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Review of  A Grammar of Dazaga

Reviewer: Christopher R Green
Book Title: A Grammar of Dazaga
Book Author: Josiah K. Walters
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Dazaga
Language Family(ies): Nilo-Saharan
Issue Number: 28.2547

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“A grammar of Dazaga” by Josiah Walters is the first reference grammar devoted to the contemporary description of the Keshirda dialect of Dazaga, a heretofore underdescribed language of the Nilo-Saharan family spoken across large geographic portions of Niger and Chad; the language is most closely related to Tedaga and somewhat more distantly to Beria, Kanuri, and Kanembu. Walters’ stated focus in this grammar is both typological and descriptive, and his approach is notably theoretically agnostic to the extent possible in crafting such a work. The author states three goals of the grammar: i) to describe the contemporary state of Dazaga; ii) to limit the scope of the grammar to Dazaga itself, rather than the composite Dazaga-Tedaga, as sometimes done in other works; and iii) to frame the description of Dazaga in ‘modern linguistic terminology and categories.’ The data upon which this grammar were based is extensive. Much of the data were gathered over a span of at least two decades in Niger by Kevin Walters, the author’s father, seemingly under the auspices of SIL International. More recently, additional syntactic and tonal data were collected via e-mail correspondence between the author and consultants in Niger, as well as in person during a field trip to Niger in 2015.


The Grammar of Dazaga contains nine chapters and is supplemented by approximately 50 pages of glossed but unanalyzed supplemental sentence-length examples. Chapter 1 provides an overview and introduction of the Daza people and the Dazaga language. The author situates Dazaga alongside other Saharan languages and includes some discussion of the challenges and controversies surrounding establishing the genetic relatedness among these languages. It quickly becomes clear that because so little work has been done on Dazaga itself, Walters has relied heavily on comparable works on other Saharan languages to drive his inquiry and to supplement his analysis. We learn that Dazaga, like its closest relatives, is tonal and morphologically complex, although this complexity is limited largely to its verbal system, as nouns and adjectives have minimal morphology other than its set of phrasal enclitics that primarily encode case. This introduction is followed in Chapter 2 by a short review of the relevant literature on Dazaga, divided into early minor works, major works, and recent minor works. In closing the chapter, the author mentions a few other works on Saharan languages, more broadly.

Walters, in Chapter 3, turns to an overview of Dazaga phonology. He is frank about the fact that this chapter is not exhaustive, nor is it in depth. Indeed, the discussion of each topic is terse, and the chapter is replete with tentative statements and a number of references to an unpublished phonological sketch by Kevin Walters (2013) and a forthcoming monograph on the language’s phonology. The chapter introduces the Dazaga consonant and vowel inventories, but a ‘fuller presentation’ of the phonological facts is limited to only four sub-sections devoted to phones or pairs of phones whose status and distribution are either unclear or somewhat problematic in some way. As an aside, I question why the author and/or the copy editor permitted the poorly placed tie bars over affricates in the font selected for this grammar. At the very least, this is a distraction; moreover, tie bars are not necessary in transcriptions, but even so, there are certainly many other fonts that accommodate them with no problem. Syllable structure is next discussed, and while the facts are fairly straightforward, one unusual analytical choice is the presence of onsetless word-final syllables. My assumption is that this stems from and is related to the author’s blanket statement that glide consonants cannot occur in a syllable coda, yet this is left unexplained. The chapter closes with comments on tone, vowel harmony, three other phonological processes (assimilation, dissimilation, and deletion), and a statement about the adopted orthography.

