LINGUIST List 12.810

Fri Mar 23 2001

Review: Morse, Cubeo grammar; Miller, Desano grammar

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  • Michael Cysouw, reviews Morse/Maxwell (1999) and Miller (1999)

    Message 1: reviews Morse/Maxwell (1999) and Miller (1999)

    Date: Fri, 23 Mar 2001 13:00:21 +0100
    From: Michael Cysouw <>
    Subject: reviews Morse/Maxwell (1999) and Miller (1999)

    Morse, Nancy L. and Michael B. Maxwell (1999) Cubeo Grammar, Studies in the Languages of Colombia 5 (SIL Publication in Linguistics; 130) Summer Institute of Linguistics, Arlington. (X + 197 pp., $29.00, ISBN 1-55671-044-5)

    Miller, Marion (1999) Desano Grammar, Studies in the Languages of Colombia 6 (SIL Publication in Linguistics; 132) Summer Institute of Linguistics, Arlington. (X + 178 pp., $25.00, ISBN 1-55671-076-3)

    reviewed by Michael Cysouw, ZAS Berlin

    1. Introduction

    The two books under review are both grammars of Tucanoan languages, a small linguistic family in the Vaupes, located on the border of Colombia and Brazil in South America. Until very recently, hardly anything had been published about this linguistic family (cf. Kok, 1922; Espinoza Peres, 1955; Wheeler, 1967). This situation has changed drastically in the last decade by a series of publications under the auspices of the Summer Institute of Linguistics: two short sketches with basic materials (Gralow, 1993; Smothermon et al., 1995), some articles on select topics and two short, yet full fledged grammars in the series 'Studies in the Languages of Colombia' (Jones & Jones, 1991; Strom, 1992). And now there are these two grammars in this same series, one on Cubeo by Morse & Maxwell and one on Desano by Miller.

    Section 2 of this review gives a synopsis of the two books with some general comments. The books will then be put to the cross-linguistic test: I will hold them in the light of the world's linguistic diversity and differentiate those aspects that are unusual cross-linguistically from those that are to be found often in the world's languages. Section 3 highlights some cross-linguistically unusual, but typical Tucanoan features. In contrast, section 4 discusses these languages with respect to some recent typological claims. Section 5 concludes this review.

    2. Synopsis

    The Cubeo grammar consists of 6 chapters and two appendices. The first chapter is a short description of phonological properties. Chapter 2 is a long and extensive discussion of the verbal morphology and chapter 3 is a thorough discussion of the nominal morphology. Chapter 4 discusses other word classes, like adjectives, adverbs an postpositions. Chapter 5 is a rather short note on clausal structure, followed in chapter 6 by a lengthy discussion of subordination (which subsumes relative and adverbial clause formation). The first appendix is very useful; it presents an alphabetic list of all affixes - of which there are many. A short notice on practical orthography concludes the book.

    In general, the Cubeo grammar has a clear structure and very accessible explanations of the intricacies of the language. A discussion of discourse devices is left out - with reference to an article by Salser & Salser (1979). It is a pity that, for completeness sake, the authors did not add a summary of that paper to their description. I only dare to make one little addition to the numerous fine morphological analyses in this grammar, concerning the verb 'kiwA' (the /i/ should have a dash through it), meaning 'to have'. Morse & Maxwell (58) note that this root is noncompositional. However, it is composed of a locative copula and a causative suffix, which results in a clear compositional meaning 'causing to be at' - a cross-linguistic common expression of possession.

    The Desano grammar consists of 11 chapters. The first chapter presents a quick survey of the constituent order and of the phonology. Chapter 2 is a short introduction of the word classes. Chapter 3 and 4 discuss noun phrase structure; chapter 5 and 6 discuss verb phrase structure. Chapter 7 is a short note on sentence structure. Then follow two thematic chapters, chapter 8 on question formation and chapter 9 on negation. Finally, chapter 10 discusses subordination (which -again- subsumes relative and adverbial clause formation) and chapter 11 discusses some pragmatic devices that structure the discourse in Desano.

    In general, the outline of the Desano grammar is somewhat messy. Many topics are discussed in various places throughout the book, which makes it sometimes difficult to find a particular point of interest. Also, an appendix with a list of affixes (like in the Cubeo grammar) is dearly missed. Yet, this book displays a special fondness of the author towards lexicography, as can be seen from long lists of nominal classifiers (Miller 35-40) and possibilities of verb compounding (Miller 88-108), and from a reference to a Desano dictionary that is in preparation by the same author. The detailed information on lexical collocations is the kind of data that is not often found in descriptive grammars.

