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Review of  A Grammar of Kakua

Reviewer: Richa Srishti
Book Title: A Grammar of Kakua
Book Author: Katherine Bolaños
Publisher: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics / Landelijke (LOT)
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Cacua
Issue Number: 29.1629

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REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


“A Grammar of Kakua” by Katherine Bolanos is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas, Austin. It a descriptive grammatical sketch of the Kakua language, a Kakua-Nukakan language spoken in the Vaupés area of the Upper Rio Negro region in Northwest Amazonia. It is basically intended for linguists; and, as the author points out in the introduction, this description is based on a functional-typological linguistic framework, presenting language-specific linguistic phenomena on the one hand and linking it to the general linguistic literature on the other.

Hence, it will surely be a useful resource not only to study the Kakua language but also to delve deeper into the intricate workings of human language. The present work covers various aspects of the phonology, morphology, and syntax of the language in thirteen chapters.

The introductory chapter provides an overview of Kakua, its speakers and also the classification of Kakua. It also raises the issue of the problematic grouping of Kakua into the ‘Maku’ family. The second chapter is on the phonology of Kakua. It includes both segmental and suprasegmental phonology. Another section is devoted to the syllable structure. Chapter Three discusses the types of morphemes and word classes (open & closed). The next chapter describes the noun morphology and structure in detail. The fifth chapter focuses on noun compounding, the nominal classification system and possession. Chapter 6 examines argument marking and case marking in the language. Chapter 7 provides a brief description of the noun phrase. Verbal morphology and its structure have been dealt with in Chapter 8. The phenomenon of ‘verb serialization’ has been explored in Chapter 9. The next chapter reviews TAME (Tense, Aspect, Mood and Evidentiality). Chapter 11 focuses on Alignment and Word order. Basic Clause Structure is investigated in Chapter 12. The last chapter deals with Complex Clauses.


The book is an insightful grammar providing a wealth of data and necessary details. Though the book is intended for linguists, it can be, to some extent, helpful to a non-linguist looking for a preliminary grammar sketch of Kakua, though s/he will find it slightly difficult to completely grasp the meaning of the linguistic terms (like ‘lateral’, ‘glide’, ‘morphosyntax’, ‘case marking’, ‘evidentiality’ etc.).

The major flaw of the book is faulty division of sections & subsections. Many sections as well as subsections have a .0 division (used for introduction), for example, 1.0, 1.1, 2.0,, 2.2.0 etc. But a large number of them do not have this division, for example, in 2.1 we can see only 2.1.1 and there is no 2.1.0. Similarly, 4.3 has no 4.3.0 but 4.3.1 and 10.1 has no 10.1.0. Similarly, the author has provided a summary in some chapters (even in some sections) but not in others. For example, Chapter 4 has the final subsection of ‘summary of nominalization strategies.’ In Chapter 5, there is summary in 5.2.9 but no summary at the end of the chapter. Chapter 11 is a very short chapter but it contains a ‘summary’ section. This haphazard organization is baffling.

The chapter organization of this book is also inconsistent. While phonology is a separate chapter, morphology has been divided into three separate chapters – Chapter 3 ‘Types of morphemes and word classes,’ Chapter 4 ‘The Noun: morphology & structure,’ and Chapter 5 ‘Noun compounding, noun classification, and possession.’ There is another Chapter 8 which deals with ‘The Verb: morphology & structure.’ ‘Verb serialization’ is one separate chapter, though it could have been incorporated within Chapter 8. ‘Basic Clause structure & types of clauses’ is Chapter 12 and ‘Complex clauses’ is another complete chapter, Chapter 13. Chapter divisions should have been made with a little more precision. For example, Phonology, Morphology (Noun & Verb morphology could have been subsumed under this), Syntax (phrase & clause structure as well as case marking) and ‘Alignment and word order’ could have been given as introduction in the chapter on ‘Syntax.’ There is no discussion of ‘Semantics.’

There are several typos as well as grammatical errors in the book. It seems that it has not been proofread properly. For example, on pg. 8 - ‘These events occurs.....’, pg. 11 - ‘....hadn’t attend...’, pg. 13 contains space between the letters of the word ‘referring.’ Page 13 has two instances of the same word written differently - ‘re-evaluation’ and ‘reevaluation.’ Page 21, 24 & 51 have ‘analisis’ instead of ‘analysis.’ The sentence on page 25 goes on as following - ‘...listed in 1d above, is a very likely a borrowed word in Kakua.’ There are some instances of ‘data’ used as plural and some others as singular (e.g. data was.. & data were, pgs 25 & 26). In section 2.1.4 (pg. 29), the author has mentioned that Kakua has seventeen contrastive consonantal segments but the inventory on the same page shows eighteen segments. Page 28 contains another typo ‘unvealed’ in place of ‘revealed.’ Page 51 has the typo ‘discarted’ instead of ‘discarded,’ page 65 ‘syllables represents’ instead of ‘syllables represent.’ Page 118 has an ungrammatical sentence - “...but rather, it is used to indicate the type of derivation best reflects the translation.” Page 149 - ‘ a free nouns.’ Page 169 - “ Page 171 - “For this reason is best not to understand this suffix as a grammatical case morpheme.”

