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Review of  A Grammar of Tundra Nenets

Reviewer: Ivan Stenin
Book Title: A Grammar of Tundra Nenets
Book Author: Irina Nikolaeva
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Russian
Language Family(ies): Uralic
Issue Number: 26.5101

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The book is the first comprehensive description of Tundra Nenets grammar written in English. Except for it, the main monographs on Tundra Nenets grammar include Janhunen (1986) dealing with Tundra Nenets morphophonology, Salminen (1997) covering phonology, morphophonology and inflectional morphology, and the morphological dictionary of Tundra Nenets (1998) written by the same author and giving a key to the synthesis of full paradigms for almost 20,000 Tundra Nenets words. In Russian, there are also important descriptions by Natalya M. Tereščenko (1947, 1956) and Svetlana I. Burkova (2010). However, all the previous sources almost entirely ignore syntax. The new book by Irina Nikolaeva mainly attempts to fill this gap; although it also aims to present a coherent and as full as possible description of Tundra Nenets grammar, the author's focus on syntax is clear. More than two thirds of the main body of the book discusses syntactic issues, and just the remaining one third presents an overview of phonology and morphology.

Tundra Nenets, together with Forest Nenets, Forest Enets, Tundra Enets, Nganasan, Northern Selkup, Central Selkup, and Southern Selkup as well as extinct Yurats, Kamas (Kamassian) [ISO 639-3 xas; zkb], and Mator, belong to the Samoyedic branch of the Uralic language family. Among the endangered minority languages spoken in the Russian Federation, Tundra Nenets is the least threatened, with the overall number of its speakers being more than 20,000 people (the precise number is unknown) and the total population being 44,640 people (including Forest Nenets people) according to the Russian Census (2010). However, Tundra Nenets is spoken in a vast territory from Taimyr in the east to the Kanin Peninsula in the west, and from the forest boundary in the south to the Arctic Ocean in the north. Therefore, the actual sociolinguistic situation is rather diverse in different parts. It is the best on the Yamal Peninsula where the traditional nomadic style of life based on reindeer herding and the transmission of language from one generation to another are fully preserved. By contrast, in the Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Arkhangelsk Oblast, one can observe the process of language loss.

The dialect diversity is not too sharp. Traditionally, three dialect groups are distinguished in the literature, namely Western (to the west of the Pechora), Central (from the Pechora to the Ural), and Eastern (to the east from the Ural). However, mostly phonological and lexical isoglosses have been recognized while morphosyntactic ones have been ignored. Phonologically, the Western dialects are the most innovative. As far as one can understand from the ''Introduction'' (pp. 1-16), the author undertook real fieldwork in the traditional territory of Tundra Nenets once in 2003, in the village of Nelmin Nos (Nenets Autonomous Okrug) where the dialect of Malaya Zemlya (belonging to the Western group) is spoken. The majority of the data was collected in the next decade during various fieldwork sessions with speakers of Tundra Nenets in Finland. Nikolaeva points out that the most language data in the grammar represents the Eastern varieties of Tundra Nenets, while the remaining part the Western ones. Anyway, no dialect indication is given for any examples. Apart from ''Introduction'' and two texts, the book consists of 17 descriptive chapters, list of abbreviations, thematic index and references.

Chapter 2 (''Phonology'', pp. 17-28) is mostly a digest of ideas, observations and generalizations stated in Salminen (1997, 1998, 1993-2012). The systems of vocalism and consonantism presented in the grammar coincide with those argued for in papers by Tapani Salminen, apart from some rather cosmetic changes in transcription. Particularly, Nikolaeva has preserved Salminen's reduced vowel ° (= 'schwa' in Salminen's terms) which ''is pronounced either as an over-short vowel or not at all; nevertheless, it is always reflected in the phonetic substance'' (Salminen 1993-2012). The addition of this vowel to the phonological inventory makes the transcription more close to the morphophonological one. On the other hand, it allows in most cases for clear and simple explanation of many (supra)segmental issues, such as adding a mora to a preceding syllable; automatic adding of a glottal stop in a word final position after b, l, m, r; a ''vowel harmony'' after x and, in a few cases, a glottal stop; it also accounts for stress assignment. In most cases, the reduced vowel is the result of an automatic phonological reduction ə → ° in unstressed positions; cf. xər° 'knife' vs. xərə-r° 'your knife (knife-POSS.2SG)' vs. xər°-da 'her/his knife (knife-POSS.3SG)'. However, in some cases it stands in contrast with ə; therefore, it is treated as a distinct phoneme.

