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  • Witsuwit'en Grammar: Phonetics, Phonology, Morphology
  • Keren Rice (bio)
Sharon Hargus . Witsuwit'en Grammar: Phonetics, Phonology, Morphology. UBC Press. 2007. 850. $150.00

Witsuwit'en is a dialect of Witsuwit'en-Babine (also called Babine, Northern Carrier, Western Carrier, Babine/Witsuwit'en, and the Bulkley Valley Lakes District language), a language of the Athabaskan family, spoken in parts of British Columbia. Readers who are familiar with Athabaskan languages will expect a language with intricate phonology and morphology, and they will not be disappointed. Hargus states that Witsuwit'en morphology is elaborate even by Athabaskan standards, and in Witsuwit'en Grammar (WG) she gives a richly detailed description [End Page 303] of its phonetics, phonology, and morphology, often with comparison with other Athabaskan languages.

Following a brief introduction on geography, demographics, previous work on the language, dialects, and the language name, Hargus divides WG into four major parts: segmental phonetics and phonology, morphology and phonological structure, suprasegmental phonology, and prefix case studies, followed by a short conclusion and appendices (historical phonology, writing systems for the language, verb paradigms, texts).

Hargus spent over fifteen years working on Witsuwit'en, beginning in 1988. WG is a monumental work that provides a careful, detailed, and thorough account of the sound system and word structure of the language.

In terms of sound, WG contains what is expected for an Athabaskan grammar - detailed discussion of consonants, vowels, and syllable structure. WG is, to my knowledge, the first Athabaskan grammar with a detailed phonetic study, including a study of stress. This is a wonderful addition. The part on morphology is over four hundred pages, with sections on nouns, postpositions, the directional system, adjectives, numbers, and seven chapters on verbs (overview, verb roots, verb prefix position classes, aspectual suffixation, verb theme categories, inflectionally defective verbs, phonological domains). The chapters cover standard areas for an Athabaskan grammar, as well as topics that address areas that are not dealt with in other Athabaskan grammars. The chapter on phonological domains covers a much-discussed topic, providing insight into Witsuwit'en domains and giving food for thought in understanding domains in other Athabaskan languages.

Case studies introduce morpheme-specific alternations, the first person plural subject prefix, the areal prefix, and the D-voice prefix. These studies touch on descriptive and theoretical issues, raising important points for languages of the family as a whole.

Reviewing a technical grammar for a non-specialist is not easy, but such a reader might find two areas intriguing. Witsuwit'en has a rich directional system, with directionals containing a root identifying direction, a prefix marking distance or direction from the speaker, and a suffix indicating the general area of the direction specified by the root. Hargus identifies eleven roots, translated as 'up,' 'down,' 'uphill/back,' 'downhill,' 'upstream,' 'downstream,' 'ahead,' 'behind,' 'side,' 'side/ outside,' and 'across.' Prefixes mark a neutral distance, in a straight or direct line, right here, and way out there; suffixes indicate diffuseness or compactness of location, direction of motion to or from, and distance to location. The system shows the importance of rivers and of fairly precise directions. Directionals are also used to form new words; examples include the word for shorts or a miniskirt, 'pants/skirt way [End Page 304] up,' with a directional 'way up,' and the expression 'the road to hell,' literally 'way-down trail.' Directional systems occur across the Athabaskan family, and Hargus provides an especially nice discussion of the Witsuwit'en system.

Another noteworthy topic that Hargus discusses is loanwords. Witsuwit'en has borrowed words from many languages - Gitskan, French, English, Chinook Jargon, and other Athabaskan languages. Gitskan introduced terms related to social organization (e.g., mask, contributions at a feast) terms related to material culture (e.g., button, yarn), and terms related to flora and fauna (e.g., berry, fireweed, cedar, bald eagle). Loans from Athabaskan languages include words for chair and God, and loans from French include words for bottle, table, key, silk, frying pan, potato, and thank you. Loanwords are abundant in Witsuwit'en compared with many other Athabaskan languages, revealing something of the complex social situation in the area in which the language is spoken.

Witsuwit'en Grammar is a major contribution to...


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