Kanyen’kéha Linguistics

The punctual suffix

According to the Mohawk Standardization Project (page 33), “Write the glottal stop as part of an ending that indicates the punctual verb form.” The examples given are:

wà:keke I ate it
én:keke I shall eat it
á:keke I ought to eat it
wa’kenóhare I did wash it
enkenénhsko I shall steal it
wa’khní:non I bought it
enkhní:non I shall buy it

Why is there a glottal stop written when it is not pronounced? There are two possible explanations:

  1. It could be simply a convention, like the apostrophe in the English possessive, as in the dog’s bone, or the cats’ blankets. In these English examples, the apostrophe has no pronunciation, it is simply a visual cue that the phrase is possessive: distinguishing dog’s (possessive) from dogs (plural).
  2. It could be a remnant from an older form of the language where a glottal stop was pronounced in the punctual.

At first glance, it seems that explanation 1 is the correct answer. However, there is lots of evidence, both historical and present, to support explanation 2.

Cross-linguistic (historical) evidence

The closest language to Mohawk is Oneida, and here the punctual aspect is indicated by a glottal stop, which is indeed pronounced. He stole it is wahanʌ́skoʔ, which apart from orthographical differences, is virtually identical to the Mohawk wahanénhsko. In more distantly related Tuscarora, he will steal is hranę́skuʔ. The glottal stop similarly shows up in punctual verbs in Seneca: wáënöts̈yo:wi: they would tell and so on. It is clear that, at some point in the past, when the Mohawk language was closer to its Iroquoian relative languages, there would have been a glottal stop pronounced in the punctual.

Modern day evidence

Yet in present-day Mohawk, the punctual ending is silent. Is there any evidence in Mohawk that there is a “hidden” glottal stop in the punctual, much like there is a hidden “h” in the 2sg (hs-) and 3msc.dl. (hni-) pronominal prefixes? Indeed there is, and it shows up in the accentuation-stress pattern. To start with, here are a couple of rules for determining Mohawk stress and epenthesis (adding sounds in).

  1. There are two types of vowels in Mohawk: stress-bearing and epenthetic.
    1. Stress-bearing vowels can receive an accent, and are an essential part of the vocabulary item.
    2. Epenthetic vowels are added in to make words more pronouncable. In English, the “n” in “an apple” is epenthetic: it is added to smooth the flow of speech. Mohawk epenthetic vowels are special because under most circumstances, they do not receive an accent, nor are they counted as a syllable when assigning the accent to a word (more on this below). There are two non-stress bearing epenthetic vowels in Mohawk: a and e. On these pages, epenthetic vowels are in italics.
  2. Mohawk almost always accents the second-to-last stress-bearing vowel. Whether this vowel is long or short, high tone or falling tone, depends on other rules which will not be covered here. Some examples:
    1. otsì:tsya (flower), a’én:na (bow), yà:ya’k (six), oháha (road).
    2. a’nó:wara (turtle), ó:nenste (corn), atyà:tawi (dress)
    3. anòn:warore (hat)
  3. The epenthetic vowel e is added between two consonants which are not permitted to appear side-by-side. One place this occurs is after the 1sg pronominal prefix k-. As can be seen in the example table above, when k- is followed by “h”, there is no epenthetic e: enkhní:non. But when k- is followed by “n”, the illegal consonant cluster “kn” arises. The solution? Add an epenthetic e: wa’kenóhare.
  4. In Mohawk, glottal stops may only occur after a vowel–it is not permissible to have combinations like r-’, k-’, t-’, etc. Epenthetic vowels are always inserted between these consonant clusters: re’, ke’, te’, etc.

With these epenthesis and stress rules, we can now re-examine the punctual forms of verbs. Let’s look at a few habitual, punctual, and stative forms (using 3neut.sg.):

  1. -khonni- “cook food”. kakhón:nis, wa’kakhón:ni, yokhón:nih. This is a simple example without any epenthetic vowels. In each case, the second-to-last vowel is accented.
  2. -rohrok- “collect it”. karò:roks, wa’karò:roke, yorò:ronh. Here, the punctual form has an epenthetic vowel between the verb stem and the punctual suffix. Underlyingly, the form of the verb would be wa’karò:rok but the combination k’ is not permitted. You can see from the underlying form that the stress is on the second-to-last vowel, although in the surface form, it is third-to-last. This is because the epenthetic e does not count for determining stress.
  3. -nohar- “wash it”. kanóhares, wa’kanóhare, yonóhareh. Here all three forms have epenthetic e’s, which have shown up because -rs, -r’, -rh, cannot occur at the end of words. The accent is on the second-to-last stress-bearing vowel.
  4. -nonhwe’- “like it”. kanòn:we’s, wa’kanòn:we’ne, yononhwé:’onh. This case is very interesting for several reasons.
    1. the final e in the verb stem -nonhwe’- is stress-bearing.
    2. the habitual, as expected, accents the second-to-last stress bearing vowel.
    3. the punctual suffix is -n’. This is, in and of itself, unpronounceable in Mohawk, so an epenthetic e is added between the n and the glottal .
    4. the stative suffix, -onh, has a stress-bearing vowel. Thus the stress moves one spot to the right, over the é:, in accord with the general Mohawk stress rule.

Without understanding epenthesis, it is difficult if not impossible to explain the stress placement and forms of the punctual suffix in forms 4a)–4d) above.

All this explains why the punctual aspect suffix is a glottal stop . Without this glottal stop, there would be no need for the epenthetic vowel e to appear in forms like wa’karò:roke’.

  • If the punctual suffix was not a glottal stop, we would logically expect a verb form like *wa’karò:rok, which is incorrect.
  • On the other hand, if the punctual suffix was -e, we would expect a form like *wa’karohró:ke which is also incorrect.
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