As for the consonant inventory, the peculiar feature of Tundra Nenets is the phonological opposition of palatalized and non-palatalized consonants. This correlation affects all consonants except for velar k, x, ŋ, glides w and y (= IPA [j]), and a glottal stop. There are traditionally two glottal stops distinguished, namely a so-called non-nazalizable one (q), and a nazalizable one (h). They are pronounced identically in isolated (e.g. word final) positions but have different phonotactic constraints and trigger different alternations; cf. nʹeh xən° = nʹeŋ_kən° 'a woman's sledge' vs. nʹeq xən° = nʹe_kən° 'a women's sledge', toh war° = to_war° 'a shore of a lake' vs. toq war°q = toq_war°q 'shores of lakes' (Salminen 1993-2012). This chapter also contains basic information on phonological and morphophonological alternations and, for some reason, stem types of nouns and verbs.

Chapter 3 (''Grammatical classes'', pp. 29-56) provides some basic data on word classes that can be distinguished in Tundra Nenets. These are nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, numerals, adverbs, postpositions, conjunctions, particles and interjections. Main morphosyntactic properties and derivational possibilities of two major word classes (nouns and verbs) are discussed. Special attention is paid to the word classes that exhibit dual behavior which Nikolaeva calls mixed categories; e.g. proprietive derivatives with affix -sawey°- as in ŋodʹa-sawey° xidʹa 'a cup with berries (berry-PROPR cup)'. ''They preserve many properties of nouns, but additionally demonstrate the syntactic distribution of other parts of speech, namely, adjectives, verbs or adverbs'' (p. 32). Nominal stems of these derivatives allow to a certain degree for modification by adjectives and, in the few cases, also demonstrative pronouns. However, the grammar does not contain any statements about phrase boundaries in such cases or any other possible consequences from the observed distribution; cf. Nikolaeva (2008) for the analysis of similar cases in Tungusic.

Chapter 4 (''Nominal inflection'', pp. 57-77) deals with nominal grammatical categories, namely, number, case, possessiveness and (pre)destinativeness. The last category may be illustrated by the next example: yid°-h warə-n°h ŋəno-də-mʹi to-° 'A boat for me came to the shore (water-GEN edge-DAT boat-DEST-POSS.1SG come-GFS.3SG)'. There is no particular analysis of this category presented in the grammar. Nikolaeva states literally the following: ''Predestinatives express a TAM-like category; depending on the analysis, it is either a future tense or some kind of irrealis modality that takes scope over the possessive relation'' (p. 72). In the literature, there are also other views on (pre)destinative in Northern Samoyedic; see Daniel (2009) who considers Nganasan data in line with the typology of prospective possessiveness, and Khanina & Shluinsky (2014) who treat Enets (pre)destinative as a benefactive construction.

In Chapter 5 (''Verbal inflection'', pp. 78-115), main verbal categories, tense, mood, and agreement, are discussed. There are three cross-reference series in Tundra Nenets, traditionally called subject, (subject-)object, and reflexive (or medial) ''conjugations''. Nikolaeva follows Salminen in distinguishing four classes of verbs in Tundra Nenets: intransitive ones taking subject agreement markers, intransitive ones taking reflexive agreement markers, transitive ones taking subject and (subject-)object agreement markers, and labile verbs which can be either transitive or reflexive. The recent account of interdependencies between cross-reference series, argument structure and actional properties of a verb by Tatevosov (ms.) suggests that the number of verbal classes in Tundra Nenets in this respect might be somewhat larger. The category of mood in Nikolaeva's description is treated traditionally and includes modal as well as evidential forms, with their total number (apart from indicative) being 15. On the contrary, the treatment of a tense system is rather innovative in the grammar. Nikolaeva recognizes five distinct tense forms: present, past, future, habitual, future-in-the-past. The aspectual system of Tundra Nenets is mostly Slavic-style: there are no perfective or imperfective inflectional categories. The perfective vs. imperfective distinction is a lexical property of a given verb. Moreover, the opposition of perfective vs. imperfective coincides with the opposition of telic vs. atelic in this language. For derived verbs, the rightmost derivational affix is responsible for the aspectual characteristics of a verb.

