Mohawk’s Challenging Grammar

Aug 4, 2015 by

MohawkStopAs mentioned in the previous post, an article by Judith Thurman, titled “A loss for words”, published in the March 30, 2015 issue of The New Yorker, does a good job discussing issues of language endangerment and revitalization. (Thanks to Leni Silberman for sharing the article with me.) However, when it comes to describing a specific language, Mohawk, Thurman could do a better job. Her opening statement that “the grammar [of Mohawk] is at least as challenging as that of Latin” is an understatement—even describing the few salient points Thurman picked turns out to be quite a challenge.

Thurman’s first notable point about Mohawk grammar is that

Noun roots are modified by a welter of adjectival prefixes; the addition of the letter “h,” for example, can alter a meaning dramatically. If you err in trying to describe a man as “tall,” you may have said that he has “long balls.”

Cute example, but in and of itself adding letters (or more precisely, sounds) changes meaning in any language. Thus, in English add the “h” sound to “it” and it becomes “hit” and “ate” becomes “hate”. (“H‑dropping” in such words is a notable feature of some English dialects.) In other cases, the addition of the letter “h” changes the preceding sound rather than adds an “h” sound, as in “sip” and “ship”. And in yet other cases, “h” is a silent letter, which is not pronounced in any way, but still its addition changes the meaning of the word, as in “hour” and “our”. (Such words, which sound the same but are spelled differently and mean different things, are called “homophones”.)

The point about special prefixes on nouns is a valid one, however: Mohawk relies on such prefixes to mark grammatical notions such as gender, animacy, number, and person. Nominal prefixes can also identify nouns as denoting natural objects vs. man-made things (not unlike noun classes in Bantu languages, for example).

Thurman’s second point is that Mohawk “verbs are muscular and poetic”. Huh? Are English verbs “puny and prosaic”? I am not sure what that is even supposed to mean. Thurman’s illustrative examples are from the “untranslatable words” category: “’To bury’ someone is ‘to wrap his body with the blanket of our Mother Earth.’ A man who fathers a child ‘lends him his life.’” However, any language, including English, has rather cumbersome—or “poetic”, depending on one’s perspective—expressions for what other languages may have a single word. For instance, French has frileux and Russian has merzljak (and feminine counterpart merzljačka) but English has to explain them as “someone who is always cold” (cf. McWhorter 2014: 52). But English can also be rather poetic: for example, ‘to undermine someone’s confidence’ is to take the wind out of someone’s sails; in Russian, the corresponding expression is vybivat’ počvu iz-pod nog, literally ‘to knock the ground from under one’s feet’. Both languages also have “poetic” expressions for ‘deliberately confusing the issue’: to muddy the waters in English and navodit’ ten’ na pleten’ (literally, ‘to cast a shadow on a wattle fencing’ in Russian). Among my other favorite “poetic” idioms are the Russian pokazat’ gde raki zimujut (literally, ‘to show someone where the crayfish winter’ meaning ‘to punish someone’) and zamorit’ červjačka (literally, ‘to underfeed a little worm’ meaning ‘to eat a little’). I welcome examples from readers of their favorite “poetic” idioms in English.

A much more interesting point about Mohawk verbs is that very complex verbs can be formed to express a whole proposition, which English would require an entire sentence for. A well-formed verb in Mohawk must include not only the root but at least a prefix expressing agreement with subject and object (if applicable). For example, ‘I hunt’ is k-atorat-s where the prefix k- expresses the first person singular subject agreement (and the suffix -s expresses habitual aspect), but ‘I love him’ is ri‑noruhkwa, where ri- expresses both first person singular subject and third person singular masculine object. In contrast, ‘I love her’ is ke-noruhkwa, where ke- expresses both first person singular subject and third person singular feminine object. In addition to the agreement prefixes, which are obligatory, Mohawk verbs may also contain aspectual suffixes, such as the abovementioned habitual suffix -s or the momentary aspect suffix -a’.

The verbal complex may also contain an incorporated nominal root denoting the object. For example, ‘Sak loves the child’ may be expressed as a transitive sentence Sak shako-nuhwe’s ne owira’a, literally, ‘Sak he.him-loves the child’, with shako- expressing agreement with both a third person singular subject and the third person singular object; alternatively, the noun root of the object (if the object is indefinite) can be incorporated into the verb: Sak ra-wir’a-nuhwe’s, literally, ‘Sak he-child-loves’. Note that when the object is incorporated, it no longer triggers agreement on the verb, so the agreement prefix shako- must be replaced by ra-, which expresses agreement only with the subject. The sentence *Sak shako‑wir’a-nuhwe’s (literally, ‘Sak he.him-child-loves’) is ungrammatical. In Mohawk, each participant in the situation needs to be expressed on the verb, but only once. Note also that the subject cannot be incorporated, so ‘A child loves Sak’ cannot be expressed literally as ‘Sak child-loves’ (Baker 2001).

Adding these and other prefixes and suffixes onto verbs creates long words that are not only “longer than those of German”, as Thurman notes, but more complex in their structure, such as t‑en‑s‑hon‑te‑rist-a-wenrat-eʔ meaning ‘They will cross over the railroad track’. (The morpheme-by-morpheme gloss is DUAL-FUTURE-REPETITIVE-PLURAL-REFLEXIVE-metal-cross-PUNCTUAL; cf. Finegan 2012: 76.)




Baker, Mark (2001) The Atoms of Language: The Mind’s Hidden Rules of Grammar. New York: Basic Books.

Finegan, Edward (2012) Language: Its Structure and Use. Boston: Wadsworth.

McWhorter, John (2014) The Language Hoax. Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. Oxford University Press.


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