    Both grammars excel in exemplifying all arguments with ample sentences from actual discourse. Only in incidental cases sentences from bible translations are used to corroborate a presented analysis. It is difficult to judge how 'native' these translations are, but the long participation of the authors in the communities suggests that their judgements are to be trusted. All examples are given as phonemic transcription, which makes them much easier to read, yet it makes the data rather useless for phonologists. In particular, data on interesting characteristics like nasal spreading (see below) can not be gathered from these books.

    3. Features of special interest

    The Tucanoan languages are almost exclusively suffixational. They use suffixes elaborately in an agglutinating fashion. The grammar of Cubeo lists more than 100 monosyllabic suffixes and more than 70 polysyllabic ones (the situation is comparable in Desano). Note that the language has only a small phonological inventory (six vowels, 10 consonants and phonemic nasalisation) and a very simple (C)V syllabic structure, which results in only 132 theoretically possible syllables. The chance that two of the 100 different suffixes are accidentally homophonous is thus rather large. And indeed, many suffixes have multiple meaning with no clear historical or semantic relationship.

    A very interesting feature of the Tucanoan languages is nasal spreading. Both Cubeo and Desano have six phonemic vowels, all of which can be phonemically nasal or non-nasal. Yet, some non-root vowels are unspecified for nasality. These vowels can become nasalised under influence of inherently nasalised vowels: 'Nasalisation spreads from a nasal vowel to the right across morpheme boundaries onto vowels which are unmarked for nasality, providing only vowels unmarked for nasality and nasalizable consonants intervene. ... Nasal spreading is blocked by an inherently oral suffix. ... Nasal spreading is blocked by word boundaries' (Morse & Maxwell 8). Contra Kaye (1971), both grammars argue for productive spreading of nasalisation from left to right only. Spreading from right to left occurs only in a small closed set of constellations.

    Another cross-linguistically unusual, but typical characteristic of the Tucanoan languages is the regular marking of evidentiality (cf. Barnes, 1984). Each finite verb obligatorily marks how the speaker obtained his information. Desano and Cubeo both distinguish four evidential possibilities (Miller 64-68; Morse & Maxwell 32-36). The first three are identical, although different names are used: 'visual/witnessed' (the speaker himself experienced the event), 'hearsay/reportative' (the speaker obtained his information from someone else) and 'assumed' (the speaker supposes that an event has occurred based on his knowledge of how things work).The description of the fourth evidential differs. In Desano it is explained as 'inferred' (the speaker makes an inference) and in Cubeo as 'probable' (the speaker considers an event probable, based on his feelings).

    Finally, a typical Tucanoan characteristic is a curious kind of verb-subject agreement. The verb agrees with in gender with third person animate subjects; typically, there is a three-way distinction masculine-feminine-plural. The curious aspect of this agreement system lies in the fourth available agreement morpheme, which is used for agreement with inanimates and also for agreement with first and second person. This combination is clear counterexample to the animacy-hierarchy (Miller 64 ff.; Morse & Maxwell 38 ff.).

    4. Typological considerations

    The classic issue of linguistic typology is the cross category harmony of word/constituent order (e.g. Hawkins, 1983).The basic characteristic in this context is the order of verb and object in the main declarative sentence. Both Cubeo and Desano are prominently OV, although both allow VO as well. Counts of actual texts show a preference for OV for both languages. As for the order of subject and verb, there is less consistency. Both SV and VS are possible; for Cubeo, the authors claim a preference for VS (leading to OVS as the unmarked order - a rather rare case), but for Desano the expected SV order is more prominent, although there are many cases of VS as well (Miller 2, Morse & Maxwell 141). In all further aspects, both Cubeo and Desano are typical examples of OV languages: they have postpositions; the auxiliary follows the verb (V-Aux); the relative clause follows the noun (N-Rel); the possessor precedes the possessee (Gen-N); the adjective precedes the noun (Adj-N) and the determiner precedes the noun (Det-N). Even in morphological aspects, these languages behave according to the typological OV-'blueprint': they are almost exclusively suffixational and incorporated nouns precede the verb. There are only a few deviations from the general pattern - mainly concerning adjectives, which are cross-linguistically often the odd one out. In Cubeo, the adjective and the demonstrative can be placed after the noun, adding special emphasis (Morse & Maxwell 91-92) and in Desano, the adjective is placed after the noun if the noun has also a demonstrative and/or a numeral modifier (Miller 3).