Chapter 6 (''Clitics and multi-based affixes'', pp. 116-140) deals with clitics and transcategorial markers. Items that occupy a final position after all inflectional affixes in a word form are called clitics in the book. They are normally attested only on a finite predicate and express exclamation, emphasis and so on. Transcategorial markers do not constitute a uniform class: one kind attaches maximally close to the lexical root and expresses various kinds of evaluation (augmentative, diminutive, pejorative, attenuative), another kind takes a position after all derivational and before all inflectional affixes. The last group is considered as focus-sensitive items. Chapter 7 (''Noun phrases'', pp. 141-173) places emphasis on the structure of possessive noun phrases. In case a possessor is expressed by a lexical NP (and not a personal pronoun), possessive marker on a head is not obligatory in Tundra Nenets. Possessors that control agreement on a head and those ones that do not differ in their position inside NP as well as their semantic and pragmatic properties. This chapter also discusses attributive concord and quantificational adjectives. The basic structure of a Tundra Nenets NP is as follows: Peripheral possessor - Determiner - Regular possessor - Adjectival form of noun - Quantifier - Adjectival modifier - Nominal modifier - Head (p. 171). In Chapter 8 (''Adjectival, adverbial and postpositional phrases'', pp. 174-193), analytical comparative and superlative constructions, a structure of postpositional phrases, agreeing and predicative adverbs, in particular, are discussed.

In Chapter 9 (''Syntax of simple clauses'', pp. 194-223), the notion of the subject as well as certain constraints on pronominalization, reflexivization and zero anaphora in dependent clauses are considered. However, the key topic of this chapter, which is relevant for many parts of Tundra Nenets grammar, is the differential object marking expressed via subject vs. object cross-reference markers on a finite predicate. Transitive verbs in Tundra Nenets may agree not only with their subject but also with their direct object; in the latter case a verb takes object cross-reference series markers. Object agreement controls only a number of a direct object since a person is always fixed (third). First and second person pronouns as DOs cannot trigger object agreement. In most idiolects, the same is true for third person pronouns, too. For lexical NPs in a position of DO, the possibility of triggering object agreement depends on the information structure of a clause. Object agreement is not accessible if DO is in the scope of a narrow focus, e.g. contains wh-question words or focus-sensitive items. In contrast, topical DOs always trigger agreement. In Chapter 10 (''Valence patterns and alternations'', pp. 224-249) valency classes as well as valency-changing derivations are sketched. A passive construction exploiting participle form is discussed in more detail, since it is the most productive valency alternation. In Chapter 11 (''Non-verbal predicates'', pp. 250-264) main types of non-verbal predicates, as well as constructions (existential, locative and equative) they are used in, are considered. Some non-verbal predicates require obligatory presence of auxiliary verbs, the rest take finite (person and number) agreement markers. Chapter 12 (''Non-declarative clause types and negation'', pp. 265-282) presents data on question, imperative, exclamative and negation constructions. Standard negation is expressed in Tundra Nenets through a construction that consists of a negative verb, taking all inflectional affixes, and a special non-finite verb form called connegative.

