A grammar of Mosetén

A grammar of Mosetén. By Jeanette Sakel. (Mouton grammar library 33.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004. Pp. xxxi, 504. ISBN 9783110183405. $235.20 (Hb).

Reviewed by Harald Hammarström, Chalmers University

This grammar of Mosetén, a revised version of Sakel’s Ph.D. thesis (University of Nijmegen, 2002), is a full-length description of the tiny Mosetenan (or Mosetén-Chimane) family on the eastern foothills of the Andes in Bolivia. There are three languages/dialects within this family: Mosetén of Covendo, Mosetén of Santa Ana, and Chimane. The Mosetén consider themselves ethnically distinct from Chimane, but all three forms of speech are actually mutually intelligible, and thus should be considered one language from a purely linguistic point of view. The present grammar describes the dialect of Covendo, which is an endangered language/dialect (even if not immediately dying) and has an estimated 600 speakers (Santa Ana has 150–200), almost all bilingual, who have been served by missionaries for 200 years. This is in contrast to Chimane, whose 4,000+ speakers have resisted missionaries until recently and who do not have an endangered sociolinguistic profile.

Section 1.4, ‘The history of the Mosetenes and previous research’, justly dismisses earlier lexicostatistical attempts to establish a wider genetic relation for Mosetenan. A certain amount of linguistic material on Mosetén by missionaries and travelers has been in print for a long time, and there is a recent (1997) New Testament translation for Chimane, plus a manuscript dictionary and grammar materials (which are inaccessible to most linguists). The present work is based on fieldwork and is the first full-length, modern, typologically oriented grammar.

The phonology of Moséten has some interesting points: typical consonant and vowel inventory, with no tone, but it has nasal vowels. There is nasal vowel harmony that spreads from stems, and a dozen verbs have vowel-quality harmony triggered by suffixes. Morphologically there are prefixes, one infix, and many suffixes; verb morphology, as we shall see, is especially massive. There are many clitics serving case-marking and clausal functions. Partial and full reduplication is active in several word classes. As in many newer grammars, the book contains a separate section on morphophonological processes, allowing leaner-individual morpheme-function accounts later in the book.

Category-changing morphology in Mosetén includes derivational affixes and noun incorporation. Mosetén has a gender system like French, a cross-referencing verb reminiscent of Bantu, and a macrofunctional linker reminiscent of some Southeast Asian languages. The macrofunctional linker produces structures comparable to noun compounds; it introduces relative clauses; it sanctions adjectives, possessives, verbal participles and ordinals; and it has a few further uses as well. The verb can be loaded very heavily, with markers of voice derivation, aspect, motion, and subject and object gender-number reference.

The grammar at hand is complete, as it contains chapters on basic and complex clauses and discourse particles. Word order is pragmatically variable, but the basic order is AVO for transitive clauses and SV for intransitives (a conclusion substantiated by corpus-based statistics in an appendix). Often, however, a clause has no overt subject/object noun-phrase arguments as the verb carries so much information alone. Noun phrases can be discontinuous and relative clauses may precede their head, but may also follow it, especially if they are long.

This book is a must for typologists, reference libraries, and Andean language specialists. The orientation, however, is strongly toward the typological-functional, and the book does not have a lot of information on history and ethnography, language prehistory through loans, or comparative studies. The presence of endnotes instead of footnotes is an editorial failure—with 291 of them one wastes reading time flipping back and forth—in an otherwise fine book.