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International Conference on Historical Linguistics

The Elaboration of the Pronominal Prefix System in Lake Iroquoian



Megan Lukaniec


In reconstructing grammatical systems, it is not always clear whether differences found between sister languages represent shared innovations in some rather than loss and generalization in others. Furthermore, in the context where sister languages have been in intense contact with one another subsequent to their split, teasing apart changes due to contact versus those due to inheritance can be difficult. The interplay between these two sources of language change is explored here with regards to the pronominal prefix systems in a subset of Northern Iroquoian languages.

Among the various parts of the polysynthetic Northern Iroquoian verb, the set of pronominal prefixes stand to be the most elaborate and highly developed components of the morphology. These prefixes encode the core arguments of the clause and are categorized into agent, patient and transitive paradigms (see Mithun 2005). In general, pronominal prefixes are marked for person (1, 2 or 3), number (singular, dual, plural), gender (masculine, feminine zoic, neuter) in the third person, and clusivity in the first person. Additionally, there is a third person indefinite pronoun which refers to an underspecified, defocused third person; in some languages, this pronoun was extended to also refer to females. As Chafe (1999; 2002) points out, the same level of complexity is not shared by the entire Iroquoian family. Lake Iroquoian languages, consisting of two branches (Wendat as a separate branch and a Five Nations branch which includes Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk), have more complex pronominal systems than those found in the other members of the family (Cherokee and Tuscarora).

The richness of these Lake Iroquoian systems raises the question of how this complexity developed over time. Chafe (1999) points to the development of gender in the third person as a factor in the elaboration of these pronouns in Northern Iroquoian. Fortunately, there are still other clues to explain how Lake Iroquoian developed this intricate system, namely data that originate from the historical corpus of Wendat. Wendat, also known as Huron, has been dormant since the mid-19th century. Despite the lack of modern speakers of the language, there is a large historical corpus of the language stemming from the strong missionary presence among the Wendat in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since Wendat constitutes its own branch in the family and has had close contact with Five Nations populations, it is no surprise that these historical data have allowed linguists to elucidate contact-induced changes in the other Lake Iroquoian languages (Lukaniec and Chafe 2016; Mithun 2013).

Within this documentation, specifically Potier’s 1745 grammar, we find that Wendat had an extremely elaborate set of pronominal prefixes. According to this grammatical description, there were a total of 87 different pronominal categories in Wendat, in comparison to the approximately 58 categories found in the Five Nations languages (Chafe 2015; Michelson 2015; Mithun Ms; Woodbury 2003). Thus, the fundamental question is whether or not the large disparity in the number of pronominal categories represents innovations in Wendat after its split from the Five Nations, the collapse of categories in the Five Nations languages, or a combination of these possibilities. Furthermore, how are these differences manifested across the pronominal system?

From examining the specific distribution of these pronominal categories across the Lake Iroquoian languages, it is clear not only that Wendat makes many more functional distinctions than the others, but also that there are patterns to the generalizations made in Five Nations pronouns. For third person non-singular agents acting upon first or second persons, for the most part, the Five Nations languages use the reflexes of the pronouns with third person indefinite agents, as evidenced by the forms in table (1). In other words, unlike Wendat, these transitive pronouns are under-differentiated in the Five Nations languages, using what was originally (and still is in certain contexts) combinations with a defocusing, non-specific third person pronoun as agent. Yet, the presence of these distinctions in some languages and the lack thereof in others does not automatically point to either innovation or loss. However, when examining these patterns in connection with discourse tendencies, it becomes clear that topicality plays an important role in the elaboration of pronominal categories. Mohawk and Oneida show the least amount of differentiation in third persons acting upon first or second persons. Since speech act participants, i.e. first and second persons, are more topical than third persons, distinct pronominal categories were never developed in these two languages. Instead, the original indefinite pronoun was generalized to refer to all third person non-singular agents. Similar to Wendat, Onondaga and Seneca developed more distinctions, specifically for third persons acting upon first or second persons, yet only when acting upon a singular patient. Again, these particular developments show that innovations are in line with topicality, in that singular participants are treated as more important, and obviously, more individuated than groups of participants.

