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Review of  Nominal Contact in Michif


Reviewer: David Douglas Robertson
Book Title: Nominal Contact in Michif
Book Author: Carrie Gillon Nicole Rosen
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Semantics
Sociolinguistics
Syntax
Subject Language(s): Michif
Issue Number: 30.62

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Review:
SUMMARY

In Nominal Contact in Michif (xxi + 202 pp.), linguists Carrie Gillon and Nicole Rosen, with native speaker Verna Demontigny (thus GRD hereafter), analyze selected traits of noun phrases in Michif. They propose these as evidence for a novel view that rather than a Cree (Algonquian) and French (Indo-European) “mixed language”, this is instead a fundamentally Algonquian language.

Prefaced with a List of Abbreviations (xv-xvii) and a “Pronunciation Guide: A Note on Michif Orthography” (xix-xxi), Chapter 1 “Introduction” (1-22) outlines the known history of this young language and its current status, briefly contrasting mixed languages with other language-contact outcomes. Features of Michif DPs (Determiner Phrases, which I will consider broadly equivalent to 'noun phrase') and verb structure that are relevant to the book's theme are introduced, followed by an overview of the arguments in following chapters.

Chapter 2 “Mass/Count” (23-47) summarizes the diagnostics of this grammatical distinction that are typically invoked in the linguistic literature: pluralizability; countability without a classifier/measure; disambiguation by quantifiers/determiners. GRD bring up the important related idea of two kinds of “coercibility” from mass to count interpretation of a noun, that is, into types of that noun via the “universal sorter” and into portions of it via the “universal packager”. Individual sections then investigate mass/count properties in Algonquian languages and in Michif. In the latter, the numerous French- and the (two known) Algonquian-derived mass nominals replicate the properties of their respective source languages. Among the implications of this finding, contra previous proposals, are that Michif indeed has a mass/count distinction, and that a language is not necessarily either mass/count or non-mass/count in type.

Chapter 3 “Plurality” (49-74) opens with a glance at two of the exponences of plurality in Michif noun phrases, the French-derived plural article lii and Algonquian-derived suffixes -a/-ak. The former is usable with all nouns regardless of etymology, the latter only on Algonquian-sourced nouns; thus, on the latter set, both markings can cooccur. This seeming redundancy leads GRD to ask whether each of these morphemes has a distinct function and/or meaning. In search of possible positive answers, they examine five distinct theories of plurality from the Generativist literature. Algonquian and Michif plurality are then compared with other languages having multiple exponences thereof, and an analysis is proposed that Michif's plurals are respectively “counting” and “dividing” in nature.

Chapter 4 on nominal “Gender” (75-106) surveys Michif's coexisting sex-based and animacy-based system with reference to its French and Algonquian ancestors. GRD forecast that the daughter language's complex mixed-gender system will prove to be diachronically unstable.

Chapter 5 “Articles” (107-142) contrasts the syntax and semantics of French definite articles both with the articlelessness (and definiteness effects in incorporation) of Algonquian and with Michif's French-derived article system. Distinctly from its ancestor languages, Michif's articles incorporate into verbs along with their noun heads, and lii marks only plurality, not +/-Definiteness. From the latter facts, the authors for the first time overly conclude that Michif is “really an Algonquian language that has heavily borrowed from French” (141).

Chapter 6 on Michif “Demonstratives” (143-168) shows that these replicate the Algonquian system (+/-Animate; Singular/Plural/Obviative; Proximal/Medial/Distal) and looks at their semantics, arguing that they have little to do with historical French input. The claim of Michif as an Algonquian language is asserted for the second time.

Chapter 7 “Status of the Category 'Mixed Language'” (169-178) makes the point that any understanding of a mixed language's workings has to look more deeply than vocabulary percentages from each parent language. GRD specify that the Michif DP is “mainly” Algonquian (170-176). They close their argumentation with a two-page suggestion that mixed languages are not structurally distinct from other kinds of languages; nor do they violate crosslinguistic observations on historical change.

