Book Review: A Grammar of Creek (Muskogee) (Martin)

A Grammar of Creek (Muskogee), by Jack B. Martin
University of Nebraska Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0803211063. $75.

I had a fantastic talk on Friday with Jack Martin, Associate Professor of English (really Linguistics) at the College of William & Mary (though soon to be at the University of Florida), during which he gave me a copy of his new grammar of Creek. I thought I’d lay out my impressions here.

There are a number of things he did with the grammar which are atypical but brilliant. In particular, he pointed out to me that the grammar is much more ‘flat’, consisting of lots of little chapters covering specific phenomena, rather than two or three megachapters like ‘Nouns’, ‘Verbs’, ‘Adjectives’. He does divide the book into sections that way, but overall the structure of the book has more depth to it. It actually reminds me of Ashton’s grammar of Swahili. Everything about this grammar speaks of care and attention to detail, and it’s obvious Jack put a great deal of thought into its overall structure as well as the specifics of each section.

Another thing he mentioned is that he included a section on the history of documenting Creek, which was extremely useful. It’s an unusual grammar in that it covers a hundred year’s worth of sources as well, making this section crucial. His summary of the history of Creek at the very beginning of the book is extremely informative – I learned more in two pages about the history of languages in the southwest than I had known in all my (admittedly short) time studying languages in the U.S.

One thing I noticed and appreciated is that he includes a section on issues in analyzing Creek and Muskogean languages, in which he outlines a number of analytic and theoretical issues the arise in dealing with the languages. He briefly gives his position on each issue, along with his reasons for doing so. Jack has this brilliant way of making simple, concise statements that get right to the heart of the issue, deconstructing ideas while supporting his own, and you get the sense he’s not even aware he does it. In a simple paragraph or two, you’ll be introduced to an issue, two positions on it, and come away totally and irrevocably convinced of Jack’s position on the matter.

I’m also amazed at the depth and nuance Jack manages to achieve with the various phenomena in the book, without making it exhausting. He ‘typologizes’ (or at least summarizes the subcategories of) every phenomenon, so you get a sense of all the possible variants. For example, when covering compounds, he doesn’t just cover the various types of compounds (e.g. noun + noun, noun + verbal noun, etc.); he also breaks down those categories further, examining e.g. compounds formed from transitives v. intransitives, or compounds which result semantically in agent nominalizers v. instrument nominalizers, etc.

Finally, Jack makes as few theoretical assumptions as possible, and avoids what he calls meta-metalanguage. In other words, in keeping with his ‘anti-typology’ approach, he discusses categories like ‘noun’ only in relation to Creek, rather than in relation to language universals. It’s brilliantly done, and in no way detracts from the grammar (and in my opinion adds a great deal to it). The categories and terms he utilizes are derived solely from the features of Creek, without dependence on other languages. It’s a much more intellectually honest starting point for understanding language qua language, and avoids circularity.

Jack also incorporates modern phonetic analysis using computer software in a way that isn’t just meant to flaunt technology, but that’s descriptively useful.

This is the result of 20 years of work on his part, so I imagine he must have built the grammar piece by piece over the years. A number of the sections are based on previous works of his.

Finally, the language itself is fascinating in its structure – it must have been great fun to work on.

Overall, this is a grammar to emulate when it comes to doing language description, and I would highly recommend picking up a copy to see language description done well.