Chapters 13-16 are devoted to dependent clauses. ''Overview of dependent clauses'' is presented in Chapter 13 (pp. 283-314). Chapter 14 (''Relative clauses'', pp. 315-340) discusses main strategies of relativization in Tundra Nenets: 1) participial gapping strategy; 2) gapping strategy based on action nominals and converbs; 3) resumptive strategy. The participial strategy is the primary one to relativize the subject and the direct object. The non-participial gapping strategy is used for relativizing lower grammatical functions: indirect and oblique objects, and some objects of postpositions. If one needs to relativize a possessor, then one should obligatorily use the resumptive strategy. As a resumptive pronominal affix, Nikolaeva analyses in such cases the third person possessive marker. A more detailed and theory-driven analysis of the data on relativization in Tundra Nenets is given in the recent book by Ackerman and Nikolaeva (2013). In Chapter 15 (''Complement clauses'', pp. 341-366), of special interest is the discussion of subject and object control constructions that may exhibit distant (cross-clausal) agreement. Chapter 16 presents an overview of adverbial clauses (pp. 367-385).

Chapter 17 (''Anaphoric relations'', pp. 386-413) provides data on anaphoric deletion, pronominalization, reflexivization, reciprocalization etc. Tundra Nenets is characterized as effectively a pro-drop language. Nikolaeva accurately mentions a pronominal force of subject and object markers. A discourse-neutral way of saying 'You hit him' is lad°-ə-r° 'hit-GFS-2SG.OBJ.SG', ''in which person/number morphology on the verb does not function as grammatical agreement. Rather, it conveys the pronominal values of the subject and the object arguments, in this instance, cumulatively'' (p. 386). In Chapter 18 (''Coordination'', pp. 414-431) conjunction and disjunction of NPs and other phrasal categories are addressed. For coordination of NPs one can use juxtaposition, conjunctions, a special comitative postposition and a comitative converb, as well as the double dual construction. In the last case, both coordinated NPs take the dual form, juxtaposed to each other and trigger dual morphology on the verb; cf. a typical beginning of a fairy tail: wǣsako-x°h puxacʹa-x°h yilʹe-we-x°h 'Once upon a time there lived an old man and an old woman... ( old.woman-DU live-NARR-3DU)'. The last chapter (Chapter 19, pp. 432-495) contains two glossed texts previously published in Labanauskas (1995).


The grammar under review is undoubtedly a very important book for specialists in the Samoyedic and Uralic languages. It is also useful for typologists and all interested linguists, since the description is in line with high standards of modern scholarship, is written in English and covers all major aspects of the language. The grammar offers a profound consideration of many grammatical topics that have not been examined at all or been only sketched in the previous literature, namely, the structure of possessive NPs, agreeing adverbs, non-verbal predicates, properties of the subject, relative clauses, control constructions, coordination, anaphoric relations. At the same time, such traditional problems of Tundra Nenets descriptive studies as the phonological status of the reduced vowel, peculiar morphosyntactic properties of past and future tense forms, the boundary between epistemic moods and evidential forms etc. are not sufficiently discussed in the grammar. Although Nikolaeva's description highlights many interesting features of Tundra Nenets grammar, it is in no sense typologically oriented. There are just isolated cases of comparison with other languages. In my view, this is one of the most disappointing shortcomings of the book. Another one is that the main body of the grammar almost entirely lacks references to the previous literature (neither on the Samoyedic languages nor on any theoretical point).

My critical remarks in the next few paragraphs concern some more specific issues such as the exactness of transcription, glossing and translation, the precision of statements and validity of interpretations, the comprehensiveness and completeness of coverage as well as the insufficiency of proofreading. Unfortunately, the grammar contains many errors and misprints in the language examples. The most commonly confused phonemes are a, ə and °; e.g. the Durative marker is erroneously presented in most cases as -(m)pa-/-ba- instead of correct -(m)pə-/-bə-. Sometimes this may lead to a real confusion when, for example, 'tribe-POSS.1SG' is transcribed as paŋk°-mʹi instead of pəŋk°-mʹi while paŋk°-mʹi should receive the gloss 'log-POSS.1SG'. Apart from a, ə and °, there are also ǣ and e; a and e after y and palatalized consonants; ī and i; i and e; o and u often mixed up. Absence of a glottal stop is also one of the most common mistakes. There are also problems with phonemization of clusters ŋk, bt, bk, and transcription of Russian loans.