For readers' reference, Appendix A schematizes “Plains Cree Verbal Paradigms” (179-181) and Appendix B “Michif Verbal Paradigms” (183-185). References fill pages (187-198), followed by a brief Author Index (199), Language Index (200), and Subject Index (201-202).

EVALUATION

GRD's study is a refreshingly detailed examination of an important area of mixed-language grammar, teasing out semantic nuances (such as mass versus count, and coercion from one to the other) that most languages do not mark morphologically, and which consequently most grammar descriptions are liable to ignore. Likewise we receive an incisive exposition of the differences between the formally essentially identical, but functionally quite divergent, definite-article systems of Michif and French. We learn much from this book that is not easily discoverable from other sources, and it is reinforced with many dozens of reliable examples direct from a first-language speaker. The findings are laid out in a consistent, clear format of thematically concise Tables, making it easy to follow the developing arguments.

This volume will be a fairly accessible read for most scholars of language contact, mixed languages, and Michif. A good deal – though not all – of the argumentation is phrased in Generativist terms and illustrated with syntactic “trees” whose nodes bear abbreviated labels, which may be an issue for some portion of the intended audience. Contact linguists have tended either toward other theories or to more descriptive, documentary approaches. I suspect such readers might require a brief glossary of several consistently invoked terms of art, especially the newer concepts such as “DP”, “little n”, and “licensing”. A similar issue comes up in a few passages that draw on the reader's assumed prior knowledge of the various languages involved, as when page 17 refers to “the” Cree possessive prefixes, which are never introduced, and when page 44 invokes research on Michif phonology that the text has not described. At all events, I found it was not especially hard to follow the ideas being put forth, as the authors do quite decent work of verbalizing the issues, the evidence, and their interpretations thereof.

Certain edits that can be suggested are very nearly inconsequential to a review such as this one, since they would be afterthoughts to any scholarly publication, but they would increase the continuity of the reading experience. Various abbreviations found in the text, for example AGR, [lowercase] c, and INT, are missing from the List on pages xv-xvii. To that List, an optimal treatment could add the various notational conventions that are, as is usual throughout linguistics, used without overt explanation, such as *( ) indicating non-optionality, the well-formedness gradations *, #, ??, and the struck-through items in some trees such as on page 145. The Michif pronunciation and orthography guide is missing some sounds encountered in example data, such as <u> and <ae>, and its IPA representation of the rhotic sound as /r/ technically leads us to expect a trill, while Michif typically employs a flap.

Perhaps a more substantial critical point is that when previous authorities are referred to on analytic matters, the authors' Generative orientation leads them to cite almost exclusively fellow practitioners of that school of thought. This in itself is not necessarily problematic; however, it is typical for Generative work to test narrowly focused hypotheses on a few, often closely related first-world languages in depth rather than to evaluate typological trends. Thus Chapter 2, in discussing previous work on mass/count diagnostics, relies primarily on Chomskyan work on French and English. The theories of plurality that are brought up in Chapter 3 expand this sampling to Mandarin, Arabic, Greek, and Halkomelem Salish, representing a number of families but only involving one really “less studied” language. In general, the privileging of theory over observation can have pitfalls, as when page 57 claims “In English, plural marking is not found inside compounds” – ignoring common expressions like “drugs gang” and “people power”. A specifically Generativist instance is page 66's remark on the cooccurrence in Michif of French- and Algonquian-derived Plural morphology, as in lii kimotiwin-a '(amount of) stolen goods': “Since lii is a counting plural, -a/-ak cannot also be a counting plural too.” Crosslinguistically, it is far from unusual for a category to be reflected circumfixally or via other kinds of multiple exponence, so such stipulations are not inherently convincing. Had the burgeoning data-driven typological literature been invoked, one might imagine how differently GRD's assumptions and findings might have been phrased.

The concluding chapter purports to reevaluate the analytical and/or descriptive category, “mixed language”. Two issues with it concern me.

