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Review of  The Tujia Language

Reviewer: Alena Witzlack-Makarevich
Book Title: The Tujia Language
Book Author: Cecilia Brassett Philip Brassett Meiyan Lu
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Tujia, Northern
Issue Number: 18.311

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AUTHOR: Brassett, Cecilia; Brassett, Philip; Lu, Meiyan
TITLE: The Tujia Language
SERIES: Languages of the World/Materials 455
YEAR: 2006

Alena Witzlack-Makarevich, Institute of linguistics, University of Leipzig

This book is the first comprehensive description of the Tujia language in
English. Tujia is a Tibeto-Burman language spoken by some 60.000 people in
the northern half of Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture in the
north-western Hunan Province, China. Tujia comprises a northern and
southern dialect, which are not mutually intelligible and which are spoken
in geographically separate areas. The grammar focuses on the northern Tujia

This grammar is based on extensive fieldwork in Jishou City in Xiangxi
Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture. The corpus of data includes texts
from some 20 speakers of both genders and a wide age range.

The authors, Cecilia and Philip Brassett, have already published two books
on Tujia: an analysis of the sociolinguistic situation (Brassett & Brassett
2005a) and a description of history and culture of the Tujia people
(Brassett & Brassett 2005b). Besides, they are the authors of the Tujia
Language and Culture website (, which contains an
extensive language archive. The other contributor, Meiyan Lu, is a native
speaker of Tujia, whose expertise was instrumental in transcription and
glossing of Tujia texts.


The book contains slightly more than 200 pages and is divided into 10
chapters and two appendices: an extensive Tujia-English glossary arranged
by semantic fields and a collection of 3 annotated Tujia texts.

Chapters 1, entitled 'Introduction', provides a sociolinguistic and
historical background of the Tujia language. The genetic affiliation of the
language, which still remains unclear, is also briefly discussed. Tujia was
previously thought to be a dialect of Chinese. In the earliest published
descriptions of Tujia in China, it was described as being related to the
languages in the Yi branch of the Lolo-Burmese subgroup (Wang, 1955). Tian
et al. (1986) suggested it to be an isolate within Tibeto-Burman. Finally,
He (2003) postulated that Tujia could be a member of the Qiang branch.

Chapter 2 'Phonology' starts with an inventory of Tujia phonemes and tone.
Next, morphophonemic alternations are examined: tone sandhi, assimilation
and deletion processes. Section 2.5 separately treats tone sandhi in
classifiers and particles, where it occurs with great frequency. Section
2.6 'Orthography' introduces an experimental orthography, developed by the
authors on the basis of standard Mandarin (Putonghua pinyin).

Chapter 3 'Lexicon' provides a brief insight into Tujia word structure and
then describes various word formation devices (affixation, compounding,
reduplication). Section 3.5 deals with Chinese loan words, historical
periods and types of borrowing. Chinese loans are ubiquitous in the speech
of Tujia speakers: in contemporary everyday speech their percentage rises
to 20-30%.

Chapter 4 'Lexical categories' briefly discusses different types of nouns,
pronouns, verbs, particles, classifiers, and other lexical categories.

Chapter 5 'Sentence structure' starts with a discussion of topic prominence
in Tujia. Next, basic word order (SOV) and different sentence types are

In chapters 6 'The noun phrase' the formation of associative noun phrases,
relative clauses, and classifier phrases are discussed in detail.
Relativisation is also a topic of chapter 8 'Nominalisation and

Chapter 7 'The verb phrase' is largely devoted to the description of verb
particles expressing a wide variety of semantic concepts, including aspect,
directionality, modality, and negation. Section 7.3.1 discusses the order
of the verb particles and their co-occurrence restrictions.

Chapter 9 'Sentence linking and special constructions' provides a rather
brief overview of clause linkage types and a number of constructions (9.3
'Concurrence constructions', 9.4 'Instrumental constructions', 9.5
'Causative constructions', 9.6 'Sequential constructions').

Finally, chapter 10 'Pronouns in discourse' discusses zero anaphora and the
use of guo2, which has been interpreted as a subject marker in previous
descriptions of Tujia, but actually functions as the third person singular

At 44 pages long Tujia-English lexicon is arranged according to the
following semantic fields: nature; the human body, life experiences,
relationships, and occupations; production activities; daily living;
society and culture; mental activities; sensations; time and space;
particles and other closed classes.

The last section is a collection of three Tujia texts: a traditional story
about the hero Tian and two traditional songs. Each text is presented with
interlinear morpheme glosses, followed by a literal English translation.


What I find particularly useful about ''The Tujia Language'' is the large
number of well-glossed examples. Some of the examples are provided with
context, others have literary translations in addition to literal ones.
Each point is illustrated with up to eight examples. This makes it easy
for typologists and other general linguists to find examples relevant to
their theoretical discussions. The extensive and properly glossed texts are
also a merit of this book.

Below a few recommendations and points of criticism are summarized.

To begin with, for linguists having little idea of minority languages of
China, it would be helpful to include a map showing the areas where the two
dialects of Tujia are spoken.

The information on genetic affiliation is very scarce and it seems that the
authors have no personal opinion on this topic. As all the suggested
genetic classifications have been written in Chinese it would be of great
help for linguists to provide a brief overview of the major points for and
against considering Tujia as belonging to the Qiang branch.