Chapter 4 is a fairly brief description of nouns and other elements of noun phrases. The discussion of nouns themselves is across less than three pages, as the only morphology associated with Dazaga nouns at the word level pertains to inflection for number and the derivation of diminutives. The presentation of adjectives is similarly limited, after which personal and possessive pronouns, which behave like nouns, are then introduced; demonstratives and articles are also overviewed. The chapter closes with an introduction to simple noun phrases with accompanying examples. It is not until Chapter 5 that Walters begins to have more substantive commentary and analysis to relay. In this chapter, the focus turns to verbs and thereby to a detailed description of its morphosyntactic alignment and of its complex verbal morphology. Walters’ argues, contrary to comparable analyses of other Saharan languages, that Dazaga exhibits split-intransitivity in its verbal system. More specifically, Walters focuses on those characteristics of Dazaga that make his analysis distinct from that offered by Ortman (2003) on Tedaga, which is argued to exhibit an ergative/absolutive system. Components of Walters’ analysis include a lack of unique verb ‘classes’ in Dazaga; he instead proposes a single, unified verbal system from an agreement standpoint, including a large sub-group of transitive verbs formed by a light verb construction. Also important to Walters’ analysis of the Dazaga verbal system is his proposal that morphemes encoding subject and object agreement are affixes, rather than clitics. This determination is based on both morphosyntactic and phonological criteria. In addition to hashing out motivations for these more contentious details of the verb system, Walters provides examples of verbs containing morphology associated with aspect (imperfective, perfective, and progressive), mood (indicative, interrogative, contingent, optative, imperative, and hortative), and voice (active, reflexive, and passive).

Chapter 6 concerns itself with the structure of simple clauses, and more specifically of many details underlying Walters’ analysis of case marking in the language. The author situates his analysis alongside others that have questioned the presence of case marking elsewhere in Saharan languages and intimates that one of the key characteristics in establishing case marking lies in understanding the distinction between postpositions and enclitics case markers. Diagnostics for doing so include their behavior regarding vowel harmony, morphological requirements on governed noun phrases, and their behavior in relative clauses. A fairly tricky distinction that Walters introduces is that although Dazaga exhibits split intransitivity in its verbal system for subject and object markers, the language exhibits a tripartite case marking system on verbal arguments that is not consistent with split intransitivity. One place where this becomes clear is in the presence of a case marker for so-called ergative case. Such ergative case marking is only ever for the subject argument of a transitive verb, though it is not always obligatory. Accusative case marking, on the other hand, is found on ‘primary’ object arguments of transitive verbs but is distinct from case marking found on either the subject argument of transitive or intransitive verbs. Subject arguments of intransitive verbs are unmarked in all instances. In addition to these case markers, Dazaga also has genitive and dative case marking. While Walters provides a convincing analysis of these facts, he intimates that he recognizes there is much more to be done concerning the discourse factors that contribute to case marking in the language overall. The remainder of the chapter covers the structure of verbal clauses with different numbers of arguments, and finally, clauses with non-verbal predicates.

Chapter 7 takes us from the simple clauses discussed in Chapter 6, to sentence types, only to go back to the discussion of clausal combinations in Chapter 8. Walters offers a brief explanation for his seemingly haphazard jumping back and forth between constituents, but I do not find his explanation to be successful in making it clear why these chapters have been divided as they have. Walters starts off by saying that ‘sentence type’ can mean many things; he uses it to divide sections based on clausal modality (declarative/indicative, imperative, and interrogative), though he offers no nod to modality. Furthermore, he tells us that, indeed, the chapter does not even exclusively deal with issues of ‘sentence type,’ as it also includes sections on topic dislocation, negation, focus, among other phenomena. The organization of Chapter 8 is also muddled; while it is on clause combinations, the first portion of the chapter is devoted to phrasal coordination. As one might expect, there are sections devoted to the discussion of both complement clauses and relative clauses, but these are separated by a discussion of causatives. This is an unexpected place for such discussion, but seemingly necessary as, according to Walters’ data (and contra earlier work by Lukas 1953 and Bryan 1971), synchronic Dazaga has no morphological causatives, only clausal causatives formed by serial verb constructions and light verb constructions.


