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Review of  Sierra de Zongolica Nawatl Verbal Constructions - a functional analysis

Reviewer: Magnus P Hansen
Book Title: Sierra de Zongolica Nawatl Verbal Constructions - a functional analysis
Book Author: Steffen Haurholm-Larsen
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Nahuatl, Orizaba
Issue Number: 23.2971

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AUTHOR: Steffen Haurholm-Larsen
TITLE: Sierra de Zongolica Nawatl Verbal Constructions - a functional analysis
SERIES TITLE: LINCOM Studies in Native American Linguistics 65
YEAR: 2011

Magnus Pharao Hansen, Department of Anthropology, Brown University


This book presents a description and analysis of the verbal morphology of some
Nahuan dialects (in the work spelled “Nawan” following Terrence Kaufman’s
convention) from the Zongolica area in Southern Veracruz, Mexico. It is based on
a small corpus of spoken and written language from a handful of communities in
the area. The sources used include the following: 1. Seven oral narratives in
the dialect of Atlahuilco, Zongolica, published by Mills and Xicalhua in
Tlalocan in 2008. 2. Ten written texts with no information about community of
origin, published as a compilation of traditional narratives from Zongolica. 3.
Transcribed recordings from the Zongolica Nahuatl language radio station with no
information about community of origin of individual speakers. 4. Two large
databases of words and sentences from a speaker from the community of San Juan
del Rio, one of which was compiled by the author. The author defines the purpose
of the study as giving a functionally grounded overview of verbal constructions
in order to point out openings for future research. In the introduction the
author is explicit in acknowledging that the book is not intended to provide an
exhaustive description of any single language or variety, nor a dialect survey,
nor does it pretend to provide a novel theoretical approach.

Contrary to what the title of the book suggests, it is not structured around
functions, but around formal structural categories. After the book’s brief
section on phonology and orthography the three main analytical sections follow:
One on argument marking, one on verb classes and stems, and one on tense, aspect
and mood. In this way the organization of the description of verbal
constructions is highly traditional, and accessible to all linguists regardless
of theoretical background.

The functional perspective comes into play in the organization of the individual
subsections where the author distinguishes sharply between the structural
elements under analysis (the morphemes), which he treats first, and the
grammatical and communicative functions that they serve in texts. In this way
the book is entirely organized around formal structural categories, which are
then in turn described by reference to their grammatical and communicative
functions. This approach to description is itself quite traditional but in this
case the author draws on the Danish functionalist tradition as laid out by
Harder (1996) to motivate the dual focus on structure and function. Danish
functionalism as presented, for example, in Engberg-Pedersen et al. (1996, 2005)
employs a functional description on two parallel planes, the planes of content
and expression respectively. It assumes that functions on the expression plane,
formal grammatical functions, are motivated by functions within the content
plane, communicative functions. Therefore linguistic description in this
tradition aims at elucidating functions on both planes as well as establishing
the relations between them. Haurholm-Larsen implements this two-plane analysis
by beginning each section with a description of the formal grammatical structure
of an expression, and then describing the grammatical function of the expression.

The phonological and grammatical structure of the Zongolica Nawatl is very
similar to other well-described varieties such as colonial Nahuatl of the Valley
of Mexico, and presents few surprises to those already familiar with the Nahuatl
language. Among the phonological differences between Zongolica Nawatl and the
better known varieties, however, are some of the language's allophonic processes
such as the devoicing of wordfinal /w/ to [ɸ], and the shift of the otherwise
predictable penultimate syllable accent to the first syllable of some
trisyllabic words. Some surprising grammatical features are that some of the
sentences display the apparent grammaticalization of the root “se” ‘one’ as a
person prefix which can both express the generic impersonal sense of ‘one’ (“one
eats it ripe” about a fruit) but also as an alternate for the first person
plural subject marker “ti-” (pp. 21-22). Further research is certainly in order
to determine whether this novel construction is in fact best analyzed as
Haurholm-Larsen does, as a single form with a broad use, or whether the
indefinite function and the first person plural function can be seen as
separate. Similarly, the use of the form “-tech-” instead of the expected
“xi-nech-” in imperative forms with first person object is significant. The
section on imperative and hortative forms (pp. 66-68) provide a fine semantic
and discursive analysis, showing interesting differences in usage between these
two kinds of forms which to my knowledge has not been described for other
dialects. Finally, the form of the second person plural prefix, which in
Zongolica Nawatl is /em-/, is different from the better known dialects that tend
to have /a/ in that morpheme.

