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Review of  A Grammar of Teribe

Reviewer: Yury Lander
Book Title: A Grammar of Teribe
Book Author: J. Diego Quesada
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Subject Language(s): Teribe
Issue Number: 17.800

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Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2006 01:32:57 +0300 (MSK)
From: Yury Lander
Subject: A Grammar of Teribe

AUTHOR: Quesada, J. Diego
TITLE: A Grammar of Teribe
SERIES: Lincom Studies in Native American Linguistics 36
YEAR: 2000

Yury A. Lander, Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow

This monograph presents a full-length grammatical description of
Teribe, a Chibchan idiom spoken in Northwestern Panama. Teribe is a
dialect of a language occasionally called Naso, which constitutes a
separate branch of the Chibcha family. Not so long ago Naso included
also another dialect known as Terraba. The latter was used until
recently by descendants of a group ''relocated'' to the present Costa-
Rica. Now, however, the Terraba dialect seems to have disappeared,
while Teribe is still actively employed. Thus, this grammar documents
an idiom that still has about 1,000 speakers (according to the
monograph) and is felt to be an important property of the Teribe
people contrasting it with other cultures (as follows, for instance, from
the fact that the author of the volume had to get a permit from the King
of Teribe in order to study the language). That is why Quesada, the
author of the grammar, was able to fulfill an investigation of a number
of moot issues and provide a rather deep study.

It is worth noting that despite the fact that the Terraba dialect is now
dead, it got more descriptions than Teribe. In reality, until the late
1990s, Teribe was honored just a few papers written by SIL scholars
and describing single aspects of the dialect (sometimes inaccurately,
according to the present grammar). Subsequent works include a
detailed description of Teribe phonology by Oakes (2001), but first of
all a number of studies undertaken by Quesada. The monograph
reviewed here, however, is only partly based on those studies (and in
fact, occasionally presents corrections to the author's former views).
Anyway, this is the first grammar of Teribe and - as we will see shortly -
perhaps the first grammar published in English that considers a
Chibchan language so elaborately.


The body of the book consists of an introductory part and three
chapters devoted to phonology, morphology and syntax. The
exposition is supplied with sample texts and bibliography. The
chapters of the book are further divided into sections, of which some
constitute rather large and autonomous pieces. Below such sections
will be treated separately.

Chapter 1 gives general information on the Teribe people and the
genetic, areal and sociolinguistic context of their language. This
chapter also includes a brief section on previous studies of Teribe and
Terraba and an overview of the basic typological characteristics of

Chapter 2 is devoted to the Teribe phonology. After presenting the list
of phonemes, Quesada discusses most phonological oppositions
illustrating them with minimal pairs. Then the author provides
information on various phonological processes, suprasegmental
phenomena (such as tone and stress) and introduces orthographical
conventions accepted in the monograph. Remarkably, this chapter
demonstrates that phonological means do not all play the same role in
Teribe, since some contrasts that are arguably more complex than
others (e.g., the aspiration contrast, which exists here for voiceless
stops only, and tone oppositions) occupy a rather peripheral place in
the Teribe system being in most cases neutralized.

Although Chapter 3 is entitled ''Morphology'', for the most part it does
not deal with morphology per se (that is, with parts of words), since
many grammatical notions are expressed in Teribe analytically. As a
result, this chapter presents mainly the description of word classes
and grammatical markers co-occurring with them.

Section 3.1 is concerned with nominals (i.e. nouns and various types
of pronouns) and their satellites, basically those that are related to the
expression of quantity - plural markers, a partitive particle etc. A
typologically important feature of Teribe is the existence of numeral
classifiers. They are too discussed in this section, although as we will
see later, the attribution of numeral classifiers to nominal satellites is
not without problems. Finally, already this section shows the author's
interest in the interaction of the information structure and grammar,
since it concludes with a detailed discussion of topic and focus

Section 3.2 describes verbs, the word class that in fact displays the
bulk of 'real morphology' in Teribe. Somewhat surprisingly, Quesada
includes here a very brief description of non-verbal, 'asyndetic'
predications, which are said to ''roughly correspond to copular
sentences in other languages'' (p. 64). This becomes more
understandable when one finds that the verb word class in Teribe is
rather heterogeneous grammatically. In particular, Quesada shows
(though not explicates) that putative verbs may differ in how many
prototypical verbal features they display, with some lexemes being in a
sense ''less verbal'' than others. Thus, for instance, for positional
verbs the author states that ''there is no morphological evidence for
the verbhood of these forms'' (p. 66), for movement verbs he argues
that their behavior in certain aspects ''can be summarized as halfway
between positional and intransitive verbs'' (p. 69), etc. Non-verbal
predicates apparently constitute one of the extreme poles of this
scale, thus their presentation in this section contributes to its complete

