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Review of  Some aspects of the grammar of Zina Kotoko

Reviewer: Harald Hammarström
Book Title: Some aspects of the grammar of Zina Kotoko
Book Author: Anders Holmberg Bodil Kappel Schmidt David Odden
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Jina
Issue Number: 17.818

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Date: Wed, 8 Mar 2006 18:29:34 +0100 (MET)
From: Harald Hammarström
Subject: Some Aspects of the Grammar of Zina Kotoko

EDITOR: Schmidt, Bodil Kappel; Odden, David; Holmberg, Anders
TITLE: Some Aspects of the Grammar of Zina Kotoko
SERIES: LINCOM Studies in African Linguistics 54
YEAR: 2002

Harald Hammarström, Graduate School of Language Technology,
Chalmers University of Technology/Gothenburg University


The collection of articles is aimed at describing Zina Kotoko, a Chadic
language of Cameroon. It differs markedly from other descriptive
grammars in that it is not the result of fieldwork where the language is
spoken; in contrast, it is built by a group of linguists in Tromsø,
Norway and draws exclusively on one patient native speaker ''Habi''
who happened to be a student at Tromsø. In addition, Prof. Henry
Tourneux is thanked in the preface for providing copies of
unpublished material from his fieldwork on Kotoko languages,
especially on plural formation. Unfortunately, I was not able to obtain
the same materials from Prof. Tourneux so I cannot say what exactly
the input from him is. Nevertheless, the book presents an interesting
case in point; what can you achieve without (sometimes) expensive
and/or cumbersome fieldwork?

As the title suggests, the book does not aim to span over all areas of
the Zina Kotoko language. And, in fact, more than half of the pages in
the book are not devoted to descriptive linguistics, but instead discuss
how aspects of Zina Kotoko grammar conform to various theoretical
frameworks espoused by the authors. The theoretical orientation of
the authors is very strong -- the merits and demerits of which will be
discussed individually. None of the authors is a Chadic specialist or
even specializing in African linguistics, except for Odden who has
done very impressive amounts of fieldwork on African (and other)


The non-specialist authorship has implications visible in the
introduction. We don't get the usual extensive history of the speakers
and history of research on the language and related languages. The
introduction has some ethnographic information, but it is brief and
sometimes vague. Information on classification is taken verbatim from
other works and no history of research is presented. This would be
easy even for an amateur to look up. For example, by far the earliest
material on a Kotoko language is that of Seetzen from before 1816,
most accessible as ''Seetzens Áffadéh: Ein Beitrag zur Kotoko-
Sprachdokumentation'' (Sölken 1967). Zina Kotoko does not appear
as a named distinct variety neither in (Teßmann 1932) nor
(Jungraithmayr and Ibriszimow1994). An extensive cultural account is
Lebeuf (1976).

Just as in other descriptive grammars information on intelligibility to
neighbouring varieties is given. It is a pity that we are not told whether
this is Habi's testimony or something else (no reference is cited). If it
had been based on fieldwork one would have assumed that many
people from different lects had given their opinion, but in this case
we'd like to know explicitly. The lect at hand is then variously called
the Kotoko language or Zina dialect in individual chapters, further
blurring the status.

The phonology section is authoritative with minimal pairs, examples
and comments on allophonic variation. I have no trouble
understanding the phonological personality of Zina Kotoko, which
turns out to be that of a typical Chadic language, and the suggested
orthography is straightforward. Some unresolved questions remain,
such as the nature and extent of schwa-deletion. Understandably,
authors in later chapters differ on this point and will not be commented
on further.

After phonology, the introduction gives a typological sketch of the
language. It is a bit uneven, as it presents pages of examples of
morphological paradigms (more than in the relevant chapter), and the
selection of features shows a skewed orientation, i.e. we are not told
anything about passives but we are about wh-movement and null-

David Odden: The Verbal Tone System of Zina Kotoko
The chapter describes the tonal patterns associated with different
morphological tenses of the verb in Zina Kotoko. This turns out to be
determined by a complex interaction between lexical, tense-specific,
and phonological features. The description goes through each tense
in turn, first gives plenty of examples, then an empirically argued tonal
analysis and lots of comments. The comments are brain dumps, freely
mixing comments on description, discussing of a proposed consonant
hierarchy, exceptions, phonetic level analysis and underlying-level
analysis, unsure issues, rules and the relation of one rule to another
(some rules being formalized and some not), comments on typological
prevalence, and how different tense patterns relate to one another. I
have read the chapter three times and I still get lost immediately in the
jungle of cross-referencing thoughts (entirely typical examples: ''when
the initial consonant of a polysyllabic stem is a non-depressor, the first
stem tone surfaces unchanged as M, since the underlying tone does
not lower after voiceless consonants'' (p. 25), ''As in the recent past,
the initial tone is underlying M which lowers after a depressor, and
since the rule involved in M-tone lowering, implosives are included in
the class of depressors.'' (p. 26)). It's better to read the summary at
the end, which is perfectly clear on the overall system, and then use
the rest of the chapter as an encyclopedia. After all, you will want all
matters relating to the tones of, say, the future tense, gathered in one
section, and if the factual matters happen to be exceedingly complex,
so be it.

