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Review of  A Grammar of Aguaruna (Iiniá Chicham)

Reviewer: Hugo García Macías
Book Title: A Grammar of Aguaruna (Iiniá Chicham)
Book Author: Simon E. Overall
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Aguaruna
Issue Number: 28.4642

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“A grammar of Aguaruna (Iiniá Chicham)” is a revision of Simon Overall’s (henceforth ‘O’) doctoral dissertation (2007), which is in turn a description of the Marañón variety of Aguaruna (also known as Awajún. ISO 639-3: agr), an Amazonian language of the Jivaroan (or Chicham) family. The grammar is based on the author’s fieldwork in a small community (420 people) in northern Amazonia (Peru) between 2004 and 2006. The exposition follows Mosel’s (2006) ‘ascending’ grammar model in which the presentation develops from the smaller to the larger units –––i.e. from the phonological system to discourse organization (O explicitly states this on p. 577). This is of course a model widely used in writing reference grammars. Following is a summary of the main topics of the book.

Chapter 1 presents a preliminary sketch of Aguaruna grammar. It also includes geographic and demographic information on the language. Also, the writing conventions are specified –a blend of IPA and official Aguaruna orthography, except for Chapter 3, in which only IPA is used.

Chapter 2 presents the Aguaruna cultural and historical context. It discusses its genetic relations, its areal setting and some aspects of the linguistic tradition of Chicham languages. This chapter also presents succinct considerations on borrowing and codeswitching (from Spanish and Quechua). Finally, it details the procedures for obtaining and transcribing the data. The grammar is mostly based on traditional folktales and other narratives recorded and transcribed by the author. Elicited examples and incidental observations of conversational interactions were also used as secondary sources.

Chapter 3 describes the Aguaruna phonological system, which is characterized by fifteen consonants and four vowels. O’s analysis differs from previous analysis in Aguaruna in some respects. For example, he considers /r/ and /h/ as allophones of the same phoneme instead of independent phonemes. Also, O modifies the analysis of glides presented in the original dissertation, and this time he analyzes them as phonemes instead of allomorphs of vowels. Aguaruna also shows a phonological contrast between oral and nasal vowels. Vowel elision is also a common phenomenon via three different processes: apocope, syncope and diphthong reduction. Several morphophonological processes are also described, such as vowel sandhi, immunity to apocope and vowel harmony. The accent system is also discussed in length. Interestingly, Aguaruna shows features from stress and tone systems. Thus, it is possible in practice to find instances of phonological contrast between high and low tone as well as in stress placement. However, stress features seem to be dominant since tone contrast is apparently a surface realization of stress patterns, as O shows (pp. 108-109). Accent is also useful as a criterion for defining the phonological word in Aguaruna (each word must have a primary stress). This chapter also describes partial reduplication and the phonology of compound nouns. The chapter ends with a concise consideration on the phonology of loans.

Chapter 4 and 5 present the morphology of nouns, adjectives and pronouns, and the structure of the noun phrase, respectively. The nominal morphology in Aguaruna is subdivided in derivative morphology, possession marking, case marking, and discourse markers. O considers the nominal word as having seven morphological slots corresponding to the following functions: diminutive, possession, derivation, case, restrictive, discourse markers and copula. O also discusses the distinction between noun and adjective in Aguaruna, which he tries to base on structural criteria. This is problematic since adjectives share almost all of their morphology with nouns. Some subsets of adjectives can appear in specific constructions, e.g. gradability and comparison, but this is not enough to distinguish the adjective in Aguaruna as structurally distinct from the noun. Several subclasses of nouns are described: inherently gendered nouns (Aguaruna lacks grammatical gender markers), proper names, kinship terms, irregular nouns, and locational nouns. O also discusses compound nouns, and personal and demonstrative pronouns. Aguaruna has seven personal pronouns, corresponding to 1, 2 and 3 person in singular and plural (including an additional pronoun for distinguishing specific from non-specific plural first person). As for demonstrative pronouns, Aguaruna has a three-way spatial distinction: proximal, medial and distal. Finally, this chapter explains in detail all the morphemes that appear in the seven morphological slots mentioned above. As for the structure of the noun phrase (NP), several operators as demonstrative and anaphoric pronouns are described, as well as less typical structural constructions such as discontinuous and headless NPs.

Chapter 6 discusses the Aguaruna verb. For the sake of clarity, O distinguishes between two levels of verbal morphology. Level I consists of the prefix position, as well as the suffixes for valency, object, aspect and negation. On the other hand, Level II includes the more external positions of tense, person and mood/modality suffixes. This chapter also presents the paradigms of verb conjugations. Aguaruna has a system of five conjugations that change the root according to three stems: unmarked, perfective and imperfective. In addition to their conjugation paradigms, verbs can also be classified according to the form of the object markers and the applicative suffixes they take. Other topics included in this chapter are irregular verbs, derivation from nouns to verbs and auxiliary constructions.

