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Review of  A Grammar of Sierra Popoluca

Reviewer: Carmen Jany
Book Title: A Grammar of Sierra Popoluca
Book Author: Lynda Boudreault
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Popoluca, Highland
Issue Number: 30.3506

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This is a comprehensive grammatical description of Sierra Popoluca published in the Mouton grammar series, a collection of high quality grammars in which each volume represents a detailed grammatical treatment of a single language along with fully analyzed texts. While no theoretical model is imposed on authors for the series, volumes tend to follow predetermined formats and practices in grammar writing (Ameka et al. 2008). As a result, the volume under review adheres to a standard format for descriptive grammars and one of two main macrostructures: the ascending model (Mosel 2008:48). In the ascending model, smaller units of language are covered before larger ones, and the grammar begins with a description of the sound system of the language, and then moves to morphology followed by syntax. An introduction provides the genetic, areal, and socio-linguistic background for the language, as well as a discussion of the sources of data used, among other things; the last part of the grammar presents a collection of analyzed texts. Even though there are many different types of grammars, all the volumes in the Mouton series are bilingual descriptive grammars of spoken vernaculars designed for academic specialists. Frequently, the languages covered in the series are endangered and have not been extensively described. This is also the case with Sierra Popoluca.

Sierra Popoluca, also known as Soteapanec, is a Mixe-Zoquean language of the Zoquean branch, spoken in Veracruz, Mexico.. The Zoquean branch discerns Gulf Zoquean, Chimalapa (Oaxacan) Zoque, and Chiapas Zoque. Sierra Popoluca belongs to the Gulf Zoquean subgroup. As the author points out, Sierra Popoluca is also classified as Highland Zoque in Glottolog ( and as Highland Popoluca in WALS ( (p. 4). While many indigenous languages in the area are endangered, it seems that Sierra Popoluca is still spoken by a relatively large number of people, namely 28,194 as of 2008 (p. 3). Nevertheless, the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger ( lists the linguistic vitality of Sierra Popoluca as ''vulnerable''. Since there is no discussion of linguistic vitality in the volume, the level of endangerment for the language, if any, remains unclear.

The data on which the grammatical description is based stems primarily from personal fieldwork by the author (p. 8). . This corpus was then complemented by direct elicitation of paradigms (p. 12). In addition, the author relied on materials provided by the PDLMA project ( There is no mention in the grammar of community goals or participatory research, both topics that have received more attention recently in documentary linguistics. As Pérez Báez (2018) points out, while there has been “increasing advocacy for community-based research in linguistics” (p. 334) including training efforts for community members in Mexico, the dependency on English for many efforts outside of Mexico “stands as a solid barrier for many in Mexico and Central America” (p. 336). Unfortunately, the present grammar has been published only in English.

The volume begins with an introduction that includes a brief description of the genetic affiliation and geographic distribution of the language, a summary of previous research , a brief discussion of field work methodology and orthographic issues, a typological profile, and a look at the objectives and organization of the grammar. Boudreault sets two main goals: to document the language and to provide a broad description for use in linguistic research. Additionally, Boudreault outlines five specific goals : (1) provide a detailed description of the sound system, (2) present a thorough treatment of the lesser studied non-verbal elements, (3) add to the knowledge of the complex verb system, (4) complement research on sentence structure including information structure, and (5) “present a more complete picture of the complex predicate formation strategies” (p.16).

The volume is divided into six parts.

Part I comprises three chapters. Chapter 1 is the introduction. Chapter 2 presents a complete phoneme inventory with some phonetic detail, the syllable structure and stress, and phonological processes considering both affixes and clitics. This is the only chapter in which Boudreault presents examples phonetically, phonemically, and using a practical orthography. Unfortunately, the complete consonant inventory is presented in two different tables, one with native phonemes and one with marginal phonemes that occur only in ideophones and/or Spanish loans. There is some inconsistency regarding the labeling of phonemes as native or marginal. For instance, the voiced stop /g/ is listed as a native phoneme on page19, but then not included in table 2.1 with the native phonemes; it is then listed in table 2.2 alongside the other voiced stops that stem from Spanish loans. A brief summary of the vowel system follows. Boudreault lists twelve vowel phonemes representing six vowel qualities, each in short and long form, since vowel length is phonemic. Interestingly, some minimal pairs that illustrate vowel length exhibit semantic similarities. However, “vowel length is not used to alter the meaning of a root productively” (p. 22). The next section, rather than being a treatment of allophonic variations of the previously presented phonemes, as may be expected, contains a selective presentation of a number of phonemes, their position within syllables and words, and a discussion of associated phonological processes. Boudreault provides relevant evidence for each of these processes, including two spectrograms. Next, Boudreault describes the syllable structure and stress. Sierra Popoluca has primary, secondary, and tertiary stress. The next section covers assimilation, metathesis, vowel lengthening, and the effects of laryngealization. Most interesting is the assimilation of voiceless stops preceding homorganic nasals. Several processes were mentioned earlier in the chapter with some of the same examples listed (e.g. 2.8 and 2.160; 2.15 and 2.162), but there is no cross-referencing. The last part of this chapter covers morphophonemics and presents an abundance of examples. Most intriguing are three suffixes that show an underlying representation labeled as –W with three different surface forms. The last chapter in Part I provides an overview of words with their formatives, i.e. suffixes and clitics, and their distinguishing features. This chapter features nice tables and is easy to read, but some cross-referencing is missing.

