LINGUIST List 24.844

Sat Feb 16 2013

Review: Language Documentation; Typology: Kroeber (2012)

Editor for this issue: Monica Macaulay <>

Date: 15-Jan-2013
From: David Robertson <>
Subject: Shoshonean Dialects of California
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: A. L. KroeberTITLE: Shoshonean Dialects of CaliforniaSERIES TITLE: LINCOM Americana 06PUBLISHER: Lincom GmbHYEAR: 2012

REVIEWER: David Douglas Robertson


With this slim volume Lincom Europa reissues Kroeber’s well-regarded 1907publication (originally Berkeley: University of California Publications inAmerican Archeology and Ethnology, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 66-165). The publisherthereby commits an act of scholarly generosity paralleling Kroeber’s in makingavailable again this quite detailed set of Northern Uto-Aztecan comparativelexical data (pp. 71-89 and 93-96) and ethnological notes on the distributionof California dialects (pp. 101-153, the bulk of the monograph). It should benoted that a companion piece, Kroeber’s “Notes on Shoshonean Dialects ofSouthern California”, is republished as number 07 in the same series. Thiswork has already become reasonably well-known to specialists in Uto-Aztecan,so that it seems appropriate to focus somewhat more in this review on afactual précis of its contents than on the evaluation of its merits.

Kroeber musters cognate lists largely based on his own and Albert Gatschet’spioneering fieldwork on several dialects of around a dozen languages spoken inthe state, comparing these against counterparts from Ute, Bannock, Hopi,Comanche and Shoshoni, then against Nahuatl. In Part I (pp. 66-153), hearrives at an admirable four-way subclassification of what he takes as theShoshonean ‘family’ within the “still larger Uto-Aztekan family” (ibid.).These subdivisions are described as follows (pp. 97-101):

1. Pueblo (Hopi)2. Plateau (Ute-Chemehuevi group; Shoshoni-Comanche group; Mono-Paviotsogroup)3. Kern River (Tübatulabal)4. Southern California (Serrano group; Gabrielino group; Luiseño-Cahuillagroup)

A fairly abstract diagram of the relationships among these four (p. 100)suggests that Hopi is quite distinct. The rest cluster closely, with KernRiver intermediate between the Plateau and Southern California languages.

In Part II, Kroeber takes on the “relationship of Shoshonean to Nahuatl”.Pages 154-158 survey the then-recent previous literature on this question,referencing Buschmann (e.g. 1857), Brinton (e.g. 1886), Powell (e.g. his 1891map), León (1902) and Pimentel (1874-5). Pages 159-161 are again a briefcomparative vocabulary, followed by the conclusion that the evidence in favourof genetic relation “leaves room only for wonder how the fact could ever havebeen doubted” (p. 162). No appreciable difference in closeness of relation toNahuatl is found among the California branches (p. 163).

Part III, on “historical conclusions” (pp. 164-165), summarizes theethnolinguistic inferences to be drawn from the evidence presented. Nahuatl,‘Piman’ and ‘Shoshonean’ are in reality a single great language family.Californian Uto-Aztecan groups appear to be of long-standing residence. ThePueblo branch is not especially close to any other branch, whether Californianor Nahuatl, and are therefore long-established in Arizona. Nahuatl too is sospecialized that it must have separated from the rest of the stock at a dateof considerable antiquity. The Urheimat of the Uto-Aztecans, while notspecified, is unlikely to have been where Brinton suggests, between theRockies and the Great Lakes.


The present contribution was one of the important steps forward in the historyof typological analysis of this language family. The method used is somewhatimpressionistic, without explicit morphological segmentation, which Kroeberhowever calls for in future research (p. 92). Nor was comparativephonological reconstruction done, which might perhaps have led to somewhatmore refined and firmer conclusions. In consequence, the author does notovertly discuss or tabulate which sound correspondences he sees, or where hefinds them, so that the reader is left to pore over the comparative lexicaltables -- an exercise in firsthand data manipulation that is not entirelyunwelcome, but which is intensive of effort. Kroeber does however devote somespace to discussing similar or corresponding sounds among the dialects (pp.90-92). His explicit caveat in fact notes the lack at the time of publishedgrammatical analysis on these languages (p. 66), and he does specify that“[t]his vocabulary is therefore an abstract or ideal one rather than anattempt at an actual and accurate representation of the several dialects” (p.93).

