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Review of  A Grammar of Mosetén

Reviewer: Olesya Khanina
Book Title: A Grammar of Mosetén
Book Author: Jeannette Sakel
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Tsimané
Issue Number: 16.1245

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Date: Tue, 19 Apr 2005 11:23:07 +0200
From: Olesya Khanina
Subject: A Grammar of Moseten

AUTHOR: Sakel, Jeannette
TITLE: A Grammar of Mosetén
SERIES: Mouton Grammar Library 33
PUBLISHER: Mouton de Gruyter
YEAR: 2004

Olesya Khanina, Moscow State University, Philological Faculty & Max Planck
Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Department of Linguistics

This book is the first comprehensive description of a language of the
Mosetenan family. The family consists of 3 languages forming a dialect
continuum where adjacent languages are mutually comprehensible: Moseten of
Covendo - Moseten of Santa Ana - Chimane. They are spoken in Bolivia
(South America) by 600, 150-200 and 4000 people, respectively. Genetic
affiliation of Mosetenan to other language families remains unclear, even
though some hypotheses have been proposed in the literature (grouping with
Chon-Ona and Tehuelche by Swadesh (1963); with Pano-Tacanan and further
with Chona and Yuracare by Suarez (1969); including in Ge-Pano-Carib and
then to Amerindian macrofamily by Greenberg (1987)). This state of affairs
isn't actually surprising, as before the current grammar hardly any
language data on the whole Mosetenan family was accessible to the
linguistic community. That's why the grammar under review is not only a
high-quality language description that surely will be actively used by
typologists of all sorts, but also an invaluable point of reference for
comparative studies of South American languages.

The Grammar of Moseten was written by Jeanette Sakel as her PhD thesis at
University of Nijmegen and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Anthropology (Leipzig) and was published in the Mouton Grammar Library
series without any substantial change. It describes mainly the Covendo
dialect of Moseten spoken in the foothills of the Andes, in La Paz
Department. The language data comes from the author's own fieldwork, but
it includes also materials resulted from her close collaboration with a
number of native speakers who recorded the language varieties which were
beyond the reach of an outsider linguist.


The book contains 13 chapters, a list of abbreviations, some maps and
Appendix with 3 Moseten texts, statistics of word order patterns'
occurrence in written texts and a list of grammatical markers with
meanings and relevant pages in the grammar. In addition to general
references, there are 9 pages of bibliography concerned with all the
aspects of Mosetenan culture. I will report one by one about all the
chapters, highlighting the aspects of Moseten that may be of interest to
typologists and theoreticians. I'll try to avoid, where possible,
commenting on the author's strongs and weeks: it will follow in the
critical evaluation.

Chapter 1, "Introduction" presents the language, its genetic affiliation,
sociolinguistic situation, previous research and history and method of
current research. It concludes with an informative 2-page synopsis of main
structural characteristics of Moseten.

Chapter 2, "Phonology" introduces the reader to segmental and
suprasegmental phonology and to the orthography of the language. Moseten
of Covendo has 10 vowel phonemes (i, e, mid central unrounded 'shwa', o, a
+ their nasal counterparts), the length is phonemic only for the first
three of them - for nasalized as well as for oral. There are 24 consonant
phonemes, for some of them aspiration and palatalization is phonemic. The
syllable structure is (C)V(C) with only the vowel being obligatory; no
consonant clusters are possible, except 'm/n/r + glottal stop' at the end
of the syllable. However, loans can violate this syllable structure. All
affixes have nasal and oral variants and thus are subject to vowel nasal
harmony governed by the root vowels. In addition, a restricted number of
verbal roots (about 15) manifest vowel assimilation induced by certain
cross-reference markers. Its nature being, unfortunately, not specified by
the author, the place of the stress is the first syllable of the root with
few exceptions. At last, a number of morphophonological changes occur at
morpheme boundaries and all of them have nothing unexpected from
typological point of view.

In 9-pages Chapter 3, "Morphological processes", Sakel gives the reader a
general overview of morphosyntactic inventory of Moseten. The language
makes an extensive use of suffixes, clitics and reduplication, while
prefixes and infixes are very few. Verbs differ significantly from other
parts of speech: "most of the verbal roots are bound morphemes that have
to be followed by a verbal stem marker to be turned into an element to
which inflectional markers can be added" (p.53).