Possessive markers are glossed and segmented inconsistently throughout the grammar; cf. xada-xəna-nʹi 'grandmother-LOC-1SG' (ex. 11b, p. 63) vs. to-xənanʹi 'lake-LOC.1SG' (ex. 32b, p. 72). There are also other multiple errors in glossing, e.g. xar°də-x°nan° is glossed as 'house-LOC.1PL' (ex. 20a, p. 393) instead of 'house-LOC.1SG', mʹat°mtʹih is analysed as 'tent.ACC.3DU' (ex. 43, p. 161) instead of 'tent.DEST.ACC.POSS.3DU'. The grammar contains also a few impossible forms such as mər°kə-x°na 'city-LOC' (ex. 38, p. 429) instead of mər°-kəna (< mər°q + -xəna-), ŋəno-wəna 'boat-PROL' instead of ŋəno-w°na etc. The following statement looks rather mysterious in the light of what is known from the previous literature: ''The 1st person singular variant -mʹi is typical of the Eastern dialects and is reflected in most examples in this book. In the Western dialects it is typically represented as -w° or -mʹih'' (p. 67). In Salminen (1998: 31), it has been stated that it is in the Eastern dialects that a first person singular possessive affix is replaced with a first person dual possessive affix, i.e. -mʹih. One of my greatest complaints concerns Nikolaeva's decision not to divide verbs into a lexical root and general/special finite stem markers, which obscures the phonological make-up of many derivational affixes and makes the analysis of verb forms more problematic.

Nikolaeva's statements and interpretations are, as a rule, informal, which is normal and typical for a descriptive grammar, but sometimes they are not sufficiently argued. This is, for example, the case when distinguishing five tense forms. The same can be said of the hypothesis about the origin of the emphatic negation verb wunʹə- and some other cases. On p. 123 Nikolaeva writes that she recorded rather unexpected ''third person objective forms where the [dubitative] clitic =m°h appears to be positioned between the stem and the agreement inflection. They appear to express mild inducement, e.g. temtaə-m°-da 'let him buy it (buy-DUB-3SG>SG.OBJ)'''. The actual phonemization and glosses seem to be temta-ə-mta 'buy-GFS-OPT.3SG.OBJ.SG'; thus, such forms are the objective series of the optative mood, which is consistent with the translation given. Nikolaeva's analysis does not hold by definition, since an initial m of the dubitative marker as well as an initial m of any other marker must change into w between vowels as Nikolaeva herself points out. Nikolaeva does not list second connegative forms of verbs ŋǣ- 'to be', xǣ- 'to go' and mah- 'to say' used in a special construction of emphatic affirmation. The list of transitivizing affixes is not comprehensive. Nikolaeva does not mention the productive derivation that is expressed via vowel alternation and has a decausative (sʹidʹo- 'to wake up' < sʹidʹe- 'to wake') or resultative (ŋamtʹo- 'to sit' < ŋamtə- 'to sit down') meaning; see Gusev (2010) for a detailed discussion. The grammar lacks phonograms or any other usual methods of phonetic analysis; therefore, any claims about vowel length or vowel sequences are not proved experimentally. Due to space limitations, I cannot proceed with this examination; some other critical comments can be found in Stenin (2015).

As I have already said, chapters on phonology, inflectional morphology and morphophonology provide only basic information and ignore other important issues. Therefore, if one wants to truly understand what happens inside Tundra Nenets words, one should firstly investigate the fundamental descriptions by Tapani Salminen (1993-2012, 1997, 1998). As for Tundra Nenets syntax, the new grammar is the major publication in the field. To conclude, the new book by Irina Nikolaeva, despite many inconsistencies and drawbacks in presentation of the data and their interpretations, sets a high bar for the next researchers and should be recommended to all linguists interested in the fascinating languages of Siberia.


Ackerman, Farrell & Irina Nikolaeva. 2013. Descriptive typology and linguistic theory: A study in the morphosyntax of relative clauses. Stanford, CA: CSLI Publications.

