Intro to Algonquianist terminology – Part 1 Background

This is part one of a series of posts giving an introduction to Algonquianist terminology, starting out with a short background on where it comes from in the first place. Subsequent posts will give descriptions and Mi’gmaq examples of various terms and are linked to below. 

Where does Algonquianist terminology come from?

Leonard Bloomfield, primarily, although also other early and later linguists who worked with Algonquian languages, especially in describing how they are related to each other and what their common ancestor language (known as Proto-Algonquian) might have sounded like.

Why is it so unlike the terms used to describe other languages?

Initial? Medial? Final? Why doesn’t English or French have any of these?

One of the goals of the early inventors of Algonquianist terminology was precisely not to use familiar terminology, because they did not want to describe Algonquian languages in terms of European languages. On the one hand, this meant that their descriptions were much better grounded in the realities of the languages that they were describing, especially by contrast with earlier grammars written from the perspective of Latin or French.

But on the other hand, this means that even potential similarities between Algonquian languages and others end up getting obscured. One example that Conor Quinn has mentioned to me is the “theme vowels” in French verbs (and other Romance languages), such as the e in travailler, which probably have a similar function as the “abstract finals” in Mi’gmaq verbs (and other Algonquian languages), such as the second e in elugwet. Also, the combination of Algonquian initials and medials as similar to compounds or serial verbs in other languages (see this paper by Phil Branigan for more). So the Algonquianist terminology may in part make Algonquian languages seem completely strange, which isn’t necessarily fair.

Pros of using Algonquianist terminology:

  • It is really quite a good description of the nitty-gritty of the morphosyntax of Algonquian languages

  • It makes comparisons between various Algonquian languages easier, because even if the sound of the morpheme itself has changed, knowing that it’s a “preverb” or a “concrete final” may help you draw analogies

  • It will enable you to understand and contribute to Algonquianist literature: if other people who know a lot about Algonquian linguistics can draw direct analogies with your topic, it may help you get better advice from them

  • It’s fairly theory-neutral: you can debate which linguistic theory better accounts for a particular phenomenon while still leaving established for comparative purposes what something is in the traditional terminology

Cons of using Algonquianist terminology:

  • It’s completely opaque to anyone who has never specifically studied Algonquianist terminology, so you’ll constantly be explaining it to them, even if they’re already linguists or speakers.

  • Knowing Algonquianist terminology may or may not help your fluency if you are an adult learner of the language. I think certain portions of it are useful for adult learners because it does help you notice patterns, but you can also definitely pick up things by hearing and practising, and you can know all the terms but still not speak or be a speaker but not know the terms.

  • It can be difficult to learn the terms as a beginner because most Algonquianist papers already assume you know it.

  • I’m not aware of much in the way of beginner guides (although Valentine 2001 has good definitions along the way, if you use the index/table of contents to find them among the 1000+ pages, and Inglis 1986 describes quite well how various Mi’gmaq morphemes fit in). I hope that this series of blog posts will add to these more technical guides and be useful for people trying to get started.

  • Even with that said, beginner guides for an Algonquian language that you aren’t already familiar with may not help much.

Should I learn it anyway?

It depends on what your goals are. For the purposes of future posts in this series, I’m going to be assuming yes–if not, of course you can always stop reading! In upcoming posts, I’ll be discussing some of the details of Algonquianist terminology, based on what I learned in writing my MA thesis (available here). There’s also some interesting posts about teaching Cree grammar at The Moniyaw Linguist.

Goals of this series

This series does not aim to be a be-all, end-all guide to Algonquianist grammar. I have made a few simplifications, some of which I’m aware of and some of which are probably accidents. So if you talk to anyone who’s been working with Algonquian languages for years, they’ll probably tell you, “Well, actually, I think that finals are really…” or “Everyone calls it direct and inverse, but I find it’s easier if you think of them as…” and so on. I’ve definitely heard a lot of these comments, and many of them have been very insightful. The problem when you’re just starting out is that saying that xyz should really be analyzed slightly differently isn’t terribly helpful when you’re not even sure what xyz is in the first place.

So the goal of this series is to help beginners get to a place where if an Algonquianist says “Well, xyz is really more like abc”, you have a reasonable idea of what xyz and abc are referring to. That being said, if you’re an Algonquianist reading this and you notice that I’ve made any basic errors, please do let me know. Also, if you’re a speaker and notice any errors or typos or things you’d say differently in the language, please do also let me know. I might potentially add this information to the grammar wiki at some point (or anyone else with an account can if you want to), but I wanted to put it up as blog posts so it can be commented on before then.

(Thanks to Janine Metallic for teaching me about the language and for proofreading the examples, many of which also come from the Mi’gmaq/Mi’kmaq online talking dictionary. Also thanks to Elise McClay and Yuliya Manyakina for comments. Thanks to Marianne Mithun and Conor Quinn for discussing the background of Algonquian terminology with me at various points. Also, pretty much every Algonquianist talk that I’ve been to has contributed to my knowledge of these terms. I can’t claim to know everything about them, but hopefully hearing from a relatively recent learner will be useful for other people starting out.)

Coming up next…

One thought on “Intro to Algonquianist terminology – Part 1 Background

  1. Pingback: 2014 Year in Review | Gretchen McCulloch

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