Part II entitled Nouns and Their Projections focuses on non-verbal elements. It spans five chapters. Chapter 4 defines different types of nouns. Pronouns are treated as a subcategory of nouns and distinguished from lexical nouns. Sierra Popoluca lexical nouns can be inflected for plurality and possession. Unusual is a list of approximately 120 lexical nouns that are obligatorily possessed but are not necessarily semantically predictable. For instance, while some kinship and body part terms fall into that category, others do not, as shown in examples 4.1 and 4.2. Next, Boudreault covers pronouns, which include personal, demonstrative, relative, interrogative, and indefinite pronouns. Personal pronouns are used only for emphasis and not obligatory. Following is a discussion of demonstratives. The terminology used, however, is confusing. Boudreault states that ‘demonstrative pronouns modify nouns’ (p. 108); however, in this function, demonstratives would be considered adjectives and not pronouns. The next section covers nominal inflection and presents some of the same examples used before without proper cross-referencing (e.g. examples 4.29 and 4.30). Kinship terms exhibit special behavior as they can take each of the sets of person markers: Set A for possession, Set B as non-verbal predicates, and Set C for local relationships (i.e. clauses involving only first and second person). Plural marking is marginal in Sierra Popoluca. Next, the section on nominal derivation discusses nominalizations from nouns and verbs and nominal compounding. While Boudreault notes that compounding is a ‘highly productive word formation strategy’ (p. 140), only little space is dedicated to it. Verbal compounding, however, is taken up in a later section. Chapter 5 covers word classes and clause types that modify nouns. Each type is well exemplified and discussed. Chapter 6 zeroes in on postpositions and lexical nouns, an areal feature of Mesoamerica. They are used to convey locative, instrumental, partitive, and privative meanings in obliques. Relational nouns are different from postpositions because they may inflect for possession. Boudreault lists the forms in table 6.1 (p. 200) and discusses their composition and diachronic developments in what follows. The small word class of adverbs is covered in Chapter 7, which concludes Part II.

Part III covers verbs and verbal elements. It spans over two hundred pages and includes eight chapters. There are four main verb classes based on the number of arguments they can take without any morphological adjustment: intransitive, transitive, ambitransitive, and ditransitive, and three minor verb class roots: positionals, affectives, both defined through semantics, and auxiliary verbs based on their syntax. In Sierra Popoluca verbs are morphologically complex and do not surface as bare stems, except for the imperative. The verbal template is shown in figure 8.1 (p. 242). The author states that a “small set of prefixes, which are for the most part clitics, precede the stem” (p. 242). The distinction between affixes and clitics merits a more in-depth discussion given that markers in many categories throughout the grammar surface as either affixes or clitics, and the author does not always make the distinction clear. There are about a dozen auxiliary verbs in Sierra Popoluca that can be categorized in three subclasses based on person marking and their position in the clause. Auxiliary verbs occur in multi-verb constructions and take non-finite dependent verbs. The constructions in which they appear are treated in later chapters. The following chapter covers non-verbal predicates that function as statives. Stative predicates are inflected for person and number but do not take inflection for aspect and mood. Chapter 10 deals with verbal derivation. Verbs can be derived from other verb stems or other word classes via several verbalizing suffixes, such as the versive -ɁaH or the provisory -ɁüɁy, both illustrated via several well-discussed examples. There is some overlap with Chapter 5, but there is no cross-referencing. The following chapter discusses the alignment system. As Boudreault notes, “Sierra Popoluca is an ergative/absolutive, head-marking language with a hierarchical system” (p. 289). Person-marking proclitics are listed in table 11.1 (p. 289), and the three sets of person markers are thoroughly exemplified in the following pages. The last part of chapter 11 covers number marking in verbal agreement. Number does not have to be marked on the verb; it can be inferred from context. Chapter 12 exposes aspect, mood, and modality. There are seven aspect and mood markers. Verbs are obligatorily marked as completive, incompletive, imperative, or optative. Unlike in other Mixe-Zoquean languages, Sierra Popoluca shows dependent marking that is independent of aspect. Aspect and modality can also be conveyed lexically. The progressive is lexically expressed with the auxiliary süɁ. Boudreault provides ample examples and detailed explanations for the different aspect categories, as well as appropriate cross-referencing. The reference listed on p. 337 (López Márquez 2018) is missing or incorrect in the bibliography on p. 706. Mood is encoded via four different suffixes for imperative, optative, desiderative, and frustrative. The latter must co-occur with an aspect suffix. In the section on modality, Boudreault highlights an auxiliary verb wüH-ɁaH that marks ability and willingness, conditional sentences, and evidential enclitics. Evidential marking is not obligatory in Sierra Popoluca, but there are two enclitics expressing evidential meanings: +Ɂun ‘it is said’ and +wey ‘it is true’, as illustrated via a number of examples. Chapter 13 presents voice alterations, indefinite subjects, and reflexives and reciprocals. Boudreault discusses the pragmatics of passives and passive constructions in dependent clauses, both further treated in chapters 19 and 22 and cross-referenced. The next chapter covers valency-increasing processes. Boudreault discusses four functions of the applicative -ɁaɁy, each exemplified in its own sub-section. Interesting is the observed possessor ascension (p. 386-387), a common feature in Mesoamerica. The last chapter in Part V discusses affix ordering and presents a verbal template. The derivational suffixes show some variability with respect to their ordering. There is ample cross-referencing to chapters where the functions of these formatives are discussed.

