations. The chapter also addresses apposition, word order and
agreement in complex nominals.

Chapter seven: Tense, aspect, mood and negation (pp. 231-286)
The morphosyntax of the verb is discussed in this chapter. The G-form, a suffix
with a velar initial, is actively involved in the formation of Eton tense and
aspect. Absolute tense distinguishes the remote past (something long ago), the
hesternal past (yesterday), the hodiernal past (earlier today), the present, and
the future. Relative tenses cover the consecutive and the inceptive. A major
aspectual distinction is perfective versus imperfective. While the former is
expressed in zero form, it contrasts with the latter with additional morphemes
according to the tense in use. The chapter also includes the 'Southern' forms,
which are presumably tense variations found in the Southern dialect of Eton.

Chapter eight: The clause (pp. 287-330)
This chapter addresses basic syntax: subjects, objects, nominal complements and
adjuncts. On morphosyntactic grounds, Eton does not ''call for the definition of
syntactic relations other than that of subject'' (p. 301). Copular clauses,
interrogatives, passivisation as well as focus and topic are all discussed.

Chapter nine: Complex constructions (pp. 331-371)
This chapter presents four kinds of complex constructions: complex predicates,
relative clauses, complement clauses and adverbial clauses. The complex
predicates are characterized with quasi-auxiliaries that express resultative,
aspectual meanings such as habitual, terminative and repetitive, or adverbial
meanings such as 'badly', 'well', 'early' and 'quickly', etc. Complement clauses
can take no complementiser or one of these: nâ, (à)né and ŋgé.


This monograph is an admirable piece of work. It provides a great deal of detail
about the grammar of Eton, although in a few places the author has pointed out
issues that require further study. As a linguist with general interests in
language, I am happy to learn the fascinating linguistic system of this Bantu
language. While I see almost no serious fault, I do think some improvement could
be made in the following aspects.

The introductory chapter is rather short. It does not mention the fieldwork
settings at all. Who are the consultants? What is the working language in the
field? When did the fieldwork take place? Partial answers to these questions can
be found somewhere in the grammar, but the reader will remain puzzled about the
selection of a folktale in the appendix from a speaker whose tone rules differ
slightly from those presented in chapter two. The author suspects that it ''might
be due to Ewondo influence'' (p. 398). What is the linguistic relation between
Eton and Ewondo, which is spoken to the south of Eton and is mentioned several
times here and there in the description? Also, how similar is the presumably
main dialect of Eton to the 'Southern' dialect? Lewis (2009) reports that Eton
is intelligible with Bulu, Ewondo and Fang.

There is no mention of intonation in the description, and this would give an
impression that intonation had no place in Eton. A look at the tone section in
chapter two, however, suggests that intonation has been implicitly incorporated
into the tone system of the language. The author remarks that ''the overwhelming
list of TAM-forms becomes a well structured and relatively simple system if one
distinguishes between auxiliaries and quasi-auxiliaries and between absolute
tense and relative tense'' (p. 231). If lexical tone could be disentangled from
grammatical tone and perhaps intonational tone, the tonology of Eton would not
be so complicated. For example, the downstepped high tone appears to be a
derived tone found under specific conditions. The lexical tone system of Eton
could then be reduced to H, L, LH and HL. Indeed, these are the only tones,
irrespective of the number of syllables, permitted for Eton simple nouns.

The notion of prominence plays an important role in the attachment of a floating
high tone. In Chapter two, prominent syllables are underlined in the Structural
representation for most of the examples, but such indication is omitted in other
chapters. Consequently it is difficult to work out the realization of tones from
the Structural level to the surface level. For instance, while the typographic
error on the tone of 'ask' (↓sílâ, not ↓sílá) is obvious, one can only suspect
that something has gone wrong with the tone of 'conserve' in the sentence below
(p. 281). Since the infixed has replaced L on the first syllable of the
stem, the syllable must not be prominent (according to the tone rules summarized
on p. 65). If that were the case, it would go against the generalization that
''the first vowel of every stem is prominent, unless it is immediately followed
by another vowel'' (p. 43).

í↓té ↓sílá nâ ú↓báglê tíd (Surface form)
|í-Ltɛ́ L-sílà nâ H-ù-L-bàglà tíd| (Structural form)
VII-PR INF-ask CMP SB-2SG-SB-conserve [9]meat
'You should conserve the meat.'

Likely typographic errors on tones are seen in example (257) (p. 209), example
(62) (p. 251), example (74) (p. 254) and example (61) (p. 346).

Subjects in Eton are identified in terms of ''their preverbal position and the
agreement they trigger on the verb'' (p. 287). Thus a locative PP, ''a phrase
introduced by the locative preposition'' (p. 194), and locative demonstratives
such as 'here' can serve as the subject in copular sentences, as the copular
following the locative takes one of two agreement patterns. Such an option is
peculiar to locative expressions. Nonetheless, if this free variation in
agreement pattern is restricted to locative expressions (p. 170; p. 194), it
involves essentially a semantic condition. It is unclear whether the treatment
of a preverbal locative as the subject is the only possible analysis. Examples
such as 'people here are nice' versus 'here people are nice' could be useful for
showing the subject-triggered agreement pattern.

In the study of information structure, the topic is regarded as the entity
shared between the interlocutors and the focus is the highlighted entity in a
clause. That is, the topic is situated in the background while the focus is
brought to the foreground (cf. Krifka 2007; Lambrecht 1994). The two are in
opposition. It is thus a surprise to read that ''Eton uses basically the same
strategies to focalize and to topicalize nominals'' (p. 322). The choice of the
expression 'topic/focus' in the texts implies that no attempt is made to
distinguish the two. Although the forms will be neutralized, instances of
ambiguity between a focalized nominal and a topicalized nominal should be
provided and the specific pragmatic status of the nominals in the examples
spelled out. Of the 17 examples in the section ''Nominal focalization and
topicalization,'' I can only interpret one as containing a topic: example (132),
'The snake, God sent it so that they could cross (the river) on its back' (p.
325). On the other hand, some examples clearly contain a noun in focus.

In a footnote (p. 315), Van de Velde points out that ɲǎ mòdò 'adult' is
expressed as 'real person' in Eton with the literal meaning 'mother of a
person'. In many Tibeto-Burman languages a word meaning 'son' gives rise to the
diminutive sense and a word meaning 'mother' may be used for 'big'. Eton clearly
shows the same grammaticalization path for the former and probably also for the
latter. If the literal reading of ɲǎ mòdò were taken as 'big person' rather than
'mother of a person', this would provide an instance of the grammalicalization
which extends the meaning 'mother' to 'big'. This will be quite straightforward
for the meaning of 'adult'.

Finally, I am sure all users of the grammar would appreciate an English index
for the Eton-English lexicon. The author could compile one and post it on his
web page.


Krifka, Manfred. 2007. Basic notions of information structure. In C. Féry, G.
Fanselow, and M. Krifka (eds.), The Notions of Information Structure, 13-55.
Potsdam: Potsdam University Press.

Lambrecht, Knud. 1994. Information Structure and Sentence Form. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Lewis, M. Paul (ed.). 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth
edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:

Picus Sizhi Ding is an Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong. He has been engaged in fieldwork-based study of Tibeto-Burman languages over the past 15 years since his doctoral work on Prinmi, a minority language of southwestern China. His research interests center around languages of China (especially the Sinitic and Tibeto-Burman) and extend to those with typological similarities with Chinese languages, particularly on the tone system. He has also developed a deep concern about the well-being of minority languages through descriptive work conducted in China and has studied issues related to language endangerment.

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