Burkova, Svetlana. 2010. Kratkij očerk grammatiki tundrovogo dialekta neneckogo jazyka (po materialam govorov, raprostranennyx na territorii Jamalo-Neneckogo okruga) [A short outline of Tundra Nenets grammar (based on the data of Yamalo-Nenets okrug idioms)]. In: Svetlana Burkova, Natalya Koškareva, Roza Laptander, Neiko Jangasova, Dialektologičeskij slovar' neneckogo jazyka, 179-349. Ekaterinburg: Basko.

Daniel, Michael. 2009. The сategory of destinative in Nganasan, North-Samoyedic, and typology of prospective possession. Materials for the report at the conference ''Uralic Typology Days'', Institute of the Estonian Language, Tallinn. November 26-27, 2009.

Gusev, Valentin. 2010. Stativy i dekauzativy na *-w v samodijskix jazykax [Statives and decausatives with *-w in Samoyedic languages]. In: Svetlana Burkova (ed.), Materialy 3-j meždunarodnoj naučnoj konferencii po samodistike (Novosibirsk, October 26-28, 2010), 54-65. Novosibirsk: Ljubava.

Janhunen, Juha. 1986. Glottal stop in Nenets. Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura.

Khanina, Olesya & Andrey Shluinsky. 2014. A rare type of benefactive construction: evidence from Enets. Linguistics 52(6). 1391-1431.

Labanauskas, Kazys. 1995. Neneckij fol'klor. Mify, skazki, istoričeskie predanija [The Nenets folklore. Myths, fairy tales, historical legends]. Krasnoyarsk: Krasnoyarskoe Knižnoe Izdatel'stvo.

Nikolaeva, Irina. 2008. Between nouns and adjectives: a constructional view. Lingua 118(7). 969-996.

Salminen, Tapani. 1993-2012. Tundra Nenets. University of Helsinki. Available at:

Salminen, Tapani. 1997. Tundra Nenets inflection. Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura.

Salminen, Tapani. 1998. A morphological dictionary of Tundra Nenets. Helsinki: Suomalais-Ugrilainen Seura.

Stenin, Ivan. 2015. Grammatika tundrovogo neneckogo jazyka I. A. Nikolaevoj i problemy opisanija samodijskix jazykov [I. A. Nikolaeva's Tundra Nenets grammar and some issues in Samoyedic descriptive studies]. Voprosy jazykoznanija 4. 91-133. Available at:Грамматика_тундрового_ненецкого_языка_И._А._Николаевой_и_проблемы_описания_самодийских_языков

Tatevosov, Sergei. Ms. Struktura i interpretacija neneckogo glagola. Aktantno-akcional'nye klassy i tipy sprjaženija [Structure and interpretation of the Nenets verb. Argument-actional classes and types of conjugation]. Lomonosov Moscow State University. Available at:

Tereščenko, Natalya. 1947. Očerk grammatiki neneckogo (jurako-samoedskogo) jazyka [An outline of the Nenets (Yurak-Samoyed) grammar]. Leningrad: Učpedgiz.

Tereščenko, Natalya. 1956. Materialy i issledovanija po jazyku nencev [Materials and studies in the Nenets people's language]. Moscow; Leningrad: Academy of Sciences of the USSR.


This review is mostly a short English digest of a rather volume review article by the same reviewer which has been published in Russian as Stenin (2015) in the Russian journal ''Voprosy jazykoznanija'' (''Topics in the study of language'',, ISSN 0373-658X). The journal is published by the Russian scientific publisher ''Nauka'' ( The reviewer is grateful to the editorial board of the journal and to the publisher for the permission to use Russian article as the initial point while writing the present English review.
Ivan Stenin holds a specialist degree (roughly an equivalent of MA) in Russian philology. He is a PhD student in linguistics at the Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences (Russian Federation). His research interests are linguistic typology with a focus on argument structure and valency-changing derivations as well as information structure. He works primarily on Tundra Nenets and other Uralic languages.