With respect to non-singular third persons acting upon third persons, as found in Table (2), different generalization patterns can be found. In particular, judging from Wendat cognates, we can tell that the Five Nations languages use third person non-singular forms that are not reflexes of the indefinite pronoun, but forms that take into account both number and gender. Although these transitive combinations do not show the same generalization with the indefinite pronoun, these patterns are still motivated by discourse topicality. Thus, when third persons act upon other third persons, these same third person non-singular agents receive greater differentiation because they are more topical referents than their third person patients.

Judging from the systems found in these Lake Iroquoian languages, aside from combinations with third person singular participants, the Proto-Lake Iroquoian pronominal system contained only the underspecified third person indefinite pronoun as a general non-singular pronoun acting upon first or second persons. Over time, certain Lake Iroquoian languages developed more distinctions in the third person non-singular transitive combinations, particularly with singular patients, as in Seneca and Onondaga. The development of more distinctions in Seneca and Onondaga does not, however, necessarily point to a different reconstruction of the family, but rather the effects of close contact between Wendat people and these groups in the 17th and 18th centuries, as found in other aspects of the grammar and lexicon (Lukaniec and Chafe 2016; Mithun 2013). Furthermore, with regards to 3NSG agents acting upon other third persons, the generalized Five Nations forms are cognate with the gendered non-singular pronouns in Wendat. These cognates suggest that these gendered non-singular pronominal categories developed first in Proto-Lake Iroquoian, with a later collapse of the category with the indefinite pronoun in the Five Nations languages.

In summary, generalizations in the Five Nations languages in comparison to the more developed paradigms in Wendat elucidate certain discourse preferences that have shaped the pronominal systems. Within the Lake Iroquoian languages, pronominal distinctions slowly developed with regard to topicality, with preferences for speech act participants over third persons, singular over non-singular referents, and agents over patients. Due to these preferences, certain pronominal distinctions never manifested themselves in the Five Nations languages. Wendat contains the most pronominal categories and these seem to have been innovated after its split from Five Nations. Again, topicality drove the development of these distinctions in Lake Iroquoian, and from there, these discourse-based motivations become generalized in Wendat, leading to further pronominal differentiation with non-topical referents.


Chafe, Wallace. 1977. The Evolution of Third Person Verb Agreement in the Iroquoian Languages. In Charles N. Li (ed.), Mechanisms of Syntactic Change, 493–524. Austin: University of Texas Press.

_______. 1999. Florescence as a Force in Grammaticalization. In Spike Gildea (ed.), Reconstructing Grammar: Comparative Linguistics and Grammaticalization, 39–64. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

_______. 2002. Masculine and Feminine in the Northern Iroquoian Languages. In N. J. Enfield (ed.), Ethnosyntax: Explorations in Grammar and Culture, 99–109. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

_______. 2015. A Grammar of the Seneca Language. University of California Publications in Linguistics 149. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

Chafe, Wallace; and Michael K. Foster. 1981. Prehistoric Divergences and Recontacts between Cayuga, Seneca, and the Other Northern Iroquoian Languages. International Journal of American Linguistics 47: 121–142.

Michelson, Karin. 2015. Gender in Oneida, in Gender Across Languages, Volume 4, ed. by Marlis Hellinger and Heiko Motschenbacher, 277–301 John Benjamins Press.

Michelson, Karin; and Mercy Doxtator. 2002. Oneida–English/English–Oneida Dictionary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Mithun, Marianne. 2005. Beyond the core: Typological variation in the identification of participants. International Journal of American Linguistics. 71:445–472.

_______. Ms. Mohawk Pronominal Prefixes. 79 pp.

Potier, Pierre. 1745. Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae. Huron Manuscripts from Rev. Pierre Potier’s Collection, Fifteenth Report of the Bureau of Archives for the Province of Ontario, ed. Alexander Fraser [1920], pp. 1–157. Toronto: Clarkson W. James.

Rudes, Blair. 1999. Tuscarora–English/English–Tuscarora Dictionary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Woodbury, Hanni. 2003. Onondaga–English/English–Onondaga Dictionary. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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