The brief conclusion points towards topics of interest for further research. The
author suggests that the discursive functions of verbal constructions with the
prefix /yo-/, and constructions with the suffix /-to/, both of which are
related to grammatical aspect, require deeper semantic analysis. He also
suggests that future studies ought to inquire into the effects of contact with
Spanish on Nahuatl grammar.


The main contribution of the book is to make available an overview of some of
the features of verbal morphology in the Zongolica dialects. The Zongolica
region is significant both because it is a region with a large number of Nahuatl
speakers and a large degree of monolingualism. The variety described is also
relevant because of its ambiguous dialect status. Canger (1980) considers its
dialects to belong to the Eastern Periphery (based on scant data), whereas
Lastra (1986) and Hasler-Hangert (2001) consider it to be in the central area.
The dialect area has been sparsely described relative to the number of
speakers, with only two descriptive sketches (Tuggy 1991, Hasler-Hangert 2001)
and one dialect survey (Hasler-Hangert 1996). For these reasons the book is a
welcome addition to the corpus of descriptive materials on the region.

In terms of content, the book contains several pieces of data that should be of
high interest for scholars of Nahuatl grammar and dialectology. The most
surprising construction in the book is the apparent grammaticalization of the
numeral ‘one’, a bound morpheme ambiguously marking indefinite and plural
subject, mentioned above. These kinds of small, but important differences
between the grammar of Zongolica Nawatl and other better known Nahuan languages
are of high value to comparative studies of Nahuan grammar, and the author could
have done more to draw attention to these excellent tidbits -- perhaps the main
contribution of the book in this reviewer’s opinion.

The book also has a number of shortcomings, most of them recognized by the
author, that make it less than optimally useful for most of the purposes for
which a linguist might want to make use of it.

The main shortcoming (recognized by the author) is that the work does not
represent any specific speech community or group of speakers. Zongolica is a
geographic area with a great deal of internal variation (see e.g. Hasler-Hangert
1996) rather than a homogeneous speech community. The “Zongolica Nawatl”
described in the book is an abstraction from the different sources used by the
author, representing at least the communities of San Juan del Rio and Atlahuilco
which are several hours apart with other non-Nahuatl speaking communities in
between. Many of the sources used have no information about the community of
origin of the speakers, making it impossible to know exactly which communities
in Zongolica are being represented. In the work the author never contrasts data
from different communities or draws attention to the possibility of differences
between them. This means that the language described is a kind of averaged
“regiolect”. The fact that the study does not fully represent any single variety
(if, for example, the author had focused on data from one variety, using data
from others only as contrast), means the that the work is not really useful for
comparison between the verbal morphology of “Zongolica Nawatl” and that of
another variety.

The value of the book for comparative purposes is also handicapped by the fact
that it is based on a very small number of sources of highly heterogeneous type
and quality. Its data sources include edited oral narratives, transcribed
interviews, written narratives and presumably constructed sentence examples in
the dictionary material. The author acknowledges that there may be important
differences in grammar and syntax between oral and written language, but makes
no effort at addressing these differences. Under other circumstances analyzing
both written and spoken language could be highly valuable -- but only if these
different kinds of speech were in fact contrasted so that their differences were
made apparent. This work however does the opposite: it abstracts away from the
differences to represent a homogeneous averaged variety.