Chapter 4, "The nominal system", describes nominal grammatical categories
and derivation of nouns from nouns/verbs and explores noun phrase
structure. Nouns are reported to have one of two genders that are
inflected on other constituents of the NP, being as well often, but not
always, represented in the cross-reference ending of the verb. While the
masculine is less marked formally, the feminine surprisingly appears to be
unmarked functionally: a group of people of different gender are referred
to as 'feminine plural', the feminine form of benefactive is used to refer
to any group of people (even exclusively men!), when their gender is not
focused, and verbs taking object complement clauses receive feminine
object marking. There are two numbers, the singular being formally
unmarked and the plural marked by a clitic or by global/partial
reduplication of the root. Moseten nouns don't inflect for case, but there
are a number of 'case-resembling' clitics: local (adessive,
inessive, "downriver", superessive), instrumental, comitative,
associative, benefactive, 'only', 'former'. They are attached first to
determiner, if no, to modifiers, if no, to head NP itself; in addition,
they can appear as words on their own. At last, there are two possible
noun-to-noun derivations: the augmentative, marked by a prefix, and the
diminutive, marked by a lexically determined change of the
quality/nasality of the root (stem?) vowels (the latter can be applied as
well to other parts of speech, except verbs). The main feature of Moseten
NP structure is that modifiers (adjectives, relative clauses, possessors)
carry the so-called 'linker morpheme', i.e. a marker of nominal syntactic
dependency, which appears after 'case' clitics. The elements of NP can be
linearly split, e.g. by a verb, for focus purposes.

Chapter 5, "Pronouns and reference", is concerned with all types of
reference maintenance. Personal pronouns can be used on their own or can
be cliticized to a verb or to a possessed noun. Here, they show a high
flexibility: cliticized to a verb, they can refer both to the subject and
to the object, and cliticized to a possessed noun, they can agree in
person, number and gender both with the possessor and the possessum. The
other way to encode possession is to mark the personal pronoun with
the 'linker morpheme' obtaining, thus, a possessive pronoun. There are two
demonstrative pronouns - masculine and feminine - that can refer both to
animates and inanimates (the same holds true for personal pronouns).
Moseten has an extensive class of interrogative pronouns that, being
themselves constructed on the base of a single root (with one or two
exceptions), function at the same time as the first part of indefinite
pronouns (the second is indefiniteness markers) and as negative
quantifiers in the context of markers of negation. A couple of
interrogative pronouns can also be used as relative and adverbial clause
markers. Finally, apart from a number of reference tracking pronouns,
Moseten has a nice 'proform' used as a filler in discourse when a speaker
isn't sure about the content of the word, but knows it syntactic status:
various derivational and inflectional markers can be then added to it in
order to express the desired syntactic function.

Chapter 6, "Adjectives and adverbs", consists of a number of general
remarks about these parts of speech: their different syntactic functions,
their derivational patterns and comparison techniques. However, the
existence of true separate classes of adjectives and adverbs and their
differentiation from stative verbs and nouns isn't properly presented and
lacks if not argumentation, at least clarity. There seem actually to be a
true separate class of adjectives, but in the light of overwhelming
typological discussion of adjectives that have been occurring the last
decade (cf., among others, Bhat 1994, Dixon & Aikhenvald 2004, Whetzer
1992), a general linguist would expect the 2004 grammar to be more
pronouncing on the matter.

Chapter 7, "Quantification", gives an account of the numeral system and
quantifiers. The former forms "a decimal system, which may have arisen
from a quinary system" (p.167).

Chapter 8, "The verbal system", and Chapter 9, "Voice", treat the Moseten
verb. Remembering quite agglutinative nature of the language, it's
possible to describe a typical morpheme structure of the verb, even though
it appears to be rather complex. It consists of a (bound) root followed by
a 'verbal stem marker', then eventually by associated motion and/or voice
markers, then eventually by aspect markers and obligatory by cross-
reference endings. In addition, the root can be sometimes preceded by
causative and applicative prefixes. Unfortunately, the relative order of
the suffixes of different categories is not discussed in the book, so for
some cases - like associated motion and voice - it remained unclear (the
reader might be able to find the answer in numerous examples all over the
grammar, although the superficial check by the reviewer didn't succeed).

