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AUTHOR: Launey, Michel TITLE: An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2011
Dibella Wdzenczny, Department of Linguistics, University of California at Santa Barbara
''An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl'' is an introductory language-learning textbook for students of Classical Nahuatl. The original volume was written in French by Michel Launey in 1979. It has since been translated and adapted into English by Christopher Mackay. This is the first textbook of its kind for teaching Classical Nahuatl.
The text includes thirty-six lessons, four appendices, a two-way Nahuatl-English dictionary, and an index of grammatical constructions, morphemes, and linguistic terms. Examples in the text and exercises consist of both constructed examples and sentences and phrases taken from Classical Nahuatl texts. In “How to Use this Book,” Launey states that the goal of the text is to provide readers with enough lexical and grammatical knowledge that they “should be in a good position to make the transition to attempting to read Nahuatl texts as they are spelled in the traditional orthography” (p. xix). The book begins with a preliminary lesson on Phonetics and Writing, which provides a discussion of APA (Americanist Phonetic Alphabet and IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols as well as a thorough explanation of traditional Spanish orthography and spelling conventions for Nahuatl, including those used for the glottal stop (the author, Mackay, marks vowel length where it is known.)
Part One of the textbook contains the most basic lessons on Nahuatl grammar. Lesson One presents intransitive verbs, basic word order, and the absolutive suffix (in scholarship on Classical Nahuatl, ‘absolutive’ denotes the full independent form of the noun, as opposed to the noun stem alone; it does not indicate grammatical alignment). Lesson Two discusses nominal features and morphology, such as plurals, questions, negation, nominal predicates, and focus constructions. Lesson Three presents transitive verbs, with a focus on the various object agreement prefixes. The different forms of pronouns -- emphatic, interrogative, demonstrative, and negative -- are presented in Lesson Four. Irregular verbs such as ‘go’, ‘come’, and ‘be’, as well as locative constructions are discussed in Lesson Five. Lesson Six deals with reflexives and directional prefixes. Lessons Seven and Eight discuss quantifiers and the formation of the preterite tense. Lesson Nine presents the future, optative, imperfective, and vocative verb forms. Possession and nominal “adjective-like” suffixes are taught in Lessons Eleven and Twelve. Locative suffixes are discussed in Lesson Thirteen, and Lesson Fourteen presents adverbial constructions as well as coordination strategies. Lesson Fifteen concludes Part One of the textbook by discussing impersonal and passive verb forms.
For example, in Lesson Three on transitive verbs, the lesson proceeds as such: the first thing to be introduced are the object agreement prefixes, followed by several paradigmatic examples using simple transitive verbs (I see you, I see him, he sees you, etc.) (pg. 26). This is followed by explanations of orthographic irregularities or ‘allophones’ (the change of ‘c’ to ‘qu’ before ‘i’ and ‘e’), and a discussion of epenthetic vowels that the reader may encounter when dealing with verbs with multiple prefixes. Next, Launey describes the Nahuatl sentence with a full NP object and its construction.and syntactic order. Also included are discussions about indefinite prefixes, variations in the transitive verb stem, and object focus constructions.
Part Two begins with Lessons Sixteen and Seventeen, which examine the details of nominal morphology, agentive suffixes, and compound nouns, as well as noun incorporation in verbs. Lessons Eighteen through Twenty discuss various valency-manipulation strategies, such as bi/ambitransitive verbs, causatives, and applicatives. Lesson Twenty-One deals with honorifics and deprecatory verbs. More finely nuanced verb forms, such as the counterfactual and vetitive, are presented in Lesson Twenty-Two, as well as the pluperfect and the directional. Lessons Twenty-Three through Twenty-Six go into greater detail regarding material already learned. These include morphological peculiarities of nouns and verbs (Lesson 23), more on locatives (Lesson 24), more on quantifiers (Lesson 25), and details about number and person, indefinite pronouns, and adverbs (Lesson 26). Lessons Twenty-Seven and Twenty-Eight describe additional verbal morphology, such as compound verbs and reduplication. Derivation of verbs and nouns are discussed in Lessons Twenty-Nine and Thirty, respectively. Lesson Thirty-One presents more details about noun classes beyond nominal morphology. Lessons Thirty-Two through Thirty-Five describes the different types of clauses: attributive, relative, copular verbs, auxiliaries, comparisons, clauses of result, purpose and cause, conditionals, temporals, connectives, and interjections.
Lesson Twenty on applicative verbs is a thorough laundry list of valency-increasing affixes and their meaning, constructions, and functions as well as its interactions with other affixes. Suffixes indicating a beneficiary are explained first, along with their respective allomorphs. Adding a beneficiary to a causative verb is discussed next, along with resulting ambiguity as in the example ‘nimitzco:huili:z nacatl’, ‘I’ll buy meat for you/from you’ (pg. 205). The benefactive applicative is also described for its interactions with the reflexive, passive, with noun incorporation, and other unique ‘semi-applicative’ (pg. 209) verbs. In the final exercises, students are asked to add the appropriate beneficiary affix to verbs in phrases and apply all allomorphy rules, as well as translate the phrase into its new meaning.