Berit-Anne Bals and Helene Norgaard Andreassen: Reduplication in
Progressive Verb Forms in Zina Kotoko
The author aims to describe reduplicated structures in Zina Kotoko
within the Optimality Theory (OT) framework. Without being well-read
on OT, I have no trouble understanding how, what and when items
are reduplicated in Zina Kotoko, especially since there are plenty of
examples. The discussion of OT-this-and-that in a descriptive
grammar is not disturbing here, but the chapter could of course be
much shorter without the OT-analysis, which the conclusion describes
as not wholly successful anyway (p. 57).

Mark Andrew de Vos: Notes on Noun Morphology and Clefting
Constructions in Kotoko
The noun morphology part adds little to the information on the same
issue in the introduction. What's worse, it is frequently inconsistent
with the description in the introduction:
* màtàngì is 'cat' on p. 60 but 'male cat' on p. 8 (where corresponding
female form is also given).
* cákárá is 'hen' p. 60 but 'female chicken' on p. 8
* àwà 'goat' p. 60 but 'female goat' p. 10
Even basic lexical items are cited inconsistently as:
* 'house' is sg. mwa pl. màmáwì on p. 61 but sg. mwá pl. màmàwì on p.
Also basic vocabulary:
* 'person' is sg. mamala pl. matə́m on p. 62 but sg. màmalá pl. mə́tə́m
p. 8
* 'horse' is sg. bùskùn pl. bùsàkwán on p. 63 but sg. bùskún pl.
bàsàkwán on p. 9
* 'boy' is árvə̀ on p. 63 but àrvə̀ on p. 9
* 'girl' is hə̀ni on p. 63 but hə̀nì on p. 9
Finally, on p. 64 various forms are given by de Vos which are
inconsistent with forms given by de Vos himself on earlier pages (on
maniwi on p. 62 is cited, for some reason, without its tones as on p.

The lexicon at the end of the book agrees with the forms in the
introduction but it is not stated who wrote the introduction or the
lexicon. It's apparent that we can't trust the de Vos's knowledge of the
language, but hopefully he is correct on the outlines of NP agreement
and clefting constructions which he is more interested in than tones.
Provided the examples are correct, I have no trouble following how NP
agreement and clefting constructions work.

Girma A. Demeke: The Syntax of DPs
The chapter by Demeke is the weakest in the book. We are told in the
introductory paradigms (p. 72) that ''Note that Kotoko is a tonal
language. However I will not mark tones in this work for a number of
good reasons, unless it is very crucial to contrast between my data,
such as singular versus plural nouns''. There are no ''good'' reasons to
fail to mark phonemic tones.

The author makes a lot of random remarks on similarities to other
languages e.g English and Amharic. Similarities to other languages
are interesting but they should be made in a systematic manner and
not in that of an uninformed opportunist. Imagine an archaeologist,
upon finding a spoon in China, remarking ''funny, I have seen spoons
in contemporary Sweden too''. Claims should neither be spurious,
false or relevance-wanting, such as haphazard ''many Afroasiatic
languages'' (p. 74) or ''most languages'' (p. 75).

The theoretical orientation is disturbing in this chapter. For example,
upon noting that you can, just like in Italian, use a definite article plus
a possessive pronoun (''the my book'') in Zina Kotoko (p. 76), the
author speaks of ''the traditional explanation'' in complete ignorance of
explanations outside a structural framework. As a matter of fact,
Haspelmath (Haspelmath 1999) has suggested a functional
explanation for exactly the phenomenon at hand, and this should at
least have been mentioned.

Glossed examples occur often enough for us to pick up good
information on how (toneless) articles, adjectives, demonstratives and
genitives work in Zina Kotoko.

Florin Oprima: Notes on VP Syntax
Oprima has a more honest excuse for excluding tones (p. 106), ''Due
to inability to hear them correctly, tones are not represented'' but I
can't help thinking that it would have been preferable if the chapter
had been written by a linguist who can actually hear tones.

Oprima describes the verb phrases in Zina Kotoko well. A lot is in
there, such as adverbs, negation and notes on what is ungrammatical
where one could have expected otherwise.

The theoretical orientation does not distract from description.
However, one has to wonder about the merits of the theory when the
conclusion says (p. 127-128): ''I argued in [section] 4 that the
sentential negation is quite high structurally in Kotoko. Since the
infinitival constructions can be negated using the sentential negation,
they must contain the NegP, which means the nominal affix attaches
higher than NegP. However, we have just seen that this suffix must
attach lower then AgrP, which, in its turn, is lower than NegP. It looks
like the nominal affix must be simultaneously high and low. At present,
I do not have any answer to this paradox.''

