A grammar of Tariana

A grammar of Tariana. By Alexandra A. Aikhenvald. (Cambridge grammatical descriptions.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Pp. xxiv, 705. ISBN 0521028868. $90.

Reviewed by Edward Vajda, Western Washington University

Like other volumes in the same series, this grammar of Tariana, a North Arawak language spoken by fewer than 100 people, avoids rigid descriptive formalism and includes many observations on key sociohistorical factors that have influenced synchronic structure. Aikhenvald’s treatment of areal patterns in the linguistically diverse Vaupés region of northwestern Brazil attests to her thorough familiarity with traditional lifeways. Also commendable is A’s detailed acknowledgement of her native consultants, particularly the Brito family who provide much of the data.

A full appraisal of A’s superb treatment of this morphologically complex language exceeds the scope of this review, though a few of the book’s twenty-six chapters deserve special mention. Several facets of the morphology differ significantly enough from previously documented languages to compel the author to pioneer novel descriptive terminology. Noun structure includes up to sixteen structural positions involving interacting subsystems of classifiers (86–121), some of which are capable of attaching to other form classes. Certain noun class markers may cooccur in the same morphological word, resulting in a sort of double marking that A calls ‘stacking’. It seems likely that the technique of using a build-up of inflectional markers as a sort of stem-creation device is linked to the relative dearth of true derivational morphemes.

Another typologically extraordinary feature of Tariana is the complex system of evidentials, which apparently developed under areal influence from East Tucano languages. Most languages beyond lowland South America possessing morphological evidentials merely contrast witnessed vs. hearsay information. Tariana specifies precisely how the narrated event was experienced (287–323). One evidential indicates an event was viewed directly, another that the reported information was detected by being heard or smelled, and another that the narrator witnessed some sort of indirect evidence supporting the given assertion. These contrast with a form generically conveying the hearsay status of the narrated information. The unusual structural variety of monoclausal predicates is likewise noteworthy. A’s conclusions regarding differences between the language’s complex predicates, several types of serial verb constructions, and two types of verb compounds contribute a fundamentally new understanding of this important aspect of Tariana sentence formation.

A special topic of note concerns the language-contact situation in the Vaupés region (6–9). The Tariana people, together with neighboring tribes, traditionally practiced a sort of linguistic exogamy, according to which marrying someone of the same native language represented a transgression analogous to incest. Consequently, the native languages of one’s mother and father were completely different, with the children inheriting their father’s language along with his ethnic identity. Over time, this arrangement has led to rampant diffusion of phonological and grammatical traits.

Many features of Tariana challenge conventional assumptions regarding the limits of human-language variability. The classifier system, diverse elaboration of evidentials, and grammatically competing serial verb constructions and other types of complex predicates all render ample testimony to the value original fieldwork holds for future linguistic theorizing. This impressive volume achieves its own standard of excellence and should inspire other linguists to document underdescribed languages while there is still time.