Chapter 7 discusses grammatical relations. This chapter enumerates several hierarchy effects (see Silverstein 1976, Comrie 1989, among others) manifested in the grammatical relations in Aguaruna, which show a 1 > 2 > 3 person ranking (i.e. it follows the expected hierarchical pattern). The chapter also discusses several transitive configurations such as three-place predicates, ditransitive verbs and ambitransitivity. Other topics covered in this chapter are valency changing derivation (causative, applicative, reflexive and reciprocal), non-verbal predicates and copular clauses.

Chapter 8-10 discuss tense, aspect and person, as well as modality –that is, these chapters focus on Level II verbal morphology (see above on Chapter 6). Aspect can be unmarked or have the following markers: perfective, imperfective, potential or durative. The perfective aspect is marked by a variety of suffixes (six in total), each one conveying a specific meaning –namely intensive, transferred, attenuative, pluractional, high affectedness and low affectedness. In addition to the aspectual suffixes, Aguaruna uses other elements such as nominalizers to convey tense. O distinguishes a formally unmarked present tense, four synthetic past tenses (recent past, intermediate past, distant past and remote past) and future tense (subdivided into immediate future, definite and indefinite future). O notes that his informants “characterize the distinction between the tenses in terms of degrees of remoteness…. However actual use shows that there must be other factors involved” (p. 341). Also, a specific nominalizer morpheme can convey narrative past. One interesting aspect of the tense system in Aguaruna is that it can have evidential overtones since “recent, intermediate and distal past forms imply firsthand information on the part of the speaker” (pp. 341-342). Four major modalities are found: indicative, interrogative, imperative and exclamative. Indicative mood is marked by different morphemes that convey declarative (neutral assertion), counter-expectation, narrative and speculative. Mood is usually only marked in main clauses and not in subordinate clauses. The exclamative mood is an exception since it is zero-marked, thus rather looking as a subordinate –or rather ‘insubordinate’ (see Evans 2007) – clause (on exclamatives that look like subordinate clauses see e.g. Kalinina 2011). As for questions, O describes content, polar and tag questions (including rhetorical and embedded questions). Questions in Aguaruna do not really follow a grammatically distinct pattern; rather, their interpretation as questions depends on the lexical items used (for content questions) or the question marker (for polar questions). Rhetorical questions are commonly used in daily interaction. A concise description of greeting formulas related to questions is also included.

Chapter 11 describes negation. The topic is subdivided in negation of the verb, negation of nominal items, and negative lexemes and particles. Negation is mostly achieved via suffixation. A different suffix is used for marking negation in declarative and in interrogative clauses.

Chapter 12 explains adverbial words. As usual in linguistic descriptions, this category is eclectic, including in this case numerals, quantifiers, manner adverbs, ideophones, time words, location words, intensifiers, discourse particles and interjections.

Chapter 13-17 explain several aspects of subordinate clauses, including nominalization strategies. Subordination is a very important topic in Aguaruna since it is a clause-chaining language, that is speakers show a preference for linking verbs through subordinate clauses marked by switch reference instead of using syntactically independent clauses. O takes a structural approach to subordination by considering as subordinate clauses only those marking obligatorily switch-reference. O uses this formal approach since “in Aguaruna, any given subordinate clause may show more or fewer of the properties traditionally associated with subordination… and examination of such properties does not seem to be a useful criterion for making generalizations” (p. 471; cf. Cristofaro 2003). As is usually the case for subordinate clauses crosslinguistically, subordinate verbs use fewer morphological markers than main verbs. Subordinate verbs are marked only for subordination, person, and switch reference. In addition, they can be marked with conditional, concessive or modality enclitics. There are several types of subordinate clauses, which can be represented by the following hierarchy: finite > same subject subordinate clause > different subject subordinate clause > non-inflecting subordinate clause > nominalized. Same subject subordinate verbs can be marked by terminative, intentional or frustrative suffixes. On the other hand, subordinate verbs can take non-temporal, simultaneous or sequential suffixes –if a subordinate verb is unmarked it is interpreted as perfective. As for the semantics of subordinate clauses, they are subdivided into several clause-types: temporal, consequence, possible consequence, purpose, conditional, concessive, relative and speech reports. In addition to proper subordination, coordinated and bridging structures are also explained. Aguaruna has two types of coordination: contrastive and disjunctive. The distinction is established semantically, based on the conjunction used. On the other hand, bridging constructions combine coordination and subordination. The most common bridging construction uses a pro-verb following a finite verb. “The pro-verb refers anaphorically to the preceding clause, and indicates the temporal/clausal and switch-reference relations between it and the following clause” (p. 499). As for nominalization, eight nominalizing suffixes are described. All of them are productive and correspond to the grammatical role of the referent of the nominalization (e.g. if the referent is an action, a specific suffix will be used, and the suffix will change if the referent is the subject of the clause). Nominalizations are also used in the following non-referential functions: complementation, relativization, auxiliation, and clause chaining. As for relative clauses, they follow two separate strategies: use of nominalization and use of relative pronouns. Finally, speech reports are structurally different from other constructions, and are widely used in Aguaruna as complements of cognition verbs. Speech reports can accomplish several functions. They can be used for emphasis and for expressing thoughts and intentions. They also can be used in complementation, that is “the embedding of an entire clause as a core argument of a matrix clause” (p. 567).