Bodil Kappel Schmidt: Zina Kotoko Tense/Aspect
This chapter is a satisfactory descriptive acount of the usage of verbal
forms to various T/A-functions in Zina Kotoko. There is no spurious
theorizing, functional or structural, that distracts from the description.

Anders Holmberg: Prepositions and PPs in Zina Kotoko
This chapter is a sufficient account of prepositions, which
commendably also includes passing references to other Chadic
languages and non-Chadic geographically adjacent languages.
Prepositions in Zina Kotoko often consist of two parts, where the
second part may originally all be nouns, perhaps typically denoting
body parts. Holmberg gives examples on prepositions involving and
head and back (there are more), then notes (p. 162) ''that a
preposition 'on' is derived from the word for head is very common
cross-linguistically'' (no reference given). Had the chapter been written
by an Africanist, surely he/she would have been familiar with e.g.
Heine's work (Heine 1997) and known that not only 'on' from head is
common, but the other ones too.

Helene Norgaard Andreassen: Pronouns
All is good except the section on interrogatives which is too short (e.g
what about 'how'? ) and indefinite pronouns are not discussed at all.


We can now better address the question posed in the beginning of the
review; what can you achieve without (sometimes) expensive and/or
cumbersome fieldwork? Obviously, the work in question is much
better than nothing and as such it is a significant contribution to our
knowledge of languages of the world. But it is also obvious that it
could be much better under the very same circumstances.

There is no comparative work/connection to earlier descriptions and
no attempts to trace influence from Musgum, Kanuri or Shoa Arabic.
The lexicon contains some obvious items ultimately from Arabic ('but'
àmá, 'forty' àrbàim, 'hundred' myà, 'first' áwálàha, 'chair' kúrsìw, 'time'
sá'à and French lèkól, tábəl) but it is far from clear to me through what
language(s) and when they are likely to have come. Granted,
comparative work doesn't have to be in the scope of a descriptive
study, but it should be in this case, as the authors (e.g de Vos)
frequently speculate on the derivation of certain phenomena without
any investigation into other relevant languages.

It is, of course, also the case that the scope of the book is not full
description but also to show how various aspects of Zina Kotoko fits
into such and such theoretical grammar model. While it is important to
test theories, doing so presupposes description. All authors admit
reservations, saying that their description is not complete and that
more research is needed. If parts of description are cancelled, the
theory is not well tested and, doubtlessly, much more information on
Zina Kotoko could have been gathered instead. On the other hand,
having a theoretical interest may actually lead to a better description
as the interest may spur deeper and wider investigation. I see some
small signs thereof in this work, but not to the extent that it would
supersede an experienced descriptive linguist.


* Wrong/inconsistent gloss for mùsè lèkól (p. 134)
* References to Ethnologue (p. 2, 14) should be accompanied by year
and edition
* Some lexical items in the chapter don't appear in the lexicon e.g:
arga (p. 107)
* Several references on p. 34 have place and publisher confused, e.g:
Augustin: Glückstadt, Academic Press: New York and SIL & Univerity
of Texas: Arlington
* References on p. 57 have a different, odd, typographic convention
with a colon after the year (instead of point) but no point after pp., e.g:
Ohala, John J. 1989: ''Sound ...'', .., pp 173-198
* There is a missing full stop on p. 72 ''In addition, though, I will not
discuss the word order issue in detail I will assume that at the PF
interface all languages ...''
* Missing footnotes (p. 106)


Haspelmath, M. (1999). Explaining article-possessor complementarity:
Economic motivation in noun phrase syntax. Language 75(2), 227--

Heine, B. (1997). Cognitive Foundations of Grammar. Oxford
University Press.

Jungraithmayr, H. and D. Ibriszimow (1994). Chadic Lexical Roots,
Volume 20 of Sprache und Oralität in Afrika: Frankfurter Studien zur
Afrikanistik. Dietrich Reimer Verlag, Berlin. 2 vols.

Lebeuf, J.-P. (1976). Études kotoko, Volume 16 of Cahiers de
L'Homme. École des hautes Études en sciences sociales, Mouton,

Sölken, H. (1967). Seetzens Áffadéh: ein Beitrag zur Kotoko-
Sprachdokumentation, Volume 64 of Veröffentlichung / Deutsche
Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin. Institut für Orientforschung,

Teßmann, G. (1932). Die völker und sprachen kameruns. Petermanns
Geografische Mitteilungen 78, 113--120, 184--190.

Harald Hammarström is a PhD Student in Computational Linguistics at
the Depertment of Computing Science at Chalmers University of
Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden. His current research topic is
Unsupervised Learning of Concatenative Morphology but interests go
significantly wider and include linguistic typology and computational
linguistics in general.