A grammar of Creek (Muskogee)

A grammar of Creek (Muskogee). By Jack B. Martin. (Studies in the anthropology of North American Indianas series.) Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. Pp. 504. ISBN 9780803211063. $75 (Hb).

Reviewed by David Douglas Robertson, Spokane, WA

There are many reasons to welcome Jack B. Martin’s grammar of the Muskogean language Creek, also called Muskogee. The most visible is that this detailed account of phonology, orthography, morphology, and syntax was prepared in digestibly short chapters. The scope of each is a coherent idea, as a result avoiding the daunting breadth of so many grammars’ syntax chapters. At the same time, a refreshing openness to presenting sensibly related notions makes chapters like ‘Expressing time: Tense and related notions’ (Ch. 29) useful mini-surveys of the various ways a given category can be expressed in a language.

The collaboration of native-speaking sisters Margaret Mauldin and Juanita McGirt offers a depth and nuance that are much to be admired. The explication of innumerable fine points of Creek is invigorated by firsthand evaluations such as that of imperatives using -ip ‘indirect causative’ as ‘gentler’ (291). Likewise, the consultants’ evident linguistic sophistication enables them to clearly specify circumstances in which uncommon but acceptable constructions are used (cf. their comments about ‘independent’ freestanding pronouns, 408).

With a sharp eye and a deft hand, M dissects the notorious complexity of Creek verbs. These exploit simultaneously several morpho-phonological dimensions from ‘grades’ (~stem-internal changes) to infixation and affixation, expressing aspect, tense, mood, and several other categories. There is additionally the option of expressing verbals either as single words or periphrastically by adding an inflected copula; these periphrases can at times be contracted. Verbs understandably comprise approximately half the book (i.e. Chs. 19–36, of forty-four chapters), with a fourteen-page example paradigm of a single verb (423–35) illustrating the highly nuanced nature of this class. Nonspecialists will have to mentally translate the term ‘triplural’ to ‘plural’ (as opposed to the dual).

With its sensitivity to native-speaker intuitions and usage, this study contains several sections that stand out as addressing topics often omitted from grammatical descriptions: those on names (§44.4 et al.), and both ordinal and adverbial numerals (§33.2–3). More technical but equally useful additions include the notes on the grouping of syllables into feet (§6.2) and recognizing word shapes by category (§6.3).

The organization of this grammar is unusual in ways that faithfully reflect Creek structure. The section on discourse markers (Chs. 37–40) precedes that on syntax, but several of the discourse markers are actually affixal, which justifies their discussion adjacent to the morphosyntax. The reader might at first wonder why there is no section titled, say, simply ‘adverbs’ or ‘adjectives’, but M shows clearly how both functions are borne primarily by (certain kinds of) nouns and verbs (Chs. 17 and 27, §42.3, §3.5, §11.4, and Ch. 18, respectively).

There are symbols that M employs that are not defined in the section listing abbreviations and conventions, for example the apostrophe for a postulated deleted vowel. In addition, distinguishing plain V (verb) from italic V (vowel) could be mildly confusing for nonspecialist readers. These are very minor quibbles about a model work of ethnolinguistic documentation.