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A Tsilhqút’ín Grammar

By Eung-Do Cook

Review By Sonya Bird

July 3, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 196-98

Eung-Do Cook’s (2013) A Tsilhqút’ín Grammar is the culmination of his research on the language, spanning forty years. It provides a very thorough, albeit quite technical, overview of Tsilhqút’ín linguistic structure.

Overall, the grammar is very well laid out: it begins with an introduction to existing Tsilhqút’in research, and to some of the most notable features of the language. The bulk of the grammar includes ten chapters covering phonology (Chapter 1), word classes (Chapter 2), verbal morphology (Chapters 3-4), syntax (Chapters 5-7), and a selection of more complex morpho-syntactic topics (Chapters 8-10). The grammar ends with three annotated texts. These provide a good sense of how various structures and processes discussed in the grammar are realized in the language itself. It is a shame that the texts are not accompanied by audio recordings, which would have completed the grammar very nicely.

Cook’s grammar is best suited to linguists already familiar with Athabaskan languages, and interested in the linguistic nuts and bolts of the Tsilhqút’ín language. For example, Chapter 4 spans seventy-five pages on verb classes, including an extremely thorough discussion of morpheme co-occurrence restrictions within the verbal complex. This makes it a wonderful resource for linguists specializing in Athabaskan verbal morphology, and who are comfortable with the terminology used to describe the Athabaskan verbal complex. For more novice readers (e.g. community-based speakers with little formal linguistic training), Chapter 4 — and indeed the grammar more generally — would likely be somewhat overwhelming.

 On a related note, the line is sometimes blurred between description and analysis of the facts. Cook himself is a phonologist, and as a result there is a strong focus on phonological (Chapter 1) and morpho-phonological (Chapter 3, §3.2) aspects of the language. Throughout the grammar, illustrative forms include both underlying forms (indicating morphological structure) and surface forms (indicating actual pronunciation), and a number of complex phonological derivations are provided to illustrate how one gets from the underlying to the surface form (e.g. 2.11 on page 187). This approach is very useful, at least for formally trained linguists, since the relationship between underlying and surface forms is often not transparent. However, it assumes a particular mechanism (ordered rules) within a particular theoretical framework (rule-based). A single mention is made (on page 195) of the possibility of analyzing the data using a different (constraint-based) theoretical framework. Given the complexity of the derivations provided, one wonders whether an alternative analysis, under a different theoretical framework, might be possible, and what kinds of insights it might provide into the structure of the language.

Cook does not draw extensively on the Athabaskan literature in his grammar, as is reflected in the relatively short bibliography. For the purposes of comparison, reference is made primarily to Dëne Sųłiné, with which he is also familiar. This may well have been an intentional decision on Cook’s part, to keep the grammar a manageable size. Nonetheless, it is something to be aware of: readers interested in comparative Athabaskan linguistics will have to do their own research to see how Tsilhqút’in linguistic structures compare to those in other related languages. One concrete consequence of this decision is that readers may be left with the impression that certain puzzles noted by Cook would not be puzzling in reference to other related languages. For example, in introducing the particles in § 2.9, Cook states: “The particles exemplified below (and many others not listed here) should be properly subclassified according to their grammatical functions when more is known about them. In the meantime, they are lumped together here” (122). Consideration of similar particles in other Athabaskan languages may well clarify how the Tsilhqút’in particles presented in §2.9 should be categorized.

 Finally, Cook is very forthcoming, in particular in Chapter 2, about variability (and change) in the forms that he has elicited from fluent speakers, and does not attempt to abstract away from this variability for the purpose of descriptive simplicity. This is refreshing, as it presents a very realistic view of the fluctuating state of the language, and of the current state of Cook’s understanding of the facts. It also provides ample scope for future research on the language, to confirm that the illustrative forms provided throughout the grammar are (still) recognized as grammatical by fluent speakers[1] and to further explore individual uses of the language’s complex morpho-syntactic structure.

In summary, Eung-Do Cook’s A Tsilhqút’ín Grammar is a very impressive piece of work, documenting the complex linguistic structure of the Tsilhqút’in language in great detail. It provides an excellent resource to linguists interested in furthering their understanding of Tsilhqút’in (and other Athabaskan languages), and a very good basis on which to conduct further research on this wonderfully rich language.


[1] I know that questions have been raised within the Tsilhqút’in-speaking community about the grammaticality of some of the illustrative forms provided in the grammar.

A Tsilhqút’ín Grammar
Eung-Do Cook
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. 670 pp. $165.00 cloth