Next, this section turns to verb categories, among which Quesada
marks out aspect, person/number, position, and modality. To be sure,
most of them are formally optional and/or require specific
constructions (consequently, Quesada has to describe not only their
functions but also the relevant contexts). A remarkable exception is
aspect, which therefore lies in the heart of (some part of) the verb
class and should be of definite interest for students of verb categories.
Thus already the fact that there exists some aspectual variation which
depends on syntax and information structure gives cause for
reflection. Unfortunately, the monograph presents only the first
approximation to this fragment of grammar, since it only makes formal
statements and briefly discusses relevant meanings (although note
that this topic is touched upon also in another chapter where inverse
constructions are described).

Adjectives, which make the topic of Section 3.3, are perhaps the least
interesting of content word classes in Teribe. They are claimed not
to ''inflect'' like nouns or verbs (p. 85, but recall that the nature
of ''inflection'' in Teribe is different from that in, say, European
languages). Hence most of this section deals with adjective formation,
the more so as non-derived adjectives in Teribe constitute only a small
class (carefully described here), while most adjectives are derived by
suffixation, or reduplication, or compounding.

The last section of the chapter deals with minor word classes, which
include adverbs, postpositions, conjunctions, markers of question and
negation, and particles. This section naturally involves a good deal of
syntactic information (so that, for instance, adverbs are treated here
together with complex adverbial phrases), hence it may serve as a
bridge to the next chapter.

Chapter 4 provides a syntactic characterization of Teribe, which
proves to require investigations into quite a few complex issues, such
as the extremely puzzling encoding of grammatical relations, the
interaction between a participant's topicality and its expression within
the clause etc.

Section 4.1 of this chapter is said to be devoted to simple sentence.
Nonetheless, here one can also find data on the structure of noun
phrases, comparatives, possession as well as on certain virtually
complex constructions (verb serialization and the relative
construction). One topic shared by many parts of this section
concerns identification of grammatical relations in Teribe and the
related problem of the nature of inverse constructions. In addition, this
section contains information on several ''valence and syntactic
operations'' - causative constructions, external possession and dative
shift, reflexives etc.

Section 4.2 focuses on complex sentences, among which the author
contrasts between coordinate and subordinate (paratactic and
hypotactic in Quesada's terms) constructions. In fact, this topic is not
elaborated deeply in the grammar, so in most cases the author
restricts himself to presenting general descriptive information on
grammatical means involved in clausal combinations.

Finally, Section 4.3 deals with the reflections of the information
structure in the organization of Teribe sentence. Note that this issue is
touched upon in various parts of the grammar, yet this section
provides a useful summary and discussion of the relevant facts
presented in other sections.

Chapter 5 is in a sense an appendix to the grammar, since it contains
five texts of different genres and length. All texts have morpheme-by-
morpheme glosses together with a free English translation.

The monograph concludes with a bibliography.


Any language is interesting but it is a merit of a description that a
language appears as interesting. Teribe as it is represented in this
grammar looks indeed intriguing in some respects and indicative in
others. This is achieved apparently by the author's scrupulousness
and occasional keenness on concrete issues.

Typologically, perhaps the most notable feature of Teribe is the way it
distinguishes between grammatical relations. It is not surprising
therefore that this aspect of the Teribe grammar is mentioned in
several parts of the monograph and honored with several
subsections. In general, Teribe employs three means for
distinguishing between core grammatical relations, namely (i) word
order, (ii) morphological forms of pronouns (nominative vs. oblique),
and (iii) ''agreement'', whereby verbs are suffixed with person
morphemes (which originated from oblique pronouns) and normally
are not accompanied by any corresponding lexical noun phrase. The
last two means are used almost exclusively with pronominal
participants, moreover, 3rd person nominative pronouns are null
(except for the ''different subject'' plural pronoun), so it is word order
that plays the major role in that part of the grammar. Quesada finds
the following possible transitive constructions, certain non-indicative
constructions left aside (here O refers to Undergoer, A to Actor, S to
intransitive subject, -a and -s to personal suffixes referring to Actor
and intransitive subject respectively, V to verb, while Nom and Obl
stand for nominative and oblique forms of pronouns):
1. O(Nom) V-a, or (very infrequently) O(Obl) V-a
2. A(Nom) O(Obl) V
In addition, there is an inverse construction:
3. O(Nom) V A(Nom), or O(Obl) V A(Nom), where the verb receives
special aspectual marking and the Actor is usually (but not always)
followed by the obviative marker.
The intransitive clause looks simply as:
4. S(Nom) V, or (very infrequently) V-s