    A more recent result of typological comparison is Stassen's (1997) investigation of intransitive predication. Among many other cross-linguistic claims, Stassen notes a correlation between the fact that predicatively used adjectives are treated like verbs and the fact that verbs are not obligatorily marked for a distinction between present and past. For both Cubeo and Desano this claim roughly holds. Almost all predicative adjectives are treated like verbs (Miller 24-25, 51; Morse & Maxwell 123-124), only a small closed class of nominal adjectives is found - including age terms ('old, new') and dimensional terms ('small, large'). At the other side of the correlation, Cubeo is clearly non-tensed as the marking of present/past is only one of the various tense-aspect possibilities (Morse & Maxwell 38 ff.). The tensedness type of Desano is less clear. Verbs in the assumed evidential are obligatorily marked for present/past (and are thus tensed, following Stassen's definition), but for all other verb forms, the present/past distinction is only one of various tense-aspect possibilities (and are thus non-tensed). As the larger part of verbal forms are not marked for tense, Desano roughly qualifies for Stassen's claim (Miller 64 ff.). Confusingly, Stassen included two other Tucanoan languages in the sample of his 1997 study (Barasano and Retuara) but he classified them rather differently from my classification of Cubeo and Desano. A more careful investigation of the Tucanoan family in this respect seems worthwhile.

    Another recent typological comparison at hand is Haspelmath's (1997) investigation of indefinite pronouns. Both the Cubeo and the Desano grammar are silent about this issue, in accord with Haspelmath's lament that indefinite pronouns are often neglected in grammatical descriptions. On Cubeo, Morse and Maxwell (124-125) only have a short note on indefinite adjectives, but nothing on indefinite pronouns. On Desano, Miller (138) only notes that inherently negative quantifiers do not exist. Instead of the expression 'no one helped me' the language uses a phrase with the literal translation of 'the one to help me doesn't exist'. This might point towards a language that does not have indefinite pronouns at all (a possibility offered by Haspelmath, 1997: 56-57), though more information is necessary to decide on the type of these Tucanoan languages in the typology of indefinite pronouns.

    5. Conclusion

    Both books do a great job in giving an outline of the grammatical structure of each language in less than 200 (small) pages - including numerous examples and meticulous descriptions of the meaning and usage of the intricate morphological structure. Judging from the ease with which the authors deal with the languages, there is much more knowledge on the languages backing these rather short descriptions. I hope that the authors continue to share that hard-earned knowledge with the wider linguistic community in the form of more detailed publications on these fascinating languages.

    6. References

    - Barnes, Janet (1984). 'Evidentials in the Tuyuca Verb'. International Journal of American Linguistics 50 (3): 255-271. - Espinoza Peres, Lucas (1955). Contribuciones Linguisticas y Etnograficas sobre algunos pueblos indigenas del amazonas Peruano. Madrid: consejo superior de investigaciones cientificas. - Gralow, Frances L. (1993). Un Bosquejo del Idioma Koreguaje. Santaf� de Bogot�: Instituto Ling��stico de Verano. - Haspelmath, Martin (1997). Indefinite Pronouns. (Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory). Oxford: Clarendon Press. - Hawkins, John A. (1983). Word order universals. New York: Academic Press. - Jones, Wendell & Paula Jones (1991). Barasano Syntax. (Studies in the Languages of Colombia; 2). Arlington: Summer Institute of Linguistics. - Kaye, Jonathan Derek (1971). 'Nasal harmony in Desano'. Linguistic Inquiry 2: 23-56. - Kok, P.P. (1922). 'Ensayo de gram�tica Dagseje o Tokano'. Anthropos 17: 838-865. - Salser, J.K. & Neva Salser (1979). 'Some features of Cubeo Discourse and Sentence Structure'. In: Robert E. Longacre & Frances Woods (eds.) Discourse Grammar: studies in indigenous languages of Columbia, Panama and Ecuador. Vol. 2, pp. 253-272. (Summer Institute of Linguistics Publications in Linguistics and Related Fields; 52). Arlington: Summer Institute of Linguistics. - Smothermon, Jeffrey R., Josephine H. Smothermon & Paul S. Frank (1995). Bosquejo del Macuna: Aspectos de al cultura material de los macunas. Santaf� de Bogot�: Instituto Ling��stico de Verano. - Stassen, Leon (1997). Intransitive Predication. (Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory). Oxford: Clarendon Press. - Strom, Clay (1992). Retuar� Syntax. (Studies in the Languages of Colombia; 3). Arlington: Summer Institute of Linguistics. - Wheeler, Alva (1967). 'Grammatical Structure in Siona Discourse'. Lingua 19: 60-77.

    7. About the author

    The author's research deals mainly with world-wide cross-linguistic comparison of morphosyntactic characteristic. Currently, I am investigating pronominal clitics from a typological view. I am affiliated to the Zentrum fuer Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS), Jaegerstrasse 10/11, 10117 Berlin, Germany, reachable at <>.