Verbal stem markers derive verbal stems from bound verbal roots and other
parts of speech: the choice of one of six possible markers entails the
level of transitivity and of subject participant control over the event;
for a number of verbs, the choice procedure is claimed to be lexicalized.
In the footnote (f.167, p.477), the author draws a parallel between these
markers and 'light verbs' and 'verbal classifiers' of other languages, but
doesn't explain what is the difference between them and Moseten stem
markers, if any. Unbound roots are very few, about 15-20. The final of the
stem marker further determines which allomorph of
derivational/inflectional suffix will be used; this information is also
lexicalized to a great extent (e.g. the stems ending in -ki can be
either "consonantal" or "vowel" (p.202)).

There are six affixes of 'associated motion': four of them refer to the
movement to/from a deictic center ('go away to do an action', 'come to do
an action', 'to perform on the way there', 'to perform on the way here'),
one is a distributive ('movement in several directions to perform an
action' - cf. reduplication distributive 'action performed in several
locations') and the last one is used only in combination with some of the
deictic suffixes above ('interrupted movement').

Moseten voices are reported to be causative, applicative, middle,
antipassive, passive and reflexive/reciprocal (expressed by a single
suffix and differentiated only by meaning). Valency increasing causatives
and applicatives stay apart from the others as they are encoded
exclusively by prefixes and both by prefixes and suffixes, respectively.
Even though they have several variants, none of them overlaps with valency
decreasing affixes. The valency decreasing affixes, on the contrary, are
expressed just by two suffixes that spread over all valency decreasing
operations: -ti- is one of antipassives and reflexive/reciprocal, -ki- is
another antipassive and the only middle, the passive is encoded by
combination of any of two causative prefixes and -ti- suffix. Surprisingly
enough, this coincidence of form doesn't bring the author to any
generalizations: she doesn't seem to see any problem in such a mess
of 'homonymic' affixes (e.g. -ti- 'antipassive' and -ti- 'reflexive'), on
the one hand, and the expression of the same concept by totally different
affixes (antipassive -ki- and -ti-), on the other hand. Thus, to sum it up
for the review reader, there are actually only two valency decreasing
suffixes (-ki-, -ti-) and the latter can co-occur with causative prefixes
to encode also a type of valency decreasing operation.

Aspectual derivations are progressive (differentiating between transitive
and intransitive variants), inceptive (expressed by two different
suffixes), iterative (expressed by total reduplication, suffix or infix,
all responsible for different meaning: 'fast repetition', 'repetition over
a long period of time' and 'neuter repetition', respectively) and durative
(expressed by partial reduplication). In addition to them, there are a
number of analytic constructions, particles and clitics that are used to
express aspectual meanings. They are treated partly in this Chapter
(habitual analytic structures with auxiliary verbs 'be, sit' and 'know'
and habitual clitic), partly in Chapter 11 (see below).

Speaking about cross-reference system, there are intransitive and
transitive paradigms. In the former, there is agreement only in gender
with the subject (i.e. A/S argument, as Moseten is an accusative
language), 1st person plural inclusive subject being an exception: it has
a special suffix, which doesn't show gender distinctions though. In the
latter, there is agreement in person, gender and number of both subject
and primary object, but all verbal forms 'only refer to a subset of these
features' (p.185), i.e. there is no verbal form displaying the agreement
in all three categories for both participants. This transitive cross-
reference system is far from being straightforward, and no general logic
was found by the author. Sakel simply lists possible suffixes resulting
from all combinations of subject's and object's gender, person and number,
leaving thus the discovery of overall strategies operating on them for
further research.

There are special affixes for 2nd person imperative; commands to other
persons are expressed by general cross-reference forms. Negative
imperative doesn't have special form and is expressed by standard verbal
negation of positive imperative. It's worth noting that reflexive verbs
take slightly different imperative affixes which might probably turn out
to be trivially derived by their etymology, though. At last, few verbs
have lexical hortative forms whose etymology is opaque.

Chapter 10, "Negation", discusses negation strategies and related
problems. Moseten has general negation marker that can be applied to the
entire close, as well as to any of the constituents. It is also used as an
answer to negative questions. There are also a negative existential marker
and a negative possessive marker, even though in positive existential and
possessive clauses no copulas are used at all (see below).