Part IV of the grammar is relatively small and treats simple clause structure and types of clauses. This first chapter covers basic clause structure and word order. Sierra Popoluca is a verb-initial language, but word order is largely pragmatically motivated. Therefore, Boudreault evaluates word order based on word order correlates, frequency, and ambiguity tests (p. 435). Sierra Popoluca displays four correlates associated with OV languages and three related to VO languages. The next chapter is relatively short and exposes negative clauses and negation strategies. Sierra Popoluca has two negative particles: dya, which is the main negator, and ɁotɁoy used in prohibitives and optatives. For the negative particle ni ‘neither’ Boudreault notes that Wichmann has traced it back to proto-Mixe, while Kaufman believes it to be a Spanish borrowing. The chapter on interrogative clauses is equally short. Content questions and polar questions are covered. The last chapter covers topic and focus. Topic can be expressed via three different strategies: a) overt lexical expression of the argument, b) using a passive, and c) placing the argument in a topicalized clause-initial position.

Part V includes eight chapters and is one of the most extensive parts of the grammar. It zeroes in on a number of complex structures, including clause combining. The first three chapters discuss complex predicates beginning with noun incorporation. Noun incorporation is a highly productive process in Sierra Popluca. Typologically, Sierra Popoluca exhibits noun incorporation types I and II. In type I, the noun loses its syntactic status as an argument and the valency of the verb is affected. In type II an agent or object is incorporated, and an oblique argument takes the place as core argument. Chapter 21 covers verb serialization, another highly productive process in Sierra Popoluca. The verbs share aspect/mood marking and core arguments, but there is no marking for subordination. The different types of serial verbs are presented in table 21.1 (p. 505). . The next and probably most extensive chapter covers dependent verb constructions across about seventy pages. Sierra Popoluca has five types of multi-verb constructions where two syntactically integrated verbs co-occur and “share information about person, aspect/mood, and number” (p. 525). In addition to sharing arguments and aspect/mood inflection, the dependent verbs take dependent morphology and share negation. Boudreault discusses the properties of both, V1 and V2, in these constructions. The type of auxiliary or subordinator defines the different types of constructions. There are six different dependent verb constructions (one of which does not share arguments). The following three chapters cover clause-combining strategies: complement clauses (chapter 23), relative clauses (chapter 24), adverbial clauses (chapter 25). The last two chapters of part V cover secondary predication and coordination.

Lastly, part VI concludes the volume. Chapter 28 summarizes the special features of Sierra Popoluca and highlights of the grammar in eight pages. Boudreault describes the language as “agglutinating, polysynthetic, head-marking” with a “rich and complex verbal system” (p. 677). Special features include the saliency and animacy hierarchy, extensive verb formation strategies such as verb serialization, among others, and “a range of morphological and syntactic resources to contextualize events with respect to time and space and to convey speakers’ attitudes about situations” (p. 682). Chapter 29 presents a fully glossed text, and chapter 30 lists the recorded texts that form the studied corpus.


As Evans and Dench (2006) note, an important rule in grammar writing is to respect the “distinctive genius“ of the language and to treat the grammar as a system where the consequences of interactions between categories, rules, etc. are examined. Boudreault has certainly accomplished these goals in this detailed and thorough yet accessible grammar. Due to previous research on the language and specific interests of the author, the grammar is more heavily centered on morphosyntactic and syntactic aspects of the language.