Despite the overall clear organization of the grammar, certain topics are
treated in places where one would not expect them or are discussed in
different chapters. For instance, it is unclear why the inventory of
possible syllables is treated in Section 2.6 'Orthography'. The various
types of relativisation are another example. They are treated in two
different chapters (in section 6.3.3 'Relative clause' and in 8.4
'Relativisation'). Whereas section 6.3.3 deals with relativisation with the
help of the particle nie3, section 8.4 introduces relativisation with the
help of bo3xi2. However, it remains unclear what the differences are
between these two constructions; the translation suggests that the use
bo3xi2 is restricted to relative clauses with perfective aspect; however,
this fact is not stated explicitly. Moreover, there are no cross-references
in the two sections.

The division of certain chapters is not transparent. For instance, section
5.6 'Interrogative sentences' consists of three subsections: Interrogative
pronouns, Disjunct questions, and Sentence-final interrogative particles.
It would have made the grammar more reader-friendly, if the authors
structured the section according to different types of questions (for
instance, question-word questions, yes-no questions, disjunctive questions,
etc.). Moreover, a description of constituent order in interrogative
sentences is missing.

Section 3.2.1 treats a word formation processes termed by the authors as
'prefixation', however, all of the so called ''prefixes'' are in fact free
morphemes with a clear semantic content (e.g. ka3 'tree' in ka3cuo4 'wooden
hut'). Moreover, the same words used to exemplify prefixation occur again
on p.34 to exemplify compound nouns.

In certain instances the authors use newly coined terms instead of the
common linguistic terminology. For instance, section 5.3.3 is devoted to
'pause particles' which are in fact topic markers.

Throughout the grammar the authors use such notions as subject or direct
object, however, it remains unclear why such notions are needed in Tujia
grammar and what, if any, are the properties that identify the subject or
direct object in Tujia.

In chapter 8 'Nominalisation and Relativisation' the authors discuss the
nominalizing particles ''which are used after verbs to form nominals'' (p.
141). If formulated this way, it remains unclear why these particles are
considered particles at all and not suffixes (there seems to be no
phonological differences between the two in this case). The examples
suggest that the particles nominalize whole verb phrases (which might
consist of only a verb), though the authors resist such a generalization
('The general nominaliser, xi2, is used with individual words but is also
often used to nominalise whole phrases.' p. 143). In the same mode, the
bracketing of the examples is inconsistent: for instance, in (15) the whole
verb phrase is in square brackets, whereas in a similar example (7) only
the verb.

nga2 wo3 se1tong1 zu2, [ a3ba1 li3 xi2] xi4
lsg six year (age) SUBP father say NOM listen
'When I was six years old, I listened to what my father said.' (p. 144)

ni2 [ jie2ri1 xi2 ] ca2
2sg work NOM be good
'Your work is good.' (p. 143)

A few negative statements would have done the book more good: for instance,
the authors do not treat such topics as passive or serial verb
construction, and if there are none in Tujia, it would be helpful to have
an explicit negative statement.

There are some redundant comments (e.g. p 24 and p. 26 on the use of

The grammar is supplemented by a 44 pages long Tujia-English lexicon
arranged according to semantic fields, unfortunately, there is no
alphabetized English-Tujia index.

The quality of the editing is high: for 200 pages, I haven't found any real
misprint. The only fairly serious error is on page 24 in Table 2.34: the
IPA symbol for the aspirated velar plosive is missing the superset h.

A two-pages long index is supposed to make it easier to navigate through
the book, however, there are two major problems with it. On the one hand,
all page numbers are two pages ahead; for instance Indirect object marker
is indexed with pages 104-5 and 111, but is dealt on pages 102-3 and 109
instead. On the other hand, some essential terms are missing: for instance,
there is neither an entry for interrogative sentence, nor for question.

Most of the bibliographic references refer to earlier publications dealing
with Tujia, however, He (2003), the author of the most recent genetic
classification of Tujia, is not on the list, and the reader of the grammar
has no chance to find the respective publication, as it is an
insurmountable task to google for someone called He.

A Grammar of Tujia is by sure a very important contribution to the field of
Tibeto-Burman languages and general typology. It is certain to remain the
standard reference on this language for years to come.


Brassett, Philip R. and Cecilia Brassett. 2005a. Diachronic and Synchronic
Overview of the Tujia Language of Central South China. International
Journal of the Sociology of Language, Vol. 173, pp.7S-97.

Brassett, Philip R. and Cecilia Brassett. 2005b. Imperial Tiger Hunters: An
Introduction to the Tujia People of China. UK: Antony Rowe Ltd.

He. 2005. (Reference is missing in the grammar).

Tian, Desheng, Tianzhen He, Kang Chen, Jingzhong Li, Zhimin Xie, and Xiumo
Peng. 1986. Tujiayu Jianzhi [A grammatical sketch of Tujia]. Beijing:
Ethnic Publishing House.

Wang, Jingru. 1955. Guanyu xiangxi tujiayu de chubu yijian [Preliminary
Discussion of the Tujia Language of Xiangxi]. Zhollgguo Minzu Wenti Yanjiu
Jikan [Collected Papers on Ethnic Issues in China], Vol. 4, pp. 135-174.
Beijing: Research Department of the Central College for Nationalities.

Alena Witzlack-Makarevich is a Ph.D. student at the University of Leipzig,
Institute of Linguistics, working on the typology of grammatical relations.
Her other interests include typological databases, language documentation
and Khoisan languages.