Chapter 11, "Modality and discourse markers", treats particles and clitics
all having in common that they are a part of sentential semantics and they
are not obligatory. Clitics are differentiated from particles on linear
order criteria: the latter can appear everywhere in the clause, even in
the very beginning, while the former are always attached to the right of
their host (first element of the clause for sentential clitics). Moseten
has two productive evidential particles ('hearsay' and 'sensory
experience'), a number of modal particles and clitics (only two of them
are treated as 'grammatical': irrealis and necessity, nine others encoding
speaker's certainty), five emphasis markers, six 'referential discourse
markers' (cf., 'only, just', 'again', 'also', etc.) and eight
temporal/aspectual reference particles. The latter being facultative,
Moseten temporal reference can thus always remain unspecified and the same
clause can refer either to past, present or future.

Chapter 12, "Clause types", is concerned with different types of
independent clauses of Moseten (verbal, non-verbal and interrogative) with
special attention to their constituent order. The language is 'pro-drop'
and full NPs appear only for introduction of new referents or for emphatic
purposes. The least pragmatically marked word order is SV(O) in these
cases. Non-verbal clauses usually don't contain any copula and the
combined elements are just juxtaposed (the only exception are negative non-
verbal clauses, see above). Interrogative clauses have a question particle
that follows the interrogated element, the latter being always fronted,
i.e. in a clause-initial position. There are also a number of focus
constructions involving special focus particles.

Chapter 13, "Clause combinations", explores clause coordination and
subordination in Moseten. Basically, clauses are coordinated in the same
way as NPs are: either by juxtaposition, or by a special particle. The
contrastive coordination can be marked by one of two particles (clitics?):
emphasizing subject non-coreference 'but', and frustrative, used to mark a
contrast within a clause as well. Relative (restrictive, non-restrictive
and headless), adverbial and complement clauses have the same structure as
independent clauses. Their subordinate function is either marked only by a
suffix ('linker morpheme', see Chapter 4), particle or clitics in case of
relative, complement and adverbial clauses, respectively, or isn't marked
at all in the case of same-subject complement clauses. There are two minor
non-finite clause types: nominalizations that are only reported to encode
complement clauses of ditransitive matrix verbs like 'forbid' and 'beg'
and participles used almost exclusively for description of successive
actions of the same participant. The word order in subordinate clauses is
more or less the same as in independent clauses.


The book provides a detailed and comprehensive description of Moseten. It
is the result of a deep and careful investigation of the language that was
completely unknown before this study. The grammar is really reader-
friendly: the language is extremely clear (the only small problem is the
confusing usage of the word 'marker' instead of 'suffix', 'particle'
or 'clitic') and all the numerous examples are carefully glossed and
translated, for many of them the pragmatic context is provided as well.
It's evident that the author has a thorough knowledge of Moseten that goes
far beyond general linguist's needs. Moreover, this study represents an
exemplary collaboration between a linguist and speech community: e.g. the
choice of orthography for this purely scientific study was ruled not by
methodological considerations, but resulted from the discussions in the
community induced by the researcher.

However, the main minus of the grammar is somehow connected with its
pluses: the author seems to prefer stating linguistic facts as they are,
instead of trying to find a better analysis and to provide plausible
arguments for it. Still, I think it will be quite easy for typologists and
other general linguists to find examples relevant if not to their
theoretical discussions, but to their topic for sure. All main linguistic
facts are carefully documented and if one is interested in presence or
absence of a feature in Moseten, (s)he can find the necessary information
in the book. Unfortunately, it's not always possible to go into further
details, though sometimes it is.

Summing up, even though the analysis presented here is not probably as
detailed and insightful as that found in some other descriptive grammars
of the last decade, one can't simply disregard the fact that the basics of
the whole language family were unknown before this book. It seems to be a
matter of metaphysical reflections whether it is better to publish that
precious information one has for the moment or to pursue never-ending
analysis leaving the whole subject a mystery to the others.