The system is straightforward, since it easily allows contrasting
between Actors and Undergoers. Yet it turns out to be difficult to
provide it with any appropriate typological characterization. Quesada
spends much of his text in choosing between an ergative analysis and
an accusative analysis. He argues in favor of the latter, but using a
negative criterion: ''the members of the oblique paradigm cannot be
used to code A nor S, only O'' (p. 109). This decision is not fully
convincing, however. First, it is not at all apparent that negative
criteria can be used for assigning a language accusative or ergative
status (although they certainly can be counted as a matter of support
of some analysis). Second, while following his argumentation,
Quesada has to recruit the construction with agreement and oblique
Undergoer, which he himself seemingly considers marginal. Third, the
author apparently ignores the oblique origin of personal suffixes.
Curiously, later Quesada attempts to show that ''the use of pronoun
paradigms in Teribe has been subject to discourse grammar rather
than to strictly sentence grammar'' (p. 118), so presumably the choice
between the nominative and oblique form should not be involved in
the syntactic characterization of the language.

Note that the view that the first two constructions only (without
the ''marginal'' variant of the ''agreement'' pattern) constitute looks very
similar to ''symmetrical voice'' systems, where transitive sentences
have two (or more) structurally parallel variants, which only differ in
whether the subject is Actor or Undergoer (see Foley 1998 among
many others). With all this going on, neither Actor nor Undergoer are
demoted to become obliques (as is the case in passive constructions
in accusative languages and antipassive in ergative ones). All this
applies to Teribe. In neither of the Teribe basic transitive constructions
are there traces of elimination of Actor or Undergoer from the core of
the clause. Furthermore, given that personal suffixes serve here as
oblique pronouns, the two patterns form a symmetrical opposition:

Actor Undergoer
O V-a Obl Nom
A O V Nom Obl

Thus, Teribe at first glance seems to show a ''symmetrical voice''
system, and its main distinction from other similar languages (e.g.,
most Austronesian languages of Philippines and Taiwan) is that
different alignments are reflected here not by voice morphology but by
word order. For such systems, however, it does not make sense to
speak whether they are ergative or accusative, since they are neither

The situation becomes more complicated when we take into account
the inverse construction. However, this construction is an innovation,
which still shows a number of irregularities and typological
peculiarities. Quesada argues convincingly for the inverse analysis of
this pattern, the appearance of which is motivated usually by the non-
canonical alignment of two of the so-called topicality hierarchies,
PROXIMATE > OBVIATIVE. But many of the properties of the inverse
construction are still unusual. Thus, for instance, the obviative Actor is
nonetheless often marked with a topic particle, despite the fact that
cross-linguistically inverse constructions prefer non-topic subjects.
Further, case alignment in the inverse construction does not seem to
be well-established (in fact, Undergoer - if pronominal - is expressed
here either by Nominative form or by Oblique form, judging from
examples given, depending on person). Recall now that
the ''agreement'' pattern is restricted to pronominal Actors, so the
inverse pattern complements it in that it allows non-pronominal actors
to appear in a similar construction. Support for this comes from (1),
where the ''agreement construction'' and the inverse construction
merge. (This example is given in the section devoted to aspect and
represents a pattern not mentioned by Quesada.)

wua-kz-a äya li dë ga shotwa-kz-a
eat-SUD-3 devil TOP OBV CONN vomit-SUD-3
The devil ate [him] and vomited [him] at once. (p. 74)

(CONN - linker, OBV - obviative, SUD - sudden aspect, TOP - topic
particle, 3 - 3rd person Actor)

We thus get a clear picture of the distribution of constructions which is
based neither on ergative nor on accusative scheme. There does
seem to be a grain of truth, however, in Quesada's claim (p. 119) that
there is ''a transition currently in progress in the language''. This
follows from the occasional appearance of oblique Undergoers in
the ''agreement construction'' and the inverse construction (note that
here the two patterns again go together) as well as from the fact that
personal suffixes now turn from bound argumental expressions into
real agreement markers as this is evidenced by the occasional use of
these suffixes in intransitive sentences (p. 84) and their appearance
together with free actor noun phrases (1). Clearly, the direction of this
reanalysis is towards the accusative type. This too resembles many
Austronesian languages, which originally had ''symmetrical voice''
systems but later obtained features of the accusative type (although
perhaps this reflects an even stronger typological tendency; cf.
Maslova & Nikitina 2004).

