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Review of  A Grammar of Onondaga

Reviewer: Craig Kopris
Book Title: A Grammar of Onondaga
Book Author: Michael J. M. Barrie
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Onondaga
Language Family(ies): Northern Iroquoian
Issue Number: 26.3116

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Onondaga is an endangered Iroquoian language spoken in Ontario (Six Nations Reserve, near Brantford [6N]) and New York (Onondaga Nation, near Syracuse [ON]). Compared to the other extant Iroquoian languages, there has been a relative lack of available materials on Onondaga, and so new resources are welcomed.

Chapter 1, ''Introduction'', presents the position of Onondaga within the Iroquoian family, stressing that the focus is on the 6N dialect. Stated sources for this grammar include the author's fieldwork at Six Nations as well as previous work, in particular Woodbury (2003). This chapter finishes with an explanation of the formatting of interlinear examples and a chart of abbreviations, the latter nicely including page numbers of relevant discussions.

Chapter 2, ''Phonology'', is divided into several subsections. That on 'Vowels' includes a chart with both IPA and (in parentheses) 6N orthography, with reference to 6N [o] being ON [u]. The section on 'Consonants' has a parallel chart, also with both IPA and (in parentheses) 6N orthography. It is noted that the orthography indicates allophonic voicing of oral stops.

The 'Orthography' section contains links to two sites with useful fonts, although the book itself uses the closest equivalents from Times New Roman (the differences are not explained). While 'Consonants' noted the orthographic indication of allophonic voicing of oral stops, here the voicing is stated to be of obstruents (defined as plosives, fricatives, and affricates). However, such voicing of fricatives is not shown in the chart (allophonic [z] is mentioned in Woodbury et al. 1992).

'Phonological processes' covers allophonic palatalization of alveolar obstruents before a palatal glide; allophonic voicing of oral stops and affricates; epenthesis with /e/ (with two examples of how to follow the complex epenthesis rule); debuccalization (/kk/ -> /hk/); /w/-deletion/dissimilation before homorganic vowels (/w/ deletes after a consonant and becomes /y/ after a vowel); optional diphthongization of vowel sequences; simplification of /waʔ + wa/ and /a + wa/ into ǫ (not found by the author in 6N, though present in ON); and glide loss in word-initial pronominal prefixes.

The section on 'Ancient R' presents the fronting (and sometimes lengthening) of /a o ǫ/ to /æ e ę/ following *r, which itself has been lost in modern Onondaga. The author states /r/ was still present in the mid 19th century, though Woodbury (1981) places the date more specifically ''[s]ometime after 1750 and before 1852'' (103).

The final section of Chapter 2, 'Stress and Vowel Length', notes that Onondaga is unusual in that pitch, length, and stress are separate. A series of ten rules based on Michelson (1988) comprises the bulk of the section. This is followed by two examples showing application of the rules (though not stated, the examples are also from Michelson 1988, citing Woodbury 1980a, b, c).

Chapter 3, ''Morphology'', is naturally the longest chapter, considering the polysynthetic nature of Onondaga, and uses the standard division into noun, verb, and particle common in Iroquoian linguistics, with the addition of splitting particles into two categories. The first section, 'Parts of Speech', treats nouns and verbs as lexical vocabulary and particles as functional vocabulary.

The section on 'Nouns' first classifies them as basic, atomic, or deverbal. Basic nouns are further split into human versus non-human (based on the suffix being -h or -aʔ), with the latter split into natural versus man-made (based on the prefix being o- or ka-). Atomic nouns are monomorphemic. Deverbal nouns are morphological verbs that function as nouns. The subsection on Number describes the collective suffix, while that on Possession indicates that possessive pronominal prefixes are derived from patient pronominal prefixes. The subsection on Locatives covers the internal locative ('in') and external locative ('at, on') suffixes, while Other Suffixes discusses the augmentative, characterizer, and decessive.

The section on 'Non-affixal Nominal Morphology' covers particles that are part of the noun phrase, including demonstratives, numbers, quantifiers, and the particle neʔ.

The section on 'Verbal Morphology' comprises the bulk of the book, and starts with a division of verbs based on which aspects they can take: active (habitual, punctual, stative), motion (habitual, punctual, stative, purposive), and stative (stative). The Verbal Template subsection presents a chart of morpheme order.

The subsection for Prepronominal Prefixes discusses both modal prefixes (future, factual, optative) and non-modal prefixes (repetitive, cislocative, translocative, partitive, dualic, coincident, negative, contrastive). The former includes a table of allomorphs with examples, while the dualic discussion includes a table of bases where the dualic changes the base meaning as well as of bases requiring the dualic. Finally, a table of combinations of modals with some of the non-modals (repetitive, cislocative, dualic, translocative) is included. Not included are the other non-modals, or combinations of more than one non-modal.

The Pronominal Prefixes subsection distinguishes transitive, agent, and patient prefixes, noting they cover the following features: three persons, clusivity on 1st person agents, three numbers, and three genders on 3rd person prefixes. The shift in intransitive marking from agent to patient in the stative aspect is pointed out. Seven phonological stem classes are presented through tables of the prefixes per stem class, separating transitives from intransitives, and including some full-word examples. Data on the c-stem are from the author's fieldwork, while the rest are from Woodbury (2003).

Briefer subsections discuss the reflexive and semireflexive, the position of an incorporated noun, and the position of the verb root itself.

Derivational Suffixes describes members of the next position in the verb, covering the ambulative, benefactive, causative, causative-inchoative, dislocative, distributive (including a nice set of examples showing its scope), inchoative, instrumental, intensifier, nominalizer, reversative, and reversative-multiplier.