Kroeber’s treatment is nevertheless deeply well-informed, given his ownfieldwork on these and many other California languages, and his extensiverecord of publication (cf. Kroeber 1909a, b, 1934). His notes especially ontribal distributions and synonymy expose a wealth of detailed firsthandknowledge of individual and community history, tradition and language use.His “linguistic notes on the vocabularies” (pp. 90-92) draw apt comparisonsand contrasts among selected acoustic and articulatory phonetic aspects ofsome of the dialects under investigation. And Kroeber attempts to provide aconsistent orthography for the phonetic representation thereof, with what isby present-day standards a remarkably large and complex set of Boas-style(pre-APA and -IPA) symbols (a key to which appears on pp. 70 and 90). Theresult is a document that serves excellently both as a typological essay andas a reference work.

Bibliographic references are inconsistently provided, so that Buschmann’s andGatschet’s admittedly important contributions are not fully credited in thisrespect, complicating the task of pursuing their materials. But the breadthand depth of knowledge being brought to bear in taxonomizing this subset ofUto-Aztecan languages is evident, and Kroeber’s four branches appear to havelargely withstood the test of time (in the view of Miller 1983:118). The mainquestion that goes begging is the subclassification of the remaining branchesof the language family, that is, those languages spoken between ‘Shoshonean’and Nahuatl territories; this is only due to Kroeber’s maintaining a strictfocus on California, and has been addressed in depth since (cf. Miller 1983).

Modifications which might have been profitable for the (re-)publisher to havemade could include providing a key equating Kroeber’s phonetic symbols withAPA and/or IPA, in order to ease comparison with the majority of materials nowin use by linguists. The addition of a separate and more completebibliography would prove particularly valuable. And given the extensivecitation of this monograph in the literature (a quick Google Scholar search,for example, shows 45 references to it), it seems clear that such a valuedstudy deserves, after 105 years, a prefatory essay by an expert assessing itsprovenance, its significance for and its impact on the field. The price forsuch a slender paper volume seems rather steep, too, and it can be imaginedthat a less-expensive edition could achieve reasonable sales not only inscholarly circles, but also among native communities and museum bookshops.


Brinton, Daniel G. 1886. The study of the Nahuatl language. [Media, PA]:[s.n.].

Buschmann, Johann Karl Eduard. 1857. Die Lautveränderung aztekischer Wörterin den sonorischen Sprachen und die Sonorische Endung ame. Berlin: K.Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1909a. The Bannock and Shoshoni languages. Washington,DC: American Anthropological Association.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1909b. Notes on Shoshonean dialects of California.Berkeley: University of California Publications in American Archaeology andEthnology, Vol. 8, no. 5, pp. 235-269.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1934. Uto-Aztecan languages of Mexico. Berkeley:University of California Press.

León, N. 1902. Familias lingüísticas de México. México: Museo Nacional deMéxico.

Miller, Wick R. 1983. Uto-Aztecan languages. In Sturtevant, William C.[ed.]. Southwest, pp. 113-124. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.(Handbook of North American Indians volume 10.)

Pimentel, Francisco. 1874-5. Cuadro descriptivo y comparativo de las lenguasindígenas de México. México: [s.n.].

Powell, John Wesley. 1891. Linguistic stocks of American Indians north ofMexico. New York: Sackett & Wilhelms Litho Co.


David Douglas Robertson received his PhD in Linguistics from the University ofVictoria in 2012 for his dissertation documenting the extinct Kamloops pidgindialect of Chinook Jargon and its endangered Chinuk pipa script. His researchinterests include language contact in western North America, missionarylinguistics, and Salish languages.

Page Updated: 16-Feb-2013