While the Teribe system of identification of grammatical relations may
look peculiar, some other features of the language are more typical -
for the Chibchan family or typologically. Thus, for instance, the
particular role of posture (positional) and motion (movement) verbs is
observed in some other Chibchan languages, such as Cuna (Adelaar
& Muysken 2004: 64-65). But Quesada's presentation actually
highlights correlations between their grammatical properties and their
place within the grammar. As has been said already, Teribe posture
and motion verbs turn out to be among ''less verbal verbs'', and this is
possibly somehow related to the fact that typologically these verbs are
very inclined to grammaticalization (cf. Maisak 2005). In Teribe (as
seemingly in Cuna) posture verbs often appear with their more
prototypical confreres constituting what Quesada calls ''a verbal
category of POSITION''. In addition, both posture and motion verbs are
easily involved into serial chains (this allows the latter occasionally not
to be marked for aspect, arguably the main verbal category in Teribe),
which constitutes one of the canonical contexts of grammaticalization.
That grammaticalization sources should be non-typical (in respect to
other members of their category) seems to be an interesting
implication, after all.

Another feature of Teribe that is representative of Chibchan
languages is the existence of numeral classifiers. What is interesting
about Teribe classifiers, however, is that they tend to ''float'' breaking
away from the object counted:

Shwong ko plublun ĩ-no-r k-ara
dress color white see-PERF-1SG CL-one
I saw one white dress. (p. 49)

(CL - classifier, PERF - perfective, 1SG - 1st singular Actor)

In fact, examples of adnominal classifier-numeral complexes provided
in the grammar either are given without context or are included into
possessor noun phrases (which blocks their float). It has been argued
elsewhere (Bach et al., eds, 1995) that A(dverbial)-quantification has
bigger potential than D(eterminer)-quantification, so Teribe probably
helps substantiate this claim.

There are other interesting facts that can be found in the monograph.
Thus, for instance, Teribe displays very fuzzy borderlines between
coordination and subordination (employing for most kinds of clause
linking a single connector), instances of rather interesting
polyfunctionality, sometimes typologically natural (as with the use of a
single particle of adverbial origin for topics and relatives) but
occasionally surprising (cf. the use of a demonstrative for marking
CLAUSE boundaries), and even indefinite readings of personal
pronouns (p. 97) etc. It is a pity that many of these facts are described
in sections that are not devoted primarily to the phenomena in
question. But it is, of course, a merit of the author that he managed to
provide a detailed portrait of the language despite all these
''obstacles''. To Quesada's credit is also the fact that so much of
the book is concerned with information structure, which is not usual for

As for the analyses proposed in this grammar, although they are not
always fully convincing, it is important that for the most part Quesada
provides enough data for readers to be able to make decisions
themselves. This is not to say that this grammar is comprehensive -
yet it is still detailed enough and may obtain wide employment for
linguists and hopefully for the Teribe people - at least because the
Teribes can be proud of this grammar, as can its author.


Adelaar, Willem F. H., with Pieter C. Muysken. 2004. The Languages
of the Andes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bach, Emmon, Eloise Jelinek, Angelika Kratzer, and Barbara H. Partee
(eds). 1995. Quantification in Natural Languages. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Foley, William A. 1998. Symmetrical voice systems and
precategoriality in Philippine languages. Paper presented at the
Workshop on Voice and Grammatical Functions in Austronesian
Languages, LFG98 Conference, Brisbane, July 1998.

Maisak, Timur A. 2005. Tipologija grammatikalizacii konstrukcij s
glagolami dvizhenija i glagolami pozicii. [Grammaticalization paths of
motion and posture verbs: a typology.] Moscow: Jazuki skavjanskix

Maslova, Elena and Tatiana Nikitina. 2004. Case marking patterns in
diachronic perspective. Paper presented at the conference ''Syntax of
the World's Languages 1,'' Leipzig, August 2004.

Oakes, Perry J. 2001. A description of Teribe phonology. SIL
Electronic Working Papers 2001-003.

Yury Lander is a research fellow in the Institute of Oriental Studies,
Moscow. He specializes in Austronesian and Caucasian languages
and in the morphosyntactic typology of noun phrases and clauses. His
current interests include the issues of polysynthesis and typological