Joel Palmer was writing ejective consonants in 1847

joel palmer house

You can have wine & truffles at his house nowadays (Image credit: Joel Palmer House Restaurant)

Chinook Jargon reflects its Native heritage, for example with a number of “popping” sounds: c’h, k’, k’w, p’, q’, q’w, t’, t’ɬ, t’s.

They’re easy to spot in the Grand Ronde Tribes’ way of writing. That apostrophe on each sound gives it away.

This way of marking so-called “ejective” consonants is not super old. Related to a discussion on the Facebook Chinook Jargon page yesterday, I can mention that speakers of non-Native languages used to be worse at noticing these sounds. And it took quite a while more to invent a consistent way to show them.

Most 1800s vocabularies of the Jargon show scant trace of ejectivity; apostrophes there are more likely to suggest stress placement. Linguist Sarah Grey Thomason has pointed out that at least a few of the conventional spellings from that era probably indicated an awareness of ejectives (like < tzum > for t’sə́m ‘mark, write’; < klap > for t’ɬáp, and so on), but those were the exception.

French-speaking missionaries in the Pacific Northwest were the earliest group to succeed in showing ejectivity, from about 1840 onwards. It appears that they often heard it as a fancy Parisian “R” after the consonant, so they wrote < pr >, < tr >, < kr >, etc. An even more sophisticated approach was taken by Fathers Demers, Blanchet (and St Onge), and later Father Le Jeune in his “shorthand” up at Kamloops. They invented brand-new letters for ejective sounds. None of the French crew got it immediately perfect, leaving many ejectives unmarked, and tending to mark others sounds like the uvular /q/ as ejectives.

Late in that century, as “anthropology” / “ethnology” solidified into existence — this happened before “linguistics” did — the best practitioners got quite good at noticing ejective sounds in our region’s languages. The best of the best, by which I obviously mean Franz Boas, took the trouble to devise accurate ways to show these sounds in writing. Boas’s first inspiration was to write them as < t¡, t! >, etc.

Some time after 1900 Boas and, through his enormous influence on American Indian linguistics, his graduate students, evolved this into the more graceful apostrophe approach that we now see at Grand Ronde. I broadly place this development around 1930.

I hasten to add that even then, anthropologists and linguists were still far from uniform in skillfully noticing all the ejectives in the languages. That took another generation or two. And from the earliest days onward, Whites were much better at noticing ejective “K” and “Q” sounds than /p’/, /t’/, /t’s/, etc.

Now that you’ve got the fascinating history of writing ejective sounds in your mind:

Let’s go all the way back to 1847 and look at Joel Palmer’s published memoir, with its appended vocabulary of Chinuk Wawa (pages 264-270). Sadly there are plenty of typographical errors, for the usual reason that the folks who laid the type had no knowledge of this language and were working from the author’s cursive handwritten draft. But focus in on a bunch of Palmer’s words beginning in “K” and see what you think…

  • < K-wi-etst > ‘nine’ (k’wáyts) 
  • < K-puet > ‘needle’ (k’ípʰwat)
  • < K-wathen > ‘bell[y]’ (k’wətʰín) 
  • < K-wat > ‘hit’ (q’wə́ɬ)
  • < K-wallen > ‘the ear’ (q’wəlán)

“K-dash” correlates with ejective “K”-type sounds there.

Now: on the one hand, not all of Palmer’s “k-dashes” mean ejectivity:

  • < K-u-ten > ‘horse’ (kʰíyutən) 
  • < K-macks > ‘dog’ (kʰámuksh) 
  • < K-liten > ‘lead [bullet]’ (kaláytən)

On the other hand, Palmer never writes any such thing as < P- > or < T- >!

I think the case is pretty strong that this 1847 book, reflecting Palmer’s experiences of pretty early Oregon Chinuk Wawa, is trying to faithfully record popping K-type sounds.

We need to give Joel some serious respect for being one of the first to stretch a European alphabet for the needs of Native sounds. To me, his effort suggests that this Canadian Quaker’s mind was able to pay some degree of serious attention to the original inhabitants of the region.

One question that follows from this is whether the 9 treaties that Palmer negotiated with Northwest Indians reflect a kinder temperament…what do you think?