Foundation for Endangered Languages
11. Book Reviews
The Languages of Native North America - Marianne Mithun
This book provides an authoritative survey of the several hundred languages indigenous to North America. These languages show tremendous genetic and typological diversity…
Part I of the book provides an overview of structural features …, concentrating on those that are cross-linguistically unusual or unusually well developed. These include syllable structure, vowel and consonant harmony, tone, and sound symbolism; polysynthesis, the nature of roots and affixes, incorporation, and morpheme order; case; grammatical distinctions of number, gender, shape, control, location, means, manner, time, empathy, and evidence; and distinctions between nouns and verbs, predicates and arguments, and simple and complex sentences; and special speech styles.
Part II catalogues the languages by family, listing the location of each language, its genetic affiliation, number of speakers, major published literature, and structural highlights. Finally, there is a catalogue of languages that have evolved in contact situations.
Brief review This book is so encyclopaedic it is almost unreviewable. It is, however, an amazing asset to anyone with a wide-ranging interest in the languages of North America. It sets its southern border according to the USA's realization of its 'manifest destiny', vintage 1852, though some of its languages do extend south into Mexico.
The publishers' synopsis above tends to emphasize the aspects expected to stimulate the interest of structural linguists and typologists, and certainly the work is a cornucopia for them. But the work is equally useful for those concerned for language communities, both socially and historically. It is notable that Mithun in her surveys devotes full attention to all the languages that are known to have existed in North America since the access of the White Man (and therewith the notice of western science.) For example, in her treatment of the Algic family (i.e. Algonquian with the addition of the Californian languages Wiyot and Yurok, which were only definitively recognized within the family in the 20th century) she notes that 'there is significant depth of scholarship here, because they were the first with which European had prolonged contact, because they are numerous and because several are still thriving'. She says that 'only a portion of the wealth of material that exists can be mentioned here' but then goes on to discuss the history of knowledge of all the known constituent languages dead or alive over ten pages with copious bibliographic reference (always annotated). Having done that there are three more pages giving the characteristic structural features of this family. When a language family has spread south of that pesky US-Mexico border (as Uto-Aztecan, which reaches from California's Northern Paiute to El Salvador's Pipil) she lists all the members, with bibliographic pointers, only forbearing to discuss the southern stories in detail.
But the vast range and quantity of information that is set out here does not make for breathless read. Mithun has time to stop and smell the flowers. In a review of North American phonemic inventories she remarks (p. 17) that Central Alaskan Yupik has a verb pikagte- that means a form of lisping, using front velars instead of back velars (e.g. [k] instead of [q]), thus neatly illustrating her claim that uvular or postvelar obstruents are common, particularly in the West. And what a drama is implicit in her account of the crucial documentation of Luiseño, a language of Southern California, that now has just three dozen speakers.
Between 1899 and 1906 Philip Stedman Sparkman, an English storekeeper near Rincón, studied Luiseño with Silvestre Gomez. Kroeber visited him in 1904 and encouraged him to publish a grammatical sketch (1905). Sparkman continued … but was murdered in 1907… With help of Luiseño speakers …, the material was published by Kroeber and Grace in 1960.
Sparkman's assailant made the world wait half a century for the grammatical information in the University of California's The Sparkman grammar of Luiseño.