Barring a few questionable choices pertaining to chapter organization and the two items of concern (one major, one fairly minor) mentioned below, Walters’ Dazaga grammar is a welcome contribution on a very understudied and underdescribed language. The author should be applauded for producing such a work, although I must question whether it might have been worthwhile to aim to publish separate monographs or even several journal article length contributions on specific topics before undertaking a full grammar. While the author (I assume, on purpose) calls this a grammar of Dazaga, there is certainly much more that could be added before it is the grammar of Dazaga. The strength of the grammar is in its discussion of verbal morphology and clause level syntax, and especially those topics that entail particularly thorny analyses concerning case marking and morphological alignment more broadly.

Walters’ work on these subjects could have stood alone as a monograph, and perhaps in doing so, the contribution could have been stronger overall. A main reason that I question this is that the author appears to have a monograph-length description focused on Dazaga phonology (Walters forthcoming) in the works. A morphosyntax monograph would have been a suitable accompaniment to this phonological monograph, as the phonological component of this grammar is by far its weakest aspect. Walters teases us by letting on that Dazaga encodes both lexical and grammatical distinctions in its tonology, but he tells us that we must simply wait with bated breath until his next monograph comes out. Even from a segmental standpoint, there is fairly little said outside of a few details concerning the language’s morphophonology. This is especially troubling given the vast and oftentimes opaque alternations that are found throughout the work; in the author’s own words, “the phonetic shape...can change considerably depending on the phonological environment.” This is a detail inserted only in Chapter 5 (pg. 78) rather than in the chapter on phonology. Also disappointing are other blanket assumptions about the language’s phonology concerning the behavior of glide consonants, its syllable structure, and reference to strong vs. weak positions of a word with no explanation as to where these occur. I can only hope that they are dealt with in far more detail in the forthcoming monograph.

A second matter relates to the uncharacteristic abundance of cited ‘personal communications’ between the author and Kevin Walters. We are informed at the very beginning of the grammar that Kevin Walters is the author’s father and, moreover, that the author was given many years worth of the elder Walters’ data. These are the data upon which a significant portion of the Dazaga grammar have been based. While this exchange of data, itself, is in no way troubling, what seems a bit odd to me are the many instances in which the author chooses to nod via ‘personal communication’ to Kevin Walters in order to elucidate or otherwise explain a given (and oftentimes non- transparent) point. Without a doubt, the younger Walters is a well-trained linguist, as clearly evidenced from his treatment of the aforementioned syntactic data subsequently collected and analyzed. This said, it would seem to me that the author could have greatly benefitted from working collaboratively with Kevin Walters on this work. Such a collaboration could have strengthened the overall product in a number of ways. First and foremost, it would have obviated the need for these many personal communications which are stilted and draw from the flow of the discussion and analysis. Moreover, because they are not based upon any published or established material, they leave the reader at a disadvantage in not being able to substantiate them otherwise.


Bryan, Margaret Arminel. 1971. The verb classes in East Saharan languages. In Veronika Six, Norbert Cyffer, Ludwig Gerhardt, Hilke Meyer-Bahlburg &Ekkehard Wolff (eds.), Afrikanische Sprachen und Kulturen-ein Querschnitt, 224-234. Hamburgː Deutsches Institut zur Afrikaforschung. Lukas, Johannes. 1953. Die Sprache der Tubu in der zentralen Sahara. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. Ortman, Mark. 2003. Teda verb classes and their morphology in light of verbal paradigms. Unpublished ms.

N’Djaména, Chad: SIL. Walters, Josiah. forthcoming. Issues in the phonology of Dazaga. Walters, Kevin L. 2013. Phonological sketch of Dazaga (Keshirda of Niger). Unpublished ms.
Christopher Green is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Syracuse University in the Department of Languages, Literatures, & Linguistics. His research covers a variety of topics related to prosodic structure and tone. He has published on a number of African languages, including Bambara, Susu, Somali, and Wanga.