The fact that the book contains linguistic data from a variety of sources but
does not adequately address their differences, means that while the book
potentially could be used for comparative purposes such as dialectology or
analyzing differences between spoken and written linguistic styles, its
organization does not facilitate such uses. Using it for any comparative purpose
would require the researcher to carefully distinguish between text examples from
different communities and examples for which community of origin is not known,
as well as between examples from oral and written texts.

Perhaps the most obvious usage of the book would be as a reference for
linguistic typologists who do not have background knowledge of Nahuatl, but who
wish a handy reference to the main typological features of verbal marking in the
language. But for typological purposes the book is handicapped by the exclusion
of certain verbal constructions from discussion. For example, for reasons of
space (the book is less than 65 pages) the author excludes the applicative and
causative forms of verbs from the description of valence and transitivity. The
author also does not mention whether the language has an honorific distinction
on verbs as most of the best-described Nahuan languages do. This means that we
do not know whether the category is excluded from the description, or whether
the honorific register is simply not present in this dialect, which would have
been relevant information. These omissions mean that if used as an introduction
to Nahuan verbal typology, the typologist risks missing important aspects of
verbal morphology.

For this reviewer, another source of frustration was the theoretical perspective
and the resulting organization. The frustration is caused by the disjunction
that exists between the theoretical perspective laid out in the introduction and
the way that the actual analysis is carried out in the subsequent sections. In
the introduction, the author defines the study as theoretically based in Danish
functionalism as exemplified by Harder (1996). Haurholm-Larsen provides several
quotes by Harder which all focus prominently on the aspect of communicative
function, on the communicative context as being embedded within the framework of
lived social experience, and on the functions of language in creating and
communicating shared mental spaces between interlocutors. Even so, the
conceptualization of function employed in the analysis of Nawatl verbal
constructions is almost entirely language internal, describing only the
functions of grammatical elements in relation to each other. Pragmatic and
discursive considerations and considerations of contextual influence on meaning
are entirely absent. This is surprising given the importance generally given to
pragmatics and discourse level functions within Danish Functionalism, the
author's chosen theoretical framework. This results in a study that is less of a
functional analysis than it is a traditional structural analysis. This may be
considered to be mostly a flaw of labeling -- the analysis applied would simply
have been better described as structural than as functional. If the reader
ignores the theoretical discussion of the introduction, and simply reads the
book on its own terms as a traditional structural-functional analysis, the
choices made in the presentation and analysis of the data makes more sense.

Another surprise in the introduction was the fact that the author carefully
justifies and motivates very basic terminological choices and linguistic
concepts. For example, the principle of the phoneme and its applicability are
treated in detail, differences between structural and functional approaches are
described, as well as concepts such as 'morpheme' and 'verb construction'.
Perhaps this emphasis on basic linguistic concepts stems from the fact that the
book was originally written as an MA thesis at the University of Copenhagen, but
it stands out rather oddly in a work aimed at an audience of linguists. It also
contrasts with the much less theoretically specific approach to morphological
analysis, and the lack of theoritical specificity in the approach to the
presumably central concept of 'function'.

One descriptive problem does arise from the choice of using formal structural
units as the principle of organization: the fact that some important grammatical
functions do not have dedicated verbal morphology. Since sections are organized
around morphemes and the analysis of their grammatical functions, those
grammatical functions are simply absent from the description. For example, most
Nahuatl varieties do not have morphology dedicated to expressing the discourse
function of downplaying the prominence of the subject relative to object, such
as a passive form (see Canger 1996 for an analysis of Classical Nahuatl). Since
Zongolica apparently likewise does not have dedicated passive morphology this
important discourse function is not included in the work at all. This is a
serious shortcoming because of the fact that the form often described as passive
or impersonal in Colonial written Nahuatl frequently has completely different
uses in contemporary dialects, which in turn tend to have innovative ways of
manipulating the pragmatic status of speech participants. It strikes this
reviewer that the “se” form mentioned above is an example of such a discourse
strategy. Many other dialects use “se” ‘one’ in the same places where Spanish
would form the impersonal with “uno” (e.g. “Uno no sabe que pensar”/‘One doesn’t
know what to think’), suggesting that Nahuatl has calqued the Spanish
expression. Here however it seems that in Zongolica Nawatl “se” has become fully
grammaticalized since it appears also inside the verbal structure, as for
example in the utterance “kan o-se-mitz-namik Gustavo?” ‘Where did we meet you
Gustavo?’. Here attention to discourse function could have motivated a detailed
analysis of this kind of construction, either justifying or bringing into
question the adequacy of the analysis as ‘se’ as being an ambiguous marker of
indefinite / first person plural.

