RecensionsBook Reviews

HOLST, Jan Henrik, 2005 Einführung in die eskimo-aleutischen Sprachen, Hamburg, Buske, 280 pages.

  • Elke Nowak

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  • Elke Nowak
    Institut für Sprache und Kommunikation
    Allgemeine Linguistik, H42
    University of Technology
    Strasse des 17. Juni 135
    10623 Berlin
    Germany
    elke.nowak@tu-berlin.de

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This “Introduction to the Eskimo-Aleut Languages” has three major parts. Part one deals with Greenlandic, part two discusses the “Eskimo-Aleut language family,” part three is an attempt at reconstructing a relationship to the Wakashan language family. To familiarise the reader with what turns out to be characteristic of the book, the part on Greenlandic starts with a “typological” positioning of Greenlandic in relation to other languages spoken in the “northern hemisphere,” namely Finnish, Hungarian, Basque, Turkish and Chukchi; vowel harmony, case marking systems, word order, including adjective-noun ordering, person marking, existence of prefixes and some other features are taken as points of comparison (p. 53). Explicitly disregarding the standard orthography of Greenlandic, the author develops a phonemic representation of his own. This later on turns out to be of considerable importance, since quite a few of the attempts at reconstructing Proto-Eskimo-Wakashan rely on these representations. Holst exclusively draws on the work of others, criticising it, but in his discussion of orthographies, speculating about stages of development with respect to Labrador Inuttut and Greenlandic, he himself neglects important sources, such as Kleinschmidt’s correspondence with Theodor Bourquin (Holtved 1964). Contrary to Holst’s claim, Kleinschmidt judged Labrador Inuttut to be “corrupted” by the influence of the German speaking Moravian Brethren, but Greenlandic to be the more conservative, “true” language. It is very unlikely that in designing his orthography Kleinschmidt was guided by the principles of historical-comparative linguistics; in none of his letters any reference to such is made. Kleinschmidt’s expressed concern was to come up with a description of Greenlandic addressing those, “who are exposed to the language day by day” (Kleinschmidt 1991: viii).

Turning to grammatical issues, it is evident that there is nothing but superficial knowledge pieced together from sources available. The descriptions given are often misleading or show a lack of insight. For those readers who have not encountered ergativity yet, the lengthy explanations may be informative. When it comes to an application to Greenlandic, it is just case marking which is considered, examples given being of the type “the man sees the woman.” While this discussion is just dull, some of the liberties taken are disturbing. Holst applies the differentiation of “Set A” and “Set B” affixes traditionally employed for Maya person marking to Greenlandic. Disregarding the fact that in Maya languages person marking is highly agglutinative, with distinct representations as prefixes as opposed to suffixes, being mirrored by the word order of the corresponding lexical arguments, he does not care to point out that such is not the case in Greenlandic. I cannot help but feel that here a language is just cut up into bits and pieces as it pleases, moving freely between different historical stages, just to provide material for any kind of comparison. The lack of differentiation between contemporary, spoken languages and reconstructed, hypothetical forms carries over to the other parts of the book, too. The unsuspecting reader can never know whether s/he is confronted with reconstructions or with descriptions of genuine synchronic phenomena. The strange neglect or even disregard for grammar is most disturbing; nothing is said about the functions of the inflectional systems, let alone the repercussions on syntax. Moods are neatly divided into coordinating and subordinating ones, disregarding the fact that coordination of verbal complexes is accomplished by a “subordinating mood” (Fortescue 1984: 120ff; Nowak 2002).

Derivation is dealt with on one page, and the impression is created that it is just a handful of affixes which incorporate (p. 125). Consequently, polysynthesis is characterized as being “less spectacular than some linguists assume” since polysynthetic languages just differ in “quantity,” not in “quality” (p. 123).

The part on the Eskimo-Aleut language family basically lists the family members and locates them, but the reader is also drawn into a debate on how to create genealogies and how to deal with sub-groupings. In the end, the familiar grouping is maintained. Again, it is primarily the sound system which is discussed, of grammatical issues the dual is mentioned and it is stated that some languages distinguish three tenses, namely present, past and future, but no mention is made of the fact that indication of time relations is accomplished by affixation, if considered appropriate by the speaker.

The third part of the book constitutes its heart, namely the reconstruction of Proto-Eskimo-Wakashan, a suggestion already put forward by Morris Swadesh in the 1950s and 1960s. But before the reader arrives there, s/he is introduced into the art of reconstruction, with references to Old Indic, Armenian and Old Georgian. Such abundance in information stands in strange contrast to the fact that no introduction into the main characteristics of the grammar of Wakashan languages is given, just an overview over the sound inventory. Finally, Holst comes up with 10 highly hypothetical sound laws, based on analogy with Proto-Indo-European, admitting many unclear cases and counting on future research. It would have been nice to see these laws applied to a representative number of cases, but no further explanations concerning the proposed reconstructions are given. Many of these are not transparent and the remaining similarities may well be attributed to contact phenomena, others to mere accident.

A reader of German, looking for, say, a course book, will be utterly disappointed. If the reader is interested in the reconstruction of distant proto-languages, s/he will have to dig through long pages familiarizing her/him with elementary linguistics. But if the reader feels happy to hop from Hittite to Finnish, to Estonian, Old Church Slavonic and Basque, to Turkish, Welsh or, Japanese, just to name a few more languages referred to, in such a case s/he will easily recognize the true nature of Greenlandic. S/he will happily identify it as a language of the northern hemisphere, as a reduplicating language, but a language without vowel harmony. Such a reader might even be convinced by the book that in the depth of time there once must have been a language which today can be reconstructed as Proto-Eskimo-Wakashan.

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