First, in §7.2, GRD summarize their case that Michif's DP displays more Indigenous than Indo-European traits, primarily by listing nine probably Algonquian features that they contrast with seven attributed to French. Quibbles with their argument are possible (e.g. trait (vii) in favor of Algonquian, “nominalizers like -win (only on Algonquian-sourced verbs)”, isn't fundamentally a DP feature; conversely the French-derived verbalizing suffix -ii < -er (pages 129-132, 171) operates only on French-derived nominals so that it is a weak example of supposed French non-DP morphology). But the tally is if anything even more convincing than GRD claim, since three “French” characteristics are actually non-inherited Michif innovations! (“(i) a new plural form lii, (ii) new singular articles and possessive forms, (iii) new adjective positions...”) However, the authors' argument is made almost entirely in morphosyntactic terms, again a standard approach for Generativist work, and this non-engagement with the lexicon and with noun-root semantics sidesteps the fact that there are few etymologically-Algonquian nouns in Michif (as acknowledged on page 8), which in itself would seem a powerful argument against the basically Indigenous nature that GRD claim for the DP system. And indeed, as the authors try to undermine a supposed French DP/Algonquian VP split that they attribute to Peter Bakker's pioneering work (1997), they veer into a straw-man misrepresentation of his views as “Michif...ONLY tak[ing] the vocabulary from French” (page 171, cf. 177-178), despite earlier having more accurately portrayed him as describing mixed languages taking “MOST of their vocabulary from one language and MOST of their grammar from the other” (page 6; my emphases). My point is that the purported ideas of Bakker's that are being debated do not accurately reflect either his claims or the variation among Michif varieties that he is at pains to document, nor do the authors keep close track of the strengths and weaknesses of their own arguments. Many readers will find GRD's repeated comparison of the divergent properties of Michif's French- and Algonquian-derived nouns with the historically accrued lexicon of modern English (which contains distinct Germanic, Latinate, Hellenic, etc. morphological strata; e.g. page 24 and prominently right on page 171 of this chapter) a simpler, more compelling description and explanation.

Second, Chapter 7's titular mission of (re)conceptualizing the nature of mixed languages is barely addressed. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to the above-mentioned polemic on Michif DPs being Algonquian. Unfortunately, only the last two pages of text generalize. There, GRD broadly invoke a couple of representative works by previous contact linguists, and again rely on stipulation as a strategy, pronouncing that “mixed languages – like creoles – are grammatically no different from any other language” (176). Numerous problems exist with this claim. The works cited refer to creole languages, not to mixed ones. Work that is more recent is ignored – and it is interesting that it is research conducted primarily by Bakker and associates (e.g. Bakker et al. 2011) – which has convincingly demonstrated that e.g. pidgins and creoles are indeed typologically distinct categories from other languages. There are no a priori grounds nor any backing earlier in this book for GRD's concluding statement, and on the contrary, every reason to suspect that mixed languages too will turn out to be a typological group (which appears to be the intuition of Bakker 2003). Thus the closing chapter, which could be expected to stimulatingly situate this volume in the literature on contact linguistics, instead does not really engage with it.

I want to conclude, however, by reiterating the overall value of this novel contribution to mixed-language and Michif research and documentation, and I strongly hope that it will inspire many future studies to tackle the kind of careful and substantial questions it poses.

REFERENCES

Bakker, Peter. 1997. A Language of Our Own: The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian Metis. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.. (Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics, 10.)

Bakker, Peter. 2003. Mixed languages as autonomous systems. Pages 107-150 in Yaron Matras and Peter Bakker (eds.), The mixed language debate: Theoretical and empirical advances. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bakker, Peter, Aymeric Daval-Markussen, Mikael Parkvall, and Ingo Plag. 2011. Creoles are typologically distinct from non-creoles. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 26(1):5-42.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
David Douglas Robertson PhD is a linguistic archaeologist specializing in the Pacific Northwest's history of language contact. He focuses on Chinuk Wawa (Chinook Jargon), Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan, and on Salish languages, especially łəw̓ál̓məš (Lower Chehalis) and its sisters in the Tsamosan branch.

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