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Tersis, Nicole et Michèle Therrien (dir.) 2000 Les langues eskaléoutes, Sibérie, Alaska, Canada, Groënland, Paris, CNRS Éditions, 365 p.

  • Mick Mallon

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  • Mick Mallon
    Iqaluit, Canada

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There are fourteen articles in this collection, a selective survey of the state of the art in Eskaleut linguistics at the turn of the century. Such a broad project must have demanded much thought in its conception and development. For the reviewer, restricted to two pages, it presents a daunting task if he is to avoid a series of disjointed summaries. One way out of the dilemma is to target a particular audience. I think I can disregard those who are active in the field. One look at the contributors (a Casablancian list of the usual suspects) and you know what to expect. Instead, I intend to aim at younger students at the beginning of their careers, challenged by the hints they have heard of these intriguing languages in their general courses, and keen to find out a little more at a greater depth.

Start with the introduction. Stop skimming and start your serious reading at the section headed Tendances génerales des langues eskaléoutes. That will give you an overview of the topics that will be dealt with in detail later. But be cautious of the word fluidité in the heading fluidité des catégories et des niveaux syntactiques. The glide from noun to verb or vice versa in mid stride may seem liquidly chameleon when you first encounter it, but such changes are handled with the precision that is the hallmark of this language. It is linguists who have trouble with the "imprecise frontiers between morphology and syntax," not the speakers of the language.

From there go straight to the first article, Louis-Jacques Dorais’s Présentation géolinguistique et sociolinguistique de la famille eskaléoute. If you don’t get the geography straight from the start then you will get lost in the superficial differences between dialects. From there I would move to Michael Fortescue’s Parenté génétique des langues eskaléoutes. Now you have a broad picture of the whole language family in space and time.

In the detailed articles that follow, four contain excellent preliminary overviews of specific language systems. Lawrence Kaplan’s contribution, L’inupiaq et les contacts linguistiques en Alaska, for example, has two introductory sub-sections: Systèmes phonologiques (This sub-title appears in the list of contents, but not in the actual text) and Caractéristiques de la grammaire inupiaq. The remainder of his article deals with the effects of contact between Inupiat and Yupik speakers. At this stage it may be a little arcane for you, but there are some obvious lexical examples, some familiar phonological effects at the segmental level, and a more intriguing discussion of prosodic effects (not usually a feature of the Inuit language). Ronald Lowe’s Systématique du mot inuit, as its title suggests, deals mostly with morphology, which in Inuktitut extends far into the mechanisms dealt with by syntax in French and English, and for that matter Chinese and Malay as well. Lowe’s work has been with the dialects of Inuinnaqtun, on the Canadian arctic coast, but his clear and ordered exposition is among the best introductions to the morphology of the language that I have come across. In fact, those of you who like to start with detail before overview might prefer to plunge in right here. In Indérivation en kalaallisut, Karen Langgård focuses on one particular feature of Inuktitut as spoken in Greenland, but her two-page section Aperçu sur le kalaallisut covers the nature of Inuktitut succinctly. By this stage you may be ready for the more complex processes of Yupik. Osahito Miyaoka’s Morphologie verbale en yupik alaskien central is a detailed step by step description of the morphology of that language, including the relationships among rhythmic accent, vowel length and tone, prosodic features that tend to overwhelm those of us who have led a sheltered life working with Inuktitut. Miyaoka’s article has another level. He takes time to mention how older speakers take pride in their oratorical ability to exploit the morphological richness of a polysynthetic language.

I would like to expand on this topic for a moment. It is understandable that for linguistic purposes a collection of sentences is simply a corpus of material for analysis. However, occasionally, when some stirring fragment from a legend is being industrially dissected and analyzed, one is reminded of the forensic autopsy of a golden youth laid out stiff and cold. It is pleasant when the obvious enthusiasm that linguists have for the languages they work on appears in the course of a scientifically rigorous paper. One paper in which this human element is in fact the focus is Michèle Therrien’s Nouvelles terminologies en inuktitut, wherein she analyzes neologisms created by professional Inuit translators. What we get here is an insight into the intellectual processes that are fostered in its speakers by the nature of this language. Incidentally, if this interests you, lay your hands on the book Therrien refers to: Louis-Jacques Dorais’s Lexique analytique du vocabulaire inuit moderne au Québec-Labrador (titled Uqausigusiqtaat in its English version).

The other papers in this collection focus on the favourite topics mentioned in the introduction, such as ergativity, the nominal / verbal dichotomy, and the boundaries between morphology and syntax. Two writers venture beyond current orthodoxy, Jerry Sadock with his strict division into four separate and distinct levels of analysis, and Nikolai Vaxtin with his application of the concepts of polypredication to Siberian Yupik. Despite all this coverage there is still room for young linguists out to make their mark. One topic that is surprisingly neglected by most linguists is the grammar of discourse in Inuktitut. It seems to me that there in a difference between the strictly regulated, easily analyzed grammar of the sentence as an isolated unit, and the much more subtle patterns displayed in discourse, where normally subordinate moods seem to be promoted in order to keep the discourse flowing. That leads to another topic, the role of context as a grammatical determinant. There are choices made in conversation that are too subtle for me to emulate. I wish someone would explain them to the rest of us.