In what follows I present the major highlights of the grammar and note a few minor shortcomings. Overall, the volume is very reader-friendly, given that the author thoroughly explains linguistic terminology and concepts used in the grammar. Cristofaro (2006:138) posits that grammatical categories should be postulated for each language independently because they are language-specific, and Boudreault accomplishes just that by introducing specific sets of criteria for each grammatical concept. She also mentions relevant literature on each grammar topic. In general, Boudreault provides many examples from naturally occurring discourse to illustrate every grammar point made; other grammars often rely more heavily on elicitation for that purpose. Other highlights include diachronic explanations and a discussion of topic and focus; such features are often lacking in grammars. In a concluding chapter, Boudreault summarizes the high points of the grammar more generally. This is a nice addition as it reiterates the main points that determine the “distinctive genius” of the language. A fully glossed sample text is also included, and there is an itemized appendix of the complete corpus consulted for the grammar.

The fact that a number of topics are treated with less detail in the grammar represents some limitations of Boudreault’s work. For instance, the section on nominal compounding seems short, and the treatment of negation is missing a discussion of non-verbal clauses (e.g. existentials) that often employ negation strategies distinct from verbal clauses. Most unfortunately, the sound system receives much less attention when compared to other sections of the grammar, even though it represents one of the additional five goals the author has set for the grammar. Overall, there is no systematic treatment of phonetics in the grammar. Lastly, Boudreault mentions the PDLMA project throughout the volume and lists it as a major source of data, but a detailed description of the project, such as its timeframe, purpose, extent, etc., is missing. Other shortcomings include a few missed opportunities for cross-referencing throughout the volume. In general, however, the author provides adequate cross-referencing.

In addition to the general objectives of a reference grammar, Boudreault has outlined five additional goals for Sierra Popoluca. With the exception of the first goal, Boudreault successfully accomplishes this plan. Moreover, the Mouton Grammar Library seeks to provide high-quality grammatical descriptions for linguistic research and for linguistic typology. Cristofaro (2006:140) discusses three issues relating to the standards of reference grammars for typological comparison. They include (1) the distribution of information across different parts of the grammar (form-to-function and function-to-form), (2) the parameters considered when describing the categories, and (3) the criteria used when determining the categories treated in the grammar. While the main organization of the Sierra Popoluca grammar follows an onomasiological approach (function-to-form), there are also sections that cover a particular form and present its range of functions. As a result, the grammar is very useful for typologists, and it creates a path for future similar work on Mixe-Zoquean languages. It should be noted that Sierra Popoluca is the only Mixe-Zoquean language represented in the Mouton Grammar Series.


A challenge in grammar writing has always lain in presenting a coherent and reasonably comprehensive description of a complex linguistic system within the limitations of a published volume (Evans and Dench 2006:23). Boudreault has mastered this task in this massive and very detailed grammar. The few shortcomings mentioned throughout this review should not distract the reader from the excellent analyses and abundance of relevant information. The Sierra Popoluca grammar is comprehensive yet reader-friendly, and Boudreault is to be commended for her attention to detail, wealth of tables and illustrations, and her determination to rely on data from naturally occurring discourse. It is thus no surprise that she was awarded the Mary R. Haas Book Award in 2010 for her dissertation work on which this volume is built.


Ameka, Felix, Alan Dench & Nicholas Evans (eds.). 2006. Catching language: the standing challenge of grammar-writing. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Cristofaro, Sonia. 2006. The organization of reference grammars: A typologist user’s point of view. In Felix Ameka, Alan Dench & Nicholas Evans (eds.) Catching language: the standing challenge of grammar-writing. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Pp. 137-170.

Evans, Nicholas and Alan Dench. 2006. Introduction: Catching languages. In Felix Ameka, Alan Dench & Nicholas Evans (eds.) Catching language: the standing challenge of grammar-writing. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Pp. 1-39.

Mosel, Ulrike. 2006. Grammaticography : The art and craft of writing grammars. In : Felix K. Ameka et al. (eds). Catching Language : The Standing Challenge of Grammar Writing. 41-68.

Pérez Báez, Gabriela. 2018. Reflections on linguistic fieldwork in Mexico and Central America. In Bradley McDonnell, Andrea L. Berez-Kroeker, and Gary Holton (eds.). Reflections on Language Documentation 20 Years after Himmelmann 1998. Language Documentation & Conservation Special Publication No. 15. 330-339.
Carmen Jany received her PhD in Linguistics from UC Santa Barbara in 2007. She currently holds a position as Professor of Linguistics and Spanish at California State University, San Bernardino. Her main research interests include linguistic typology, Native American and other endangered languages, language documentation, and language contact. Over the past decade, she has been working on the documentation of Chuxnabán Mixe, a Mexican indigenous language. Her dissertation was a typologically-framed grammatical description and analysis of Chimariko, a dormant Northern California language.

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