The Aspect Suffixes subsection covers the meanings and uses of the aspect suffixes, going into greater detail about the differences between active, stative, and motion verbs, noting that the dislocative can derive motion verbs. The following subsection, Expanded Aspect Suffixes, describes the habitual past, stative past, and modalizer, which are added to aspect suffixes, and includes a table of the expanded combinations and their relation to modal prefixes. Additional Aspectual Distinctions describes using particles rather than morphology for prospective and continuative aspect.

The final subsection of 'Verbal Morphology', Noun Incorporation, discusses optional and obligatory incorporation, incorporation of dummy nouns, and semantic effects of incorporation.

The section on 'Particles' limits itself to sentential particles, noting a tendency to ''cluster at the left edge of the clause'' (83), with particles in the noun phrase covered in 'Non-affixal Nominal Morphology'.

Chapter 4, ''Syntax'', addresses phenomena less frequently discussed in the Iroquoian literature. This may in part be because word order ''depends on pragmatic rather than on grammatical properties'' (84). Issues covered include subsections on 'Predicate Nominals' (using the particle sequence naʔ neʔ), 'Comparatives and Superlatives', 'Question Formation' (both yes/no and content questions), 'Focusing', 'Coordinate Clauses', 'Relative Clauses', 'Subordinate Clauses', and 'Modal Verbs' (often followed by another verb with the optative).


In the words of the author, ''[t]here are currently very few speakers of any variety of Onondaga, underscoring the urgency of language preservation and revitalization. It is hoped that this grammar will be a useful tool in these efforts'' (6). Although language learners looking for a textbook will have to search elsewhere, others will find this volume a useful overview or sketch of Onondaga grammar.

The small size of the volume makes it easily portable for quick reference, unlike Woodbury (2003), while the ''theoretically neutral'' (back cover) approach serves preservation and revitalization efforts more readily than Chafe (1970). The closest similar reference is well out of date: Zeisberger (1888).

As mentioned above, several examples are well-chosen for demonstrating rule application, or for showing the scope of a particular morpheme. Areas where this volume is of particular interest are those which generally have received less attention in Iroquoianist literature, especially the chapter on syntax, but also the sections involving use of particles. The division of particles into sentential versus noun phrasal is interesting and worth further research, as is the use of particles for aspectual distinctions.

As with any work, there are cons to go with the pros. Throughout this book there are frequent references to Woodbury (2003), as there should be considering the importance of the latter, but an unfortunately large number of examples are taken directly therefrom. In the discussion of pronominal prefixes, no mention is made of the overlap between the transitive prefixes and the agent and patient sets (a common source of confusion for students of Iroquoian), and the prefix tables are split across pages based on available space rather than a logical division such as speech act participation. Further, the stem class of Table 20 is mislabelled as a-series when it is actually o-series.

While examples are in 6N orthography, the morphological breakdown varies between orthographic and phonemic, often within the same parse. This will be a source of confusion for anyone not already familiar with Iroquoian phonetics and phonology.

Although not leading to misunderstanding, the high frequency of errors in spelling (e.g., ''definitesness'', 28), grammar (e.g., ''even the the semantic relation'', 64), and formatting (e.g., misalignment of interlinear parse, 33) is extremely distracting, and at the rate of nearly one error per page, quite palpable.

A revised edition addressing the technical errors should be provided, as the current price charged amounts to slightly over $1 per error. If a second edition is indeed produced, it would also be beneficial if the publisher, LINCOM, verified the quality of the softcover, as the cover lamination in my copy was already peeling off before I even finished this review.


Chafe, Wallace. 1970. A semantically based sketch of Onondaga (Indiana University Publications in Anthropology and Linguistics, International Journal of American Linguistics Memoir 25, Supplement to International Journal of American Linguistics 36(2)). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Michelson, Karin. 1988. A comparative study of Lake-Iroquoian accent. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Woodbury, Hanni. 1981. The loss of a phoneme. International Journal of American Linguistics 47. 103-20.

Woodbury, Hanni. 2003. Onondaga-English/English-Onondaga dictionary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Woodbury, Hanni, Reginald Henry and Harry Webster. 1992. Concerning the League: The Iroquois League tradition as dictated in Onondaga by John Arthur Gibson: Newly elicited, edited and translated by Hanni Woodbury in collaboration with Reg Henry and Harry Webster on the basis of A. A. Goldenweiser's manuscript (Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics Memoir 9). Winnipeg.

Woodbury, Hanni and Harry Webster. 1980a. Shohé:yis (Tall Corn). In Mithun, Marianne and Hanni Woodbury (eds.), Northern Iroquoian texts (International Journal of American Linguistics, Native American Texts Series Monograph 4), 56-66. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Woodbury, Hanni and Harry Webster. 1980b. The snowsnake: How to make it. In Mithun, Marianne and Hanni Woodbury (eds.), Northern Iroquoian texts (International Journal of American Linguistics, Native American Texts Series Monograph 4), 134-138. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Woodbury, Hanni and Harry Webster. 1980c. The snowsnake game: How to play it. In Mithun, Marianne and Hanni Woodbury (eds.), Northern Iroquoian texts (International Journal of American Linguistics, Native American Texts Series Monograph 4), 139-142. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Zeisberger, David. 1888. Essay of an Onondaga grammar, or a short introduction to learn the Onondaga al. Maqua tongue. Reprinted from The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Philadelphia: Lippincott.
Craig Kopris is tribal linguist for the Wyandotte Nation. His focus has been language description and endangered language revitalization (particularly for Iroquoian) on the one hand, and machine translation (especially for Pashto) on the other.