The book also contains four appendices. The first provides a detailed discussion of traditional (Spanish) orthography for the student reading Classical Nahuatl texts, including allophonic transcription convention variations, as well as vowel-length marking strategies. Nearly any peculiarity a student may encounter in a text pertaining to orthography is described (and explained) here. For example, notes on the difference in transcription of certain sounds depending on their placement in the Nahuatl syllable is discussed here - /w/ is written as ‘hu’ in an onset and as ‘uh’ in a coda, and never between the vowels ‘o’ and ‘a’ (pg. 381-3). The simplification of difficult consonant clusters in Spanish orthography is also listed here – clusters such as ‘tzch’, ‘chch’, and ‘chtz’ are simplified to ‘ch’ (pg. 383). These are important notes for a student relying on orthographic clues for understanding Nahuatl morphology. The second contains lists of paradigms for quick reference, ordered similarly to the lessons presented in the rest of the textbook. The third contains cultural information pertaining to the Aztec calendar. The fourth provides a key to exercises at the ends of each lesson.
''An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl'' is an excellent language-learning textbook. Launey has written many articles about Classical Nahuatl (Launey 2002a, Launey 2002b) as well as grammars other languages (Launey 2003) his expertise is evident in the details in each lesson. The textbook is very thorough in detailing Classical Nahuatl grammar, and the examples and exercises are well-suited to reinforce concepts introduced in each lesson. The book is remarkably up to date; it quite clearly benefits from recent linguistic literature. The grammar lessons slowly build in difficulty, while reinforcing previous lessons and introducing new vocabulary at a challenging-yet-manageable rate. Specialized linguistic terminology is explained well as it is introduced, with illustrations based on the closest possible examples in English (as seen, for instance, in the lessons on applicatives and reduplication- pgs. 202-210 and 285-292, respectively). This feature makes the book accessible to those without a linguistics background. At times, comparisons between grammatical features or constructions are required; the textbook simplifies this task by cross-referencing examples in other chapters within the lessons themselves. Because Classical Nahuatl is polysynthetic, the longer verbs are often listed with their original stems to help the reader recognize morphological boundaries easier. This form of presentation greatly helps the reader to understand and analyze each structure. Moreover, the appendices benefit the student even beyond containing the answers to the exercises, and the dictionary contains more verbal stems than just those presented in the lesson. Other bits of cultural information involved in the study of the language (e.g. Classical Nahuatl’s vigesimal number system) are peppered throughout the lessons as relevant.
A few other qualities of the book are worth mentioning: at only $40, it is extremely affordable (a significant concern for students, especially given the high cost of most foreign language textbooks), and it is handy in size and light in weight. This makes the textbook extremely portable, an especially important quality for students. This volume would make a great textbook for a Classical Nahuatl course as part of a Latin American history or anthropological program.
The book has few weaknesses, but they are worth mentioning for both linguists and students in other disciplines. First, the textbook misrepresents the differences between APA and IPA orthography. In the pronunciation guide, APA transcription is listed in slashes, and IPA transcription is listed in brackets. Neither column has a heading; later in the Preliminary Lesson, only the IPA symbols are named as such, while the APA symbols are simply referred to as “phonetic symbols.”(pg. 11). In addition, the exercises in this chapter ask students to produce “phonetic transcription” (pg. 11) of certain words without specifying the system to be used; in the answer key, APA is listed. It would seem that for students, (especially those not trained in linguistics) it would be preferable to use one system or make the distinction between the two orthographies clearer.
Second, it is not clear which examples come from Nahuatl texts. Examples such as ‘As for Peter, all of his turkeys have died’ (pg. 95) are clearly constructed, as is necessary with any textbook teaching a form of a language that is no longer spoken. Additionally, the longer passages in lessons, which are likely from codices, do not cite any origin even though this information would be culturally and contextually educational for students to know.
Ultimately, ''An Introduction to Classical Nahuatl'' is an excellent textbook for both linguists and non-linguists. For linguists, it can easily function as a basic reference grammar of Classical Nahuatl, although due to the lack of references, the examples are of limited value. It will be especially useful as a point of comparison for linguistics students who are studying modern Nahuatl languages and dialects; it could even lend assistance in identifying constructions or morphemes to a linguist conducting fieldwork on a modern Nahuatl language. For non-linguists, especially those whose ultimate goal is to read codices or texts, the textbook is invaluable. It is completely self-contained and easy to work through, whether in a classroom or independently, and gives the reader an excellent base for working through actual Nahuatl texts.
Launey, Michel. 2002a. Compound nouns vs. incorporation in Classical Nahuatl. Problems of Polysynthesis, ed. by Nicholas Evans and Hans-Jürgen Sasse. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. --- 2002b. On some causative doublets in Classical Nahuatl. The Grammar of Causation and Interpersonal Manipulation, ed. by Masayoshi Shibatani, 301–318. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. --- 2003. Awna parikwaki: introduction à la langue palikur de Guyane et de l’Amapá (Awna parikwaki : introduction to the Palikur language of Guiana and to Amapa). Paris: IRD éditions.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Dibella Wdzenczny is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her primary interests include historical linguistics, case systems, and the indigenous languages of Siberia and the Americas. She is also interested in pedagogy in linguistics for both university students and indigenous communities.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Dibella Wdzenczny is a Ph.D. student in Linguistics at the University of
California, Santa Barbara. Her primary interests include historical
linguistics, case systems, and the indigenous languages of Siberia and the
Americas. She is also interested in pedagogy in linguistics for both
university students and indigenous communities.