At last, I'd like to make some comments on the structure of the grammar.
It possesses a very detailed table of contents, making it in principle
easy to find necessary information. Such clarity is particularly
important, as some facts appear not in the place you would expect it:

1. Nominalization in treated in Chapter 4 "The nominal system", not in
Chapter 8 "The verbal system", while verbalization (that is confusingly
referred to as 'incorporation markers'), on the contrary, is presented in
the latter, not in the former chapter;
2. The fact that each modifier of an NP is marked by the 'linker
morpheme', not only one of them, is mentioned in the Chapter 6 "Adjectives
and adverbs", not in Section 4.7. "Noun phrase structures";
3. "Voice" is treated in a separate Chapter 9 and not as a part of Chapter
8 "The verbal system", even though it's encoded by the same type of verbal
affixes and Chapter 8 is said to treat "inflectional and derivational
verbal structures" (p.181);
4. Reflexive/Reciplocal are described in Section 8.1. "Verbal inflection",
not in Chapter 9 "Voice", even though they are expressed by the same type
of affix, as other valence-changing derivations;
5. Section 8.5. "Aspect" of Chapter 8 "The verbal system" is announced to
treat only derivations on verbs, postponing all other ways of expressing
aspect to further chapters; but 'habitual' treated there is encoded either
by an analytic structure, or a by a clitic of the type presented in
Chapter 11 "Modality and discourse markers";
6. Frustrative that actually is a sentential discourse marker used not
only in coordinated structures, is treated in Chapter 13 "Clause
combinations", and not in Chapter 11 "Modality and discourse markers".

Moreover, the structure of the entire Chapter 8 "The verbal system" is
quite confusing and doesn't facilitate understanding: the exposition goes
from inflection to stem types, then to stem markers and back to
derivational affixes. It seems to be logical to go in the reverse order:
first to describe stem formation by stem markers from bound roots, then
the types of stems resulting from the previous procedure, then the
derivational affixes operated on these stems and at last inflectional

And if the structural oddities can be generally overcome by the mentioned
table of contents, a very strange choice of abbreviations turns out to
cause some problems in reading the book. While in descriptive and
typological linguistics abbreviation of almost all grammatical meanings
are conventionalized to a great extent (cf. such an outcome of this
convention as Leipzig Glossing Rules at and thus can be often
understood without reference to the List of abbreviations, it's not true
for this grammar. Examples include ITI = 'iterative', RE = 'reflexive', NO
= nominalization, CS = stative causative, HA = 'habitual', etc.

It's worth noting that the quality of the editing is really high: for 504
pages, I haven't encountered any real misprint (can 'focuSSing'(p. 91) be
considered to be a misprint?) and only one mistake in glossing (example
8:284 must have DK, not AN for -ki- morpheme (p.274)). The only fairly
serious error is in the footnotes: in the text, the footnotes from 52 to
59 appear as 19-26, in the body of the notes it's the correct 52-59.

A Grammar of Moseten is by sure a very important contribution to the field
of South American languages and general typology. There is no doubt that
comparative studies in the area may now go much further and that many
linguists will find it as valuable source of data on the whole range of


Dixon, R. M. W. and Aikhenvald, A. Y. 2004. Adjective classes: A cross-
linguistic typology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bhat, D. N. S. 1994. The adjectival category: criteria for the
differentiation and identification. Amsterdam: Benjamins. (Studies in
Language Companion Series, 24)

Greenberg, J. H. 1987. Language in the Americas. Stanford: Stanford
University Press.

Suarez, J. A. 1969. Moseten and Pano-Tacanan. Anthropological Linguistics
11(9), 255-266.

Swadesh, M. 1963. On aboriginal languages of Latin America (Acerca de
languages aborigines de America Latina). Current Anthropology 4, 317-318.

Wetzer, H. 1992. "Nouny" and "verby" adjectivals: A typology of predicate
adjectival constructions // Michel Kefer, Johan van der Auwera (eds.).
Meaning and grammar: cross-linguistic perspectives. Berlin: Mouton de
Gruyter, 223-262.


Olesya Khanina is a PhD student of Moscow State University, Philological
Faculty, Department of Theoretical and Applied linguistics and a visiting
scientist at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Leipzig),
Department of Linguistics. She is currently working on a cross-
linguistical study of desideratives, with attention both to its semantics
and morphosyntax. Beside the desideratives, her research interests
includes typology of argument structure (interaction between parameters of
argument structure and actionality). She has an extensive field-work
experience in a number of languages of Russian Federation (Tatar, Chuvash,
Balkar (Turkic), Nenets (Uralic)).