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Reviewed by:
  • Language Contact, Inherited Similarity and Social Difference: The Story of Linguistic Interaction in the Maya Lowlands by Danny Law
  • John S. Robertson
Language Contact, Inherited Similarity and Social Difference: The Story of Linguistic Interaction in the Maya Lowlands. Danny Law. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 328. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2014. Pp. xii + 206. $158.00 (hardcover).

The book under review is the work of an accomplished scholar, reflecting a thorough grasp of theories of language contact, of Mayan language scholarship, and of the linguistic character of the Lowland Mayan languages, and geographically affected non-Lowland languages.

The book is divided into ten chapters: “Language Contact in the Mayan Lowlands”; “Mayan Languages and Linguistic Areas: Areal Phonology”; “Mayan Languages and Linguistic Areas: Syntactic, Semantic and Morphological Features”; “Person Marking and Pattern Borrowing in Lowland Mayan Languages”; “Cholan, Yukatekan and Matter Borrowing in Person Markers”; “Contact Effects in Lowland Mayan Aspectual Systems: Direct Borrowing”; “Pattern Borrowing and Split Ergativity”; “Secondary Contact Effects”; “Language Ideology and Contact”; and “Conclusions: Contact among Related Languages.”

The first chapter makes it clear that this study treats neither lexical borrowings nor borrowings from non-Mayan languages; rather, it investigates bound grammatical morphemes, including person markers, aspectual suffixes, numeral classifiers, and more generally semantic and syntactic structures. Law’s overall concern is what I take to be the general hypothesis of his book–that the types of borrowing that are allowable among closely related languages in sustained contact include the borrowing of bound grammatical morphemes and categories, which reportedly tends not to happen when unrelated languages are in close, sustained contact.

The book identifies a broad range of borrowings, including phonological diffusion, contact-induced change in syntax and semantics (loss of agent focusing, inclusive-exclusive distinction, split ergativity), and direct morphological borrowings (e.g., person, voice, aspect, plural markers). It discusses some cases in which the chronological ordering of borrowings can be determined (e.g., p. 103).

As Law says, “the empirical crux of this book” is “deciding whether a given similarity . . . is the result of common genetic inheritance or language contact” (p. 176). He rightly states, however, that “we are hard pressed to find a single source for the contact induced changes” (p. 46). Despite the improbability of finding the source of a given initial change, a more basic task might be to discover the motivation for such an initial change, [End Page 104] which in turn would also show why other languages would be primed for similar changes by reason of language contact.

Consider, for example, split ergativity, whose source is the progressive aspect, discussed throughout the book. In this regard, Comrie outlines a universal tendency in language: “in . . . various genetic and geographical groupings, there is similarity between the formal expression of imperfective aspect, especially progressive aspect, and various locative adverbial phrases” (1992:98). Specifically, “the basic characteristic of [the progressive] is that, in order to say ‘he is working’, a paraphrase of the type ‘he is in/at work(ing) is used” (1992:99). In Mayan, the paraphrase would be ‘he is ongoing at working’.

According to Comrie’s typology, the progressive influences the incompletive; in Mayan languages, this may happen in two distinct ways. One way is for the same predicate which anchors the progressive to be attached to the incompletive. Tzeltal has a progressive predicate yak, seen in (1a), that can be prefixed to the marker of the inherited incompletive, as in (1b).

Tojol–ab’al has a progressive predicate wan, shown in (2a), that is also prefixed to the marker of the inherited incompletive, as in (2b)–(2c).

The second is for a reduced version of the intransitive progressive to oust the inherited incompletive. The progressive is reduced by increments, starting with the originating structure (i.e., “ongoing-abs prep Verb-nomlzr,” as in (1a) above), which is identical to Tojol-ab’al, shown in (2a), except that Tojol-ab’al has lost the preposition (resulting in “ongoing-ABS Ø Verb-nomlzr”). Q’anjobal lost the preposition, too, but also moved the subject pronoun to the nominalized verb, as in (3a) and (3b).

[End Page 105]

Significantly, all these languages maintain the distinction between the progressive and the inherited incompletive.



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