The author has compared Kakua sound to its neighbouring Tukanoan languages again and again. In Chapter 2 ‘Phonology.’ It is more like a comparative phonological description which should have been mentioned in the introduction clearly. The author provides separate ‘comparative note’ sections here and there. On a positive note, these comparative notes attest to the author's knowledge of the related languages. It is a very detailed chapter. But, I did not expect the section on morphonemics to be so short.

In the introduction of the third chapter, the author has mentioned Kakuan syntax and word order. It is confusing as the chapter is ‘Types of morphemes and word classes.’ The introduction should not mention anything related to word order and it is not necessary here too. The author mentions that “Open and closed word classes in Kakua differ in that open word classes admit new items, whereas the closed classes, on the other hand, strongly resist, the introduction of the new items.” But this is the definition of open and closed word classes and is not unique to Kakua. Pronoun tables for personal, question words, demonstratives, and cardinal numbers 1-5 have been repeated in Chapter 3 as well as in Chapter 7.

In 5.2.3. the inventory of classifiers is given. 5.2.4 & 5.2.5 deal with two different functions of classifiers. Next three subsections 5.2.6, 5.2.7 & 5.2.8 deal with gender, shape and texture classifiers respectively. This is very perplexing. The inventory of classifiers and their descriptions should have been continuous. The function subsection should have been the last.

Chapter 6 is a long and interesting chapter (though it is also not devoid of typos). It deals with argument marking and case marking. Differential Object Marking (DOM) is dealt with in detail.

Chapter 7 discusses the various elements of the nominal phrase properly. Tables of different types of pronouns are given with their free as well as bound forms. Numerals in Kakua are accompanied by a hand gesture too. Hence, some pictures are given in this chapter to explain this.

In Chapter 8, the introductory section opens with the sentence ‘The morphology of verbs in Kakua is complex.’ Again in the next section, it is stated in the first sentence that ‘the verb morphology in Kakua is very complex’ as opposed to noun morphology. This chapter deals with syntactic and semantic classification of the verb root classes too. The verb template is explained in a very detailed manner.

Verb Serialization (also called compounding), which should have been incorporated into the verbal morphology chapter or argument marking chapter, is a very small chapter--Chapter 9.

In the Tense, Aspect, Mood, Evidentiality chapter, encoding of all these is given through the help of various examples.

Despite some of the shortcomings pointed out in the summary, this book is an invaluable resource for the linguists working on this interesting language. The grammar of Kakua presents various interesting typological features from both areal and cross-linguistic perspectives, which are highlighted throughout the book. For example, if we consider segmental phonology, compared to its Tukanoan neighbours, Kakua shows a fairly large inventory of consonants with none of the phonemes contrasting in terms of nasalisation. Nasalisation is a property of the morpheme, not of the individual segment. Kakua’s restricted distribution of the voiced velar stop and its glottal counterpart can be considered to be an areal feature as in the neighbouring languages too, the velar voiced stop does not appear in morpheme initial position. As for the rest of the other consonants, they can appear in the morpheme-initial, medial, and final position.

Another interesting feature is the presence of an evidential marker in interrogative clauses, though evidential marking presupposes assertion. The use of tail-head linkage as a way to temporally connect sentences or clauses together is also noteworthy.

Word boundaries play a very important role in the surface realisation of the consonant.

The different types of nominalizing categorizing strategies is also what links Kakua to its neighbouring languages. Another linker is the classifier system that has developed through contact with other languages.

The relation between events is expressed through various mechanisms like verb serialisation, coordination, and subordination.

The research presented is an attempt to provide a better illustration of a little-known endangered language of Amazonia, Kakua.
The reviewer is presently working as an assistant professor of English at Department of English in GLA University, Mathura, India. She has a doctorate in Linguistics from JNU, New Delhi. She has also worked in Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore as Research Officer. Her research areas are theoretical syntax, NLP and ELT. She has authored several research papers and books. She is now focused on the application aspect of linguistics to ELT, mainly for third language learners. She wants to explore the intricacies of language and hence, human mind.