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Musqueam Reference Grammar

By Wayne Suttles

Review By Dorothy Kennedy

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 149 Spring 2006  | p. 91-4

The late Wayne Suttles’s monu mental Musqueam Reference Grammar fo cuses on the language of the Mus queam people of the lower Fraser River, speakers of a Downriver dialect of the language known to linguists and anthropologists as Halkomelem, one of the twenty-three languages comprising the Salishan language family of British Columbia and Washington State (and, marginally, Oregon).

Suttles undertook his study of Musqueam at various times over a fifty-year period, finding his first opportunity to learn about the Musqueam dialect (and thus to pursue the Boasian goal of exploring culture through language) while teaching anthropology at the University of British Columbia in the late 1950s. Andrew and Christine Charles of Musqueam proved to be ideal teachers, and Suttles was a most capable, dedicated student and a skilful field worker, though this study took his entire career to complete.

The volume begins with an informative introduction placing Halkomelem within its linguistic and cultural setting and clarifying recent taxonomic usage, much of which Suttles adopted for his editing of the Northwest Coast volume of the Handbook of North American Indians. A brief summary of the regional social system follows. This is a subject to which Suttles made so many salient contributions early in his anthropological career that many colleagues lost sight of his initial interest in linguistics, which he developed while translating Japanese for the US Navy during the Second World War. Suttles concludes his introductory remarks with a sketch of linguistic variation found among his handful of fluent Musqueam consultants, along with his and their brief reflections on the dynamics of dialect formation and language change.

While a full understanding of the complex processes of linguistic change awaits further analysis, one comment by Suttles on Halkomelem dialects is of particular interest. In earlier times, Suttles opined, there was likely greater di versity within each of the Halkomelem dialect areas than there has been in the last couple of generations. Individual villages and even parts of villages could retain unique features of speech. Due to general language loss, it is not clear how homogeneous the Downriver dialect may have been, yet Suttles postulates, based on the Musqueam elder James Point’s statements, that there were no great speech differences within this dialect. Musqueam speech closely resembled that of neighbouring Halkomelem groups. Beginning in the 1950s, however, the speech of younger Musqueam was influenced by Cowichan Halkomelem, due to the Musqueam students’ attendance at residential school on Vancouver Island, in addition to the preferential use of the Island dialect for ceremonial purposes. The Cowichan dialect of Halkomelem, at the expense of the Musqueam dialect, had become the language of the smokehouse.

Suttles’s approach to presenting Musqueam grammar is contained in the title of the book. This is a “reference grammar,” a work purposely cleansed of technical jargon so that it might be more accessible to non-linguists. In his descriptive framework Suttles places syntax before morphology on the grounds that this is more conducive to teaching one how to generate sentences than is the more commonly employed method of placing morphology first. Tables and lists of lexical affixes are introduced only after a good grounding in phonology and syntax, and throughout this highly readable volume caveats and footnotes alert the reader to divergent or contributing views. Suttles’s elicitation of dozens of texts in Musqueam, only five of which are presented here, contribute to his compilation of an extensive lexical file that serves to elucidate phonological and lexical differences among Halkomelem dialects, and it adds significantly to our understanding of complex Musqueam grammatical rules.

Throughout the volume, each Musqueam individual ’s contribution is noted by the use of initials, along with a number representing the text from which examples were taken. Explanatory notes accompany each text and are compiled with such expertise that we are easily convinced of the high quality of the scholarship. The texts are presented in sets of four lines: (1) the original language as recorded; (2) the original language with morpheme-bymorpheme segmentation; (3) an an alysis of the morpheme segments, identified by abbreviations ; and (4) a close English translation. This structure is used throughout the volume. Suttles does not offer much comment on the recording process, which may be disappointing to some, but that is not the aim of this work. Still, the texts offer many examples that are rich in sociolinguistic information and that are of interest to non-specialists.

Thankfully, for the non-linguists among us, this volume was not meant as a work of theoretical linguistics. Suttles’s tendency to present analyses through examples, together with his brief for mal summaries of major structures and processes, helps to remove some of the obscurity inherent in the study of these difficult Northwest Coast languages. For linguists, however, it is all here, including extensive sections on negation and lexical suffixes, abundant data on the morphology of the verb, and flowcharts to illustrate full paradigms of a few representative verbs. A chapter on kin terms provides materials that complement those presented in the excellent discussion of semantics and sememics included in Brent Galloway’s (1993) more theoretically orientated Grammar of Upriver Halkomelem. Suttles does not employ Galloway’s notion of “alloseme” (i.e., words and morphemes that are semantically close or parts of a continuous range of meaning) to de scribe the Halkomelem use of single kinship terms for dual relations equidistant from ego (such as greatgrandparent and great-grand child). What Suttles does explore is how kin ship terms reflect features of Musqueam social structure.

An additional chapter on grammatical features concerning space and time, some of which Suttles has presented elsewhere (Suttles 1987), brings together data on spatial conceptions and discourse functions and illustrates the strength of his interdisciplinary approach, which draws upon linguistics, knowledge of the physical environment, and significantly, Musqueam cultural practices. The result is a comprehensive and comprehensible account that will satisfy linguists and lay readers alike.

Musqueam Reference Grammar demonstrates the continuing contributions that twentieth-century linguistic research holds for the maintenance and renewal of Northwest Coast Aboriginal languages. It is appropriate that UBC Press should publish it now, at a time when Abo riginal communities are be coming acutely aware of the waning numbers of indigenous language speakers and are mustering all available resources to help preserve and revitalize these languages. It is well recognized that language revitalization requires a team approach, with members of the speech community as foundational, and with linguists assuming vital roles, contributing grammars and dictionaries, and advising on orthographies and teaching methods.

It was Wayne Suttles’s hope that the Musqueam people themselves would discover a use for this grammar. But it may be that the book’s true value will be appreciated only once the current glow of interactive, computerized language lessons has faded, as this grammar does not offer a quick fix for aboriginal language retention. It is simply a very fine reference work that presents the results of a talented linguist’s collaborative efforts with previous generations of knowledgeable Aboriginal language specialists. It will be a useful and appropriate addition to the bookshelf of any student of the Northwest Coast.


Galloway, Brent. 1993. A Grammar of Upriver Halkomelem. Vol. 96: University of California Publications in Linguistics. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wayne Suttles. 1987. Four Anthropological- Linguistic Notes and Queries. In Papers from the 22nd International Conference on Salish and Neighbouring Languages, University of Victoria, August 13-15, 1987, ed. John Dunn, 185-192. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, Department of Linguistics.

Wayne Suttles, ed. 1990. Northwest Coast. Vol. 7: Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.