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  • Central Hill Nisenan texts with grammatical sketch by Andrew Eatough
  • William Bright
Central Hill Nisenan texts with grammatical sketch. By Andrew Eatough. (University of California publications in linguistics 132.) Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. 121. $14.95.

The Nisenan language, otherwise known as Southern Maidu, is a member of the Maiduan language family of California; it was spoken in the Sacramento Valley and adjacent Sierra Nevada foothills. Study of the Maiduan family has long been associated with William Shipley, whose texts and dictionary of (Northeastern) Maidu were published in the UCPL series in 1963, with a grammar in 1964. Texts and dictionary from the Southern Hill dialect of Nisenan, collected by Hans Jørgen Uldall around 1930, were edited by Shipley and published in 1966.

In 1964–65, Richard Alan Smith, who was then an undergraduate student of Shipley’s at UC-Santa Cruz, carried out fieldwork with a surviving speaker of Central Hill Nisenan. In the 1980s, Smith undertook a text collection, dictionary, and grammar of the language; but he died in 1987, at the age of 44, before his work could be published. The present volume was prepared from his materials by Eatough, another of Shipley’s students.

The book contains a sketch of phonology and grammar (3–39), an English-Nisenan word list (40–50), and a collection of texts with full interlinear analysis and translation (51–119). Most of the texts are from Nisenan mythology; a few short ones are ethnographic and personal anecdotes.

The publication of this work provides an occasion for an overview of the research project on California Indian linguistics which was initiated around 1950 at UC-Berkeley by M. B. Emeneau, Mary R. Haas, [End Page 863] and A. L. Kroeber, and was carried out during the second half of the 20th century. The plan was to save information on as many of the California Indian languages as possible, in what seemed likely to be the final decades of their effective use. The initial intention of this program was that grammars of the languages studied would be submitted as doctoral dissertations—but also, in accordance with the Boasian ideal, that the researchers should be responsible for submitting text collections and dictionaries, all to be published in the UCPL series. The first language for which this was done was Karuk, and my work on that language was published in 1957. Other languages for which the full suite of grammar, texts, and dictionary have been published are Shipley’s Maidu, M. A. R. Barker’s Klamath (1963–64), Sylvia Broadbent’s Southern Sierra Miwok (1964), and Karl Teeter’s Wiyot (1964, 1993). However, out of 26 languages on which descriptive fieldwork was carried out by UC, there are twelve for which dictionaries and/or text collections remain unavailable; and nine more languages remain without published grammars or other monographic works.

To be sure, many of the Berkeley fieldworkers have published valuable articles on their languages of study. In addition, scholars from other UC campuses, as well as from outside the state, have published important monographs and articles on languages of California. As Native California was, aboriginally, the most linguistically diverse area of its size in North America, it is fitting that an exceptionally large number of linguistic publications have dealt with languages of California. In the meantime, the number of fluent native speakers of California Indian languages has decreased steadily; and yet interest in the languages has increased, not only among linguists, but also among younger Indians of the state who wish to study them for use in songs, rituals, and the maintenance of cultural traditions.

If we look back over a half century, several things are clear. First, it is gratifying to see how much was accomplished. Second, it is nevertheless regrettable that so much valuable research remains difficult to access. Third, in spite of the fact that Californian languages have apparently been on a course of obsolescence and extinction over the past five decades, they continue to be important to Native people in ways that had not been envisioned by linguists until recently.

William Bright
University of Colorado


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