“Eh” is Canadian Chinook Jargon

Something to brighten your flu season in the North land:

Anglican missionary John Booth Good’s 1880 gem of a guide to the Chinook Jargon spoken in BC’s southern interior follows custom, laying out some model conversations.

These are conventional for the genre, starting from a premise that the reason you’d be chatting with an Indian is to get her/him to do your manual chores.

Good’s dialogue is thus almost certainly modeled on other folks’ already published ones. I’ll plan to collect together all that I know of soon, to demonstrate they formed a trend.

What I’m finding both distinctive and charming today is that Good’s characters show some concern for each other’s well-being.

Practically the first sentence on page 32 inquires “How are you?” (This is rendered as < Klah-how-yah mika? >, yet another example of White folks’s persistent linguistic urban legend that Native people intended the first word as “How are you”!)

The conversation proceeds to “Are you sick?” This is where we get a gift that I suspect is going to keep on giving. The Chinuk Wawa translation given is < Sick mika, eh? > 

When I check in Samuel V. Johnson’s 1978 dissertation on the Jargon, I see that he caught that last word, duly indexing it as a “Interrogative”. SVJ implicitly compares < eh > with the well-known na, typical of the lower Columbia River region whose traditional languages it comes from.

Na (it feels weird to capitalize it, because of the following facts!) turns a statement into a Yes/No question, by getting tacked on as an “enclitic” either

  • (A) right after whatever concept is being focused on — which is the older, original usage — (thus < Skukom, na, okuk plie… > ‘Is this prayer powerful?’)
  • (B) as the second word in the sentence — which I think is the later historical development (thus, máyka na tʰíl. ‘Are you tired?’)

(About punctuation: in (A) the commas make intuitive sense, because they visually show how the word before them is being highlighted and questioned. As for my ending (B) with a period, I’ve known Native language workers who refuse to write a question mark in this type of sentence, because a particle like na “is a question mark”.)

The most recognizable example in our current times of revitalized Chinuk Wawa comes in

  • (C) wíkna, the Grand Ronde “tag question” that historically developed out of (A) (wík ‘no’ +na = ‘isn’t it?’). This wound up being just about the only na in most people’s way of talking. It’s very different from both (A) and (B), because instead of adding it after a single word, you say it at the very end of your sentence. This works like English tag questions, “…isn’t it?”, “…aren’t you?”, “…doesn’t she?”, etc., and English speakers have a very easy time learning to use it.

You can see that sentences with (C) aren’t exactly Yes/No questions anymore! In fact, to many linguists including me, they’re not questions at all. Instead, the “tag question” at the end works more like an encouragement to interact with the speaker. There’s an enormous literature of linguistic studies like this on tag questions, precisely because it’s social in nature, and therefore harder to define than simply “question marker”.

Now this brings us back to S.V. Johnson calling < eh > an “Interrogative”, doesn’t it? In fact if you delve further, you’ll find that Johnson appends the comment, “tag at end of sentence”, underneath this lexical item.

Just to say that when we create the Great Big Dictionary of All Chinuk Wawa (I’m working on it), we are safe in splitting na and < eh > off from each other.

Give the Canadians their own word, eh?

[Edited to add: speaking of Canadians, I want to credit a Canadian friend for suggesting to me the idea that wikna traces back to the French-Canadian-Métis community that formed part of the original Grand Ronde reservation society. I love this! Bother are basically [Negative]+[Question Mark], and both are tag questions. Time to investigate the Native languages for any competing sources of tag questions, which I suspect hasn’t been researched yet.]

No word yet on how to translate “hoser”. Ideas?