Chapter 18 discusses discourse organization. Aguaruna’s constituent order is AOV (Agent, Object, Verb), with the subject appearing at clause-initial position and the predicate at the final position. O argues that the position of the constituents is not related to information structure, although presupposed information often appears first. Thus, the order of the clause can appear as OVA for pragmatic reasons. Also, new, given or contrastive information can be marked via structural coding. O concludes that the positions at the periphery of the clause are also relevant to highlight constituents –which is usually the case crosslinguistically (Croft 1994).

At the end of the book, three texts are presented with glosses and translation.


One important aspect for evaluating this book is to compare it with the dissertation in which it originates. Since the book is a revised version of the dissertation, most of the information in the former can be found in the later. However, the book has improved the organization of the information presented, and several points have been made clearer by adding more explanations and examples. Moreover, some topics developed in the the book are not found in the dissertation. In this respect, the most important additions might be the chapter on grammatical relations and the discussions on modality and information structure.

In general, the grammar is exhaustive and typologically well-informed, which makes it a very valuable resource for typological studies. Of course, the book is designed for linguists and not for the general public (as is the case for all titles in the Mouton Grammar Library) but it does not require the reader to be familiar with the literature in Aguaruna or Chicham languages. Also, evidently O aims for a ‘basic linguistic theory’ approach (Dixon 2010), that is a descriptive approach that reduces the use of theoretical models to the minimum in order to give a clear and more approachable depiction of the language. In this respect, it is very useful that O clarifies any issues and challenges he has faced, explaining the reasons for his methodological and analytical choices when this is pertinent.

However, one of the most valuable aspects of this work is that it is the first comprehensive reference grammar of Aguaruna. A language that is very relevant on several accounts such as its history as well as its current population –approximately 13,650 monolingual speakers and more than 25,000 bilingual speakers according to the figures given in p. 1 (see also Lewis et al. 2013). Moreover, this work opens several lines of investigation for the study of Aguaruna for the first time since, as O points out in repeated occasions, several of the topics addressed in the grammar need more research.

A critical observation that can be made is regarding the use of formal against semantic criteria to define linguistic phenomena. Whereas the original dissertation seemed to aim for a balance between formal and semantic criteria, in the book the formal criteria seem preeminent. This is clear for example in the distinction between adjectives and nouns (see above). The dissertation simply defined word classes functionally (Overall 2007: 118; Croft 1991), but in the book O tried to followed a structural criterion that showed itself problematic (see pp. 130 & ff.)

Also, the decision of basing the linguistic corpora mostly on narratives leaving aside conversational data is a limitation that O acknowledges (e.g. p. 342), although he does not explain the reasons for such an approach.

The critical observations above, however, do not in any way diminish the value of this outstanding work, which will be undoubtedly an authoritative reference for Aguaruna in years to come, and a very valuable resource for typologists and field linguists.


Comrie, Bernard. 1989. Language universals and linguistic typology: syntax and morphology Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cristofaro, Sonia. 2003. Subordination Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Croft, William. 1991. Syntactic categories and grammatical relations: the cognitive organization of information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Croft, William. 1994. Speech act classification, language typology and cognition. Foundations of Speech Act Theory, ed. by S.L. Tsohatzidis, 460-77. London: Routledge.

Dixon, Robert M. W. 2010. Basic linguistic theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Evans, Nicholas. 2007. Insubordination and its uses. Finiteness: theoretical and empirical foundations, ed. by I. Nikolaeva, 366-431. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Kalinina, Elena. 2011. Exclamative clauses in the languages of the North Caucasus and the problem of finiteness. Tense, aspect, modality and finiteness in East Caucasian languages, ed. by G. Authier & T. Maisak, 163-99. Bochum: Universitätsverlag Dr. N. Brockmeyer.

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons & Charles D. Fennig. 2013. ‘Aguaruna’ in Ethnologue: Languages of the World. (consulted in July 2017).

Mosel, Ulrike. 2006. Grammaticography: the art and craft of writing grammars. Catching language: the standing challenge of grammar writing, ed. by F.K. Ameka, A.C. Dench & N. Evans, 137-69. Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Overall, Simon E. 2007. A Grammar of Aguaruna. Australia: La Trobe University Doctoral Dissertation.

Silverstein, Michael (1976). Hierarchy of features and ergativity. Grammatical categories in Australian languages, ed. by R. M. W. Dixon. Canberra. Australian Institute for Aboriginal Studies, 112-71.
Hugo García Macías obtained a doctoral degree in Linguistics at the University of New Mexico in 2016 with the dissertation 'From the Unexpected to the Unbelievable: Thetics, Miratives and Exclamatives in Conceptual Space'. He is not currently affiliated with any institution. His main interests are typology, pragmatics and cognitive linguistics. His line of research is focused on the relationship between information structure and speech acts from an interdisciplinary perspective.

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