The lack of analysis of discursive and pragmatic phenomena is almost certainly
due to the nature of the data analyzed, which does not lend itself to this type
of analysis. But the study would have been stronger if the author had explicitly
acknowledged that this was the case, and chosen a theoretical framework more
suited for analyzing this kind of material.

In sum, the book is a welcome addition to the corpus of descriptions of
contemporary Nahuatl dialects. But it could have been much more useful if it had
focused either on making a contribution to the field of dialectology or to
giving a detailed analysis of the usage of a few grammatical elements in one
variety. By choosing a scope that is too broad to give an adequately detailed
description the book joins the ranks of the many partial grammatical sketches of
contemporary Nahuatl varieties. In doing so it does fulfill its aim of pointing
to openings for future research, but it also raises more questions than it answers.


Canger, Una. (1980). Five Studies Inspired by Náhuatl Verbs in -oa. Travaux du
Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague, Vol. XIX. Copenhagen: The Linguistic Circle
of Copenhagen; distributed by C.A. Reitzels Boghandel.

Canger, Una. (1996). ''Is there a passive in Nahuatl?'' In Engberg-Pedersen,
Elisabeth, et al. Content, expression and structure: studies in Danish
functional grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamin's Publishing Co., pp. 1-15.

Engberg-Pedersen, Elisabeth, Michael Fortescue, Peter Harder, Lars Heltoft &
Lisbeth Falster Jakobsen. (1996). Content, Expression and Structure - Studies in
Danish Functional Grammar, Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Engberg-Pedersen, Elisabeth, Michael Fortescue, Peter Harder, Lars Heltoft,
Michael Herslund & Lisbeth Falster Jakobsen. (2005). Dansk Funktionel
Lingvistik – en helhedsforståelse af forholdet mellem sprogstruktur, sprogbrug
og kognition. København / Roskilde: Københavns Universitet / Handelshøjskolen i
København / Roskilde Universitetscenter.

Harder, Peter. (1996). Functional Semantics: A Theory of Meaning, Structure and
Tense in English. (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 87). Berlin/New
York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hasler Hangert, Andrés. (1996). El Náhuatl de Tehuacán-Zongolica. Centro de
Investigaciones Superiores en Antropología Social. Casa Chata, Mexico.

Hasler Hangert, Andrés. (2001). Gramática moderna del Náhuatl de Tehuacán-Zongolica.

Lastra de Suárez, Yolanda. (1986). Las áreas dialectales del Náhuatl moderno.
Serie antropológica, no. 62. Ciudad Universitaria, México, D.F.: Universidad
Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas.

Tuggy Turner, David. (1991). Curso del Náhuatl Moderno. Universidad de las
Américas-Puebla, Puebla.

Magnus Pharao Hansen holds MA degrees in Indigenous American Languages and Cultures from the University of Copenhagen and in Anthropology from Brown University, where he is currently working towards the PhD in Linguistic Anthropology. He has done fieldwork on the Nahuatl language of Hueyapan, Morelos, and dialect surveys in the Zongolica area as well as in Southern Puebla and Morelos. He has also worked on the Otomi language of San Jeronimo Acazulco, and is currently interested in the linguistic and social effects of the institutionalization of indigenous languages.