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Review of  Shoshonean Dialects of California

Reviewer: David Douglas Robertson
Book Title: Shoshonean Dialects of California
Book Author: A. L. Kroeber
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Shoshoni
Issue Number: 24.844

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With this slim volume Lincom Europa reissues Kroeber’s well-regarded 1907 publication (originally Berkeley: University of California Publications in American Archeology and Ethnology, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 66-165). The publisher thereby commits an act of scholarly generosity paralleling Kroeber’s in making available again this quite detailed set of Northern Uto-Aztecan comparative lexical data (pp. 71-89 and 93-96) and ethnological notes on the distribution of California dialects (pp. 101-153, the bulk of the monograph). It should be noted that a companion piece, Kroeber’s “Notes on Shoshonean Dialects of Southern California”, is republished as number 07 in the same series. This work has already become reasonably well-known to specialists in Uto-Aztecan, so that it seems appropriate to focus somewhat more in this review on a factual précis of its contents than on the evaluation of its merits.

Kroeber musters cognate lists largely based on his own and Albert Gatschet’s pioneering fieldwork on several dialects of around a dozen languages spoken in the state, comparing these against counterparts from Ute, Bannock, Hopi, Comanche and Shoshoni, then against Nahuatl. In Part I (pp. 66-153), he arrives at an admirable four-way subclassification of what he takes as the Shoshonean ‘family’ within the “still larger Uto-Aztekan family” (ibid.). These subdivisions are described as follows (pp. 97-101):

1. Pueblo (Hopi)
2. Plateau (Ute-Chemehuevi group; Shoshoni-Comanche group; Mono-Paviotso group)
3. Kern River (Tübatulabal)
4. Southern California (Serrano group; Gabrielino group; Luiseño-Cahuilla group)

A fairly abstract diagram of the relationships among these four (p. 100) suggests that Hopi is quite distinct. The rest cluster closely, with Kern River intermediate between the Plateau and Southern California languages.

In Part II, Kroeber takes on the “relationship of Shoshonean to Nahuatl”. Pages 154-158 survey the then-recent previous literature on this question, referencing Buschmann (e.g. 1857), Brinton (e.g. 1886), Powell (e.g. his 1891 map), León (1902) and Pimentel (1874-5). Pages 159-161 are again a brief comparative vocabulary, followed by the conclusion that the evidence in favour of genetic relation “leaves room only for wonder how the fact could ever have been doubted” (p. 162). No appreciable difference in closeness of relation to Nahuatl is found among the California branches (p. 163).

Part III, on “historical conclusions” (pp. 164-165), summarizes the ethnolinguistic inferences to be drawn from the evidence presented. Nahuatl, ‘Piman’ and ‘Shoshonean’ are in reality a single great language family. Californian Uto-Aztecan groups appear to be of long-standing residence. The Pueblo branch is not especially close to any other branch, whether Californian or Nahuatl, and are therefore long-established in Arizona. Nahuatl too is so specialized that it must have separated from the rest of the stock at a date of considerable antiquity. The Urheimat of the Uto-Aztecans, while not specified, is unlikely to have been where Brinton suggests, between the Rockies and the Great Lakes.


The present contribution was one of the important steps forward in the history of typological analysis of this language family. The method used is somewhat impressionistic, without explicit morphological segmentation, which Kroeber however calls for in future research (p. 92). Nor was comparative phonological reconstruction done, which might perhaps have led to somewhat more refined and firmer conclusions. In consequence, the author does not overtly discuss or tabulate which sound correspondences he sees, or where he finds them, so that the reader is left to pore over the comparative lexical tables -- an exercise in firsthand data manipulation that is not entirely unwelcome, but which is intensive of effort. Kroeber does however devote some space to discussing similar or corresponding sounds among the dialects (pp. 90-92). His explicit caveat in fact notes the lack at the time of published grammatical analysis on these languages (p. 66), and he does specify that “[t]his vocabulary is therefore an abstract or ideal one rather than an attempt at an actual and accurate representation of the several dialects” (p. 93).

Kroeber’s treatment is nevertheless deeply well-informed, given his own fieldwork on these and many other California languages, and his extensive record of publication (cf. Kroeber 1909a, b, 1934). His notes especially on tribal distributions and synonymy expose a wealth of detailed firsthand knowledge of individual and community history, tradition and language use. His “linguistic notes on the vocabularies” (pp. 90-92) draw apt comparisons and contrasts among selected acoustic and articulatory phonetic aspects of some of the dialects under investigation. And Kroeber attempts to provide a consistent orthography for the phonetic representation thereof, with what is by present-day standards a remarkably large and complex set of Boas-style (pre-APA and -IPA) symbols (a key to which appears on pp. 70 and 90). The result is a document that serves excellently both as a typological essay and as a reference work.

Bibliographic references are inconsistently provided, so that Buschmann’s and Gatschet’s admittedly important contributions are not fully credited in this respect, complicating the task of pursuing their materials. But the breadth and depth of knowledge being brought to bear in taxonomizing this subset of Uto-Aztecan languages is evident, and Kroeber’s four branches appear to have largely withstood the test of time (in the view of Miller 1983:118). The main question that goes begging is the subclassification of the remaining branches of the language family, that is, those languages spoken between ‘Shoshonean’ and Nahuatl territories; this is only due to Kroeber’s maintaining a strict focus on California, and has been addressed in depth since (cf. Miller 1983).

Modifications which might have been profitable for the (re-)publisher to have made could include providing a key equating Kroeber’s phonetic symbols with APA and/or IPA, in order to ease comparison with the majority of materials now in use by linguists. The addition of a separate and more complete bibliography would prove particularly valuable. And given the extensive citation of this monograph in the literature (a quick Google Scholar search, for example, shows 45 references to it), it seems clear that such a valued study deserves, after 105 years, a prefatory essay by an expert assessing its provenance, its significance for and its impact on the field. The price for such a slender paper volume seems rather steep, too, and it can be imagined that a less-expensive edition could achieve reasonable sales not only in scholarly circles, but also among native communities and museum bookshops.


Brinton, Daniel G. 1886. The study of the Nahuatl language. [Media, PA]: [s.n.].

Buschmann, Johann Karl Eduard. 1857. Die Lautveränderung aztekischer Wörter in den sonorischen Sprachen und die Sonorische Endung ame. Berlin: K. Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1909a. The Bannock and Shoshoni languages. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1909b. Notes on Shoshonean dialects of California. Berkeley: University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 8, no. 5, pp. 235-269.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1934. Uto-Aztecan languages of Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press.

León, N. 1902. Familias lingüísticas de México. México: Museo Nacional de México.

Miller, Wick R. 1983. Uto-Aztecan languages. In Sturtevant, William C. [ed.]. Southwest, pp. 113-124. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. (Handbook of North American Indians volume 10.)

Pimentel, Francisco. 1874-5. Cuadro descriptivo y comparativo de las lenguas indígenas de México. México: [s.n.].

Powell, John Wesley. 1891. Linguistic stocks of American Indians north of Mexico. New York: Sackett & Wilhelms Litho Co.
David Douglas Robertson received his PhD in Linguistics from the University of Victoria in 2012 for his dissertation documenting the extinct Kamloops pidgin dialect of Chinook Jargon and its endangered Chinuk pipa script. His research interests include language contact in western North America, missionary linguistics, and Salish languages.