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Western Shoshoni Grammar

Occasional Papers and Monographs in Cultural Anthropology and Linguistics, Volume No. 1Occasional Papers book cover

by Beverly Crum and Jon Dayley (1993)
ISBN: 0-9639749-0-4
295 pp.

Cost: $29.95

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This grammar is an introductory description of Western Shoshoni. It is intended for both native and nonnative speakers alike, whether laymen or specialists, and is meant to provide readers with a basic understanding of how the language works as a linguistic system. Throughout, we give copious examples illustrating the various grammatical elements and processes discussed in each section. In chapter 11 we give several texts illustrating running discourse in the language.

Western Shoshoni is a major dialect of the Shoshoni language, which belongs to the central branch of the Numic subfamily of the Uto-Aztecan family of American Indian languages. Two other closely related languages, Comanche and Panamint (= Tumpisa Shoshoni), are also in the central branch of Numic. In pre-European times, speakers of Uto-Aztecan languages occupied more territory than any other group in the Americas. More than 30 Uto-Aztecan languages were spoken over a vast area stretching from the Salmon River in central Idaho south through the Great Basin and adjacent areas into the Southwest and through northern and central Mexico. Colonies of Aztecan speakers were also scattered into Central America as far south as Nicaragua. The Aztecan language Pipil is still spoken by a few people in El Salvador today. According to lexico-statistic dating methods, the Uto-Aztecan family has a time depth of over 5000 years. Divisions of the family are outlined on the following page.

The Numic subfamily of Uto-Aztecan has a time depth of over 2000 years and is divided into three branches (central, western and southern), each containing two or three closely related languages which probably split up about 1000 years ago. Speakers of Numic languages inhabited the Great Basin and adjacent areas such as the Snake River Plain and Colorado Plateau (see map). People speaking Shoshoni occupied a large territory from the Salmon River in Idaho onto the Snake River Plain and into the Great Basin in present-day western Utah and eastern and central Nevada; Shoshoni were also in western Wyoming. Comanche is the only Numic language spoken in an area not contiguous with the other Numic languages. Speakers of Comanche were originally Shoshoni who broke off from the main group and completely adopted a Great Plains lifeway, roaming from southern Canada to as far south as Texas and even into Mexico. Today, many Comanches live in Oklahoma.

In aboriginal times, Western Shoshoni was spoken by various bands of people living a hunting and gathering lifeway in the mountains, valleys and plains of southwestern Idaho and northern and central Nevada. These people hunted large game such as mountain sheep, antelope, deer, elk and moose, as well as smaller game such as jackrabbits, cottontails, squirrels, chipmunks, ducks, geese and other kinds of birds and waterfowl. They also fished for salmon, trout, and other fish in rivers, streams and lakes, and they gathered various kinds of seeds, berries and roots. They made fine basketry, powerful bows, ceramic pots, and delicate obsidian and other stone implements.

For much of the year individual families roamed independently foraging for food, with men mostly hunting and women mostly gathering plant foods and preparing meals. The most important communal activities took place when several families came together to harvest and prepare pine nuts in the fall, or for rabbit and antelope drives. Often several families came together to winter in the same village, usually near a stream or good spring in the lower valleys. Whenever families were together there were festivities: people told folktales and narrated historical accounts of past events, and they danced, sang, and played handgame (stickgame).

The Shoshoni knew their environment extremely well, not trying to dominate it or remake it but living intimately in harmony with it. They exploited all of the animal and plant resources in the area with a sense of respect and reverence. They utilized hundreds of different plants not only for food sources but also for medicinal purposes as well as for various kinds of implements and tools (see Fowler 1972). For example, they used juniper to make sinew-backed bows, willow and cane for arrows, wild hemp for string, bark for cord, reed for flutes, and willow, tule and sumac for baskets. Houses were made with brush frames covered with bark, leaves and grasses, while sweat houses were made with mud covering the brush frames.

Several thousand Western Shoshoni live today on the Duck Valley Reservation straddling the Idaho-Nevada border, on the Fort Hall Reservation in southeastern Idaho, and in a number of colonies near several towns in Nevada. Of course, many Shoshoni live throughout the area working on ranches and farms; many also live in urban areas in the West. But even though many live in urban areas, most of them maintain their traditional cultural beliefs and practices and contribute in positive ways to those who remain on the reservations.

The grammatical description in this monograph is based on the Western Shoshoni spoken today on the Duck Valley Reservation straddling the state line in southwestern Idaho and northeastern Nevada. One of the authors, Beverly Crum, is a native speaker of the language and has spent the last twenty-five years or so working with the language and teaching it (see Crum 1980, 1985, 1993, Crum and Miller 1987). Over the years she has recorded and transcribed the speech of various native Western Shoshoni speakers, especially that of elderly people (many of whom are mentioned in the Acknowledgments). The vast majority of examples cited in this work are from these people, either as spoken in ordinary conversations or in folktales and historical narratives. However, a few examples have been elicited in order to illustrate some grammatical details that don’t commonly crop up in ordinary discourse.

This grammar is truly a cooperative effort in the best sense, even enlightened sense, in which the two authors complemented each other, each contributing his or her expertise appropriately and scrutinizing the work of the other in a positive way.  We constantly consulted with each other, advised each other, sometimes argued with each other, but mostly kept working to make this monograph appear.  In general, Beverly Crum provided the examples, native speaker insights, and commentary for the various aspects of grammar discussed herein; she also checked every sentence example for authenticity with several older native speakers.  Dayley wrote the grammatical description and elicited sentence examples of more arcane grammatical facts.  Both authors read the manuscript over and over critiquing it endlessly for possible errors.

The first two chapters are a short synopsis of the essentials of Shoshoni grammar, while chapters 3-10 are more detailed descriptions of various aspects of the grammar. Chapter 11 contains several texts, which the reader may wish to look at before finishing earlier chapters. In chapter 12 we discuss the orthography used to write Western Shoshoni and also give a detailed description of the sound system or phonology. Chapter 12 could be read first before other chapters, but since it is the most technical chapter in the book, unless the reader is a linguistic scholar, we recommend that it not be read at least until the reader has finished chapter 2. The glossary following chapter 12 contains all of the Shoshoni words used in the book along with information about them.