Ways to express fractions in Chinuk Wawa

Fractions are a challenge, in the majority of human languages that I have experience of.

This has to do with culture and history. Some regions of the planet — not all — have a tradition of being interested in talking about measured parts. Exceptional areas such as Europe go quite far with this, extending an existing mechanism that originally dealt with say ‘thirds’ and ‘fourths’, and developing it into an abstract pattern that can express any fractional amount that’s mathematically possible.


hayu sitkum (a bunch of fractions)

(Image credit: tes.com)

I’ve read some of the linguistic typological literature about the number systems found in the world’s languages and how they vary in terms of extent and complexity. My dissertation describing Kamloops Chinuk Wawa’s grammar (one of the pidgin dialects of Chinook Jargon) gets into this a bit, suggesting that we can extend those previous observations, which deal with whole-number (integer) systems, in order to evaluate how complex a given language’s system of fractions is too.  (See pages 210-214 of Robertson 2011.)

Chinook Jargon has probably always had the most obvious fraction of all, the originally Lower Chinookan word sítkum ‘half’; we definitely encounter it at least as far back as Demers’s work of 1838-1839. (CJ data before that have been pointed out as more variable and therefore a little harder to identify with later CJ.) An example of its use is:

Pus kopit katishism, klaska
when finished catechism they
‘When the catechism was finished, they; 

wiht kuli iht shanti mokst shanti
also run one song two song
‘also ran through one or two songs’ 

pi iawa sitkom son.
and there half day
‘and then it was noon.’

— (Kamloops Wawa #198 (September 1901), page 49)

Speakers have conventionally extended its use to mean any unspecified ‘part’ or ‘portion’:

…<35> mail
35 mile
‘…35 miles’ 

saia kopa Kamlups, inatai rivir mitlait Shushwap
far from Kamloops across river be.located Shuswap
‘from Kamloops, across the river, is’ 

sitkom, iaka nim ShKH…
part its name Shhkaltkmah
‘a part of the Shuswap [‘a Shuswap part’], called Shhkaltkmah…’

— (from the same page)

The known history of kwáta ‘quarter’ in the Jargon is less deep, extending only back to George Gibbs’s important 1863 dictionary. I want to remind you to take this observation with a grain of salt, for two reasons. First, absence of proof isn’t proof of absence. Second, Second, kwáta was obviously from English, and the anglophone literates who dominated the contemporary documentation of Chinuk Wawa seem as if they tended to omit mentioning any Jargon words whose meaning seemed obvious. Whether this word originally meant ’25 cents’ (which I strongly suspect) or ‘one fourth’ (which I hypothesize is a significantly later development of its meaning), just about everyone who was likely to read these guys’ descriptions of the Jargon could be expected to recognize the word and not need a definition spelled out. Here’s an example of it being used:

Ilip tintin kopa kwata past faiv.
first bell at quarter past five
‘The first bell was at quarter past five.’

— (same issue, page 49)

(English-based expressions came to be common for clock times around Kamloops toward the year 1900.)

That’s about it for fractional-numeral “basic words” in the Jargon.

Unlike its main European inputs (English and French, with their “one-third…one-eleventh…”, and “un tiers…un onzième…”), but very much in step with the majority of the Earth’s languages, this pidgin-creole has had no productive and predictable way to turn any old number into a fraction. Mind you, there is a suffix -i that you can put on numbers in the creole Grand Ronde dialect, but it produces an expression of ‘times’. This can be useful when you teach multiplication in an immersion setting, and when you sing Lionel Richie karaoke: íxti mákwsti ɬúni ɬúchmən, ‘one, twice, three times a lady’.

But I want to knock some truth right into your heads (a Fela Kuti lyric, since I’m in sing-along pidgin-creole mode): There is still hope. Absence of proof doesn’t equal proof of absence, remember? So check this out — look at the interlinearized literal meanings:

Thyursdi <2> Ogyust. <X> Nsaika kwash kopa makmak
Thursday 2nd August we afraid about food
‘Thursday 2nd August. We were frightened about the food’ 

aiak kopit kakwa kopit iht pawnd nsaika patlach kopa tlun
soon finished so only one pound we give to three
‘running out soon, so we gave only one pound per three ‘

man kopa iht son: kopit pus wik klaska mimlus.
person to one day only so.that not they die
‘people per one day: just enough for them not to die.’

— (same issue, page 88)

In other words, ‘a third of a pound per person’. This demonstrates a simple and logical way to say fractions:

[quantity] kopa [number of recipients]
(Numerator, Preposition, Denominator)

Which is indeed a much-used formulation in Kamloops Chinuk Wawa. My dissertation calls a variant of this the “quasi-prepositional distributive” (whatever), giving the prepositionless example on pages 229-230:

mokst tala iht ton
two dollar one tonne
‘$2 per tonne’

The ‘one pound per three people per one day’ example above happens to confer upon us the added benefit of being applicable to physics 🙂 That is, it’s an instance of embedded fractions (a third of a pound per person per day). Which shows you how to teach the physical concepts of acceleration and gravity in Chinuk Wawa immersion classrooms. It’s not hard to say “32 feet per second per second” in this language!

Further advice: please don’t try using English as the model for how you speak Chinook Jargon! Too many folks have done that.* If you’re just slapping Jargon words onto an English sentence that’s in your head, you’re just talking pitiful Chinuk Wawa. At the moment, I’m thinking about how you might intuitively/thoughtlessly transfer what I’ve taught you today over onto English words that are identical with fraction-words — but which mean something else. You know: the ordinal numbers like “third, fourth, fifth”. Those look like fractions in English, but the ideas behind them have a different grammar in Jargon. I already mentioned the -i suffix that you can use if you talk Grand Ronde style. Other dialects just say the plain number word, like when the church newspaper Kamloops Wawa frequently refers to tlun Sondi kopa Advint, lakit Sondi kopa Advint, etc. (‘the third Sunday in Advent, the fourth Sunday in Advent’ and so forth).

*(Linguist Michael Silverstein influentially argued that everyone did use their own language’s grammar when they spoke CJ. Tlus wik maika iskom iaka wawa. [Ignore him.] The much greater amount of textual data that we now have access to leads to a much more boring conclusion, that every language has speakers at greater and lesser levels of fluency. You don’t want to be the latter.)