Did you know? Another early prefix

did you know

(Image credit: First Post Nigeria)

Implicit in the Grand Ronde tribes’ 2012 dictionary, proved by historical data, contrary to expectations of pidgins: another early prefix in Chinuk Wawa.

Beginning with the first early drafts of that dictionary that I proofread circa 2001, I’ve noticed that the creolized CW of Grand Ronde has many complex forms that are made with kəmtəks (literally ‘know’) + a main word.

When that main word is a verb of skilled activity, it’s easy to take the resulting structure literally, as with the non-Grand Ronde < kumtux mamook > “to understand how it is done” as well as the less-literal “to be skillfull [sic] or competent” (Edward Harper Thomas’s 1935 “Chinook: A History and Dictionary”, page 78). Of course, you’d hardly bother creating separate dictionary entries for such predictable structures.

But when kəmtəks is combined with almost any other category of verb, and certainly when you find it with an adjective or a noun that’s not the direct object of ‘to know’, something else is going on. From the GR dictionary:

  • kəmtəks-yutɬiɬ
    literally ‘know-proud’
    actually ‘be prone to excessive pridefulness; arrogant, overbearing’
  • kəmtəks-wawa
    literally ‘know (how to) talk’
    actually ‘be prone to talking; constantly talking; a born talker’
  • kəmtəks-t’alapas
    literally ‘know Coyote’
    actually ‘be prone or predisposed to deceit; be sneaky, devious, deceptive’ (from ‘know how to be (like) Coyote’)

(Nearly?) all of the modern Grand Ronde uses of this structure carry emotional overtones, typically negatively evaluating someone’s personality. Thus we also have (literally) ‘know bullshit’, ‘know jealous(y)’, and ‘know lying’. A positive one is ‘know how to run [fast]’.

The uniformity of function in the above examples demonstrates to my satisfaction that modern Grand Ronde reservation creole Chinuk Wawa has a Habitual/Characteristic (i.e. the subject’s typical state or action) prefix kəmtəks-. As with all grammaticalized morphemes in the Jargon, I write it without a stress mark.

It’s just that we haven’t corroborated this supposed prefix in other historical documents.

Until now. What clinches the argument is a long-unavailable chunk of information: Father St. Onge’s large 1890s manuscript dictionary. That missionary priest (born 1842), whose presence is felt in countless examples and texts in the 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary, was in the general lower Columbia River region toward 1870. He was expert in Chinuk Wawa, editing the small but excellent dictionary/prayers/catechism book of Father Demers that plays a big role in the Grand Ronde dictionary.

St. Onge left behind an enormous and careful dictionary that’s unpublished; I’ve been gradually databasing it to make its contents accessible for tribal and research use. His Chinuk Wawa can be seen as pure early Grand Ronde, with tons of the features that characterize the creole: reduplication, grammaticalized prefixes, Chinookan and Lower Chehalis words, and so on. It contains many hundreds of items not known from any other source, but absolutely genuine by all appearances.

So guess what? St. Onge’s dictionary has dozens of entries built with this same kəmtəks-, or in his spelling, komtoks. Again, they express characteristic qualities, usually in a negative light. Examples:

  • komtoks-kaltas-mash
    literally ‘know-idly-get.rid.of’
    actually ʹspendthriftʹ
  • komtoks-klai-tomtom
    literally ‘know-cry-heart’ (know-be.sad)
    actually ‘grieve’
  • komtoks-mimlust
    literally ‘know-die’
    actually ‘mortal’

This construction doesn’t have to reference humans, though. Look at some examples that apply to inanimate objects, which finishes off any claim that komtoks actually means ‘to know’ here:

  • komtoks-kopet
    literally ‘know-finished’
    actually ‘finite’
  • komtoks-kokshet
    literally ‘know-be.broken’
    actually ‘brittle’
  • komtoks-paia
    literally ‘know-be.burned’
    actually ‘combustible’

Such disregard of animacy shows that the trajectory from the original literal meaning ‘to know’ and into the function ‘Characteristic’ developed quite far by the early Grand Ronde reservation period.

[Edited to add: negated komtoks- forms in St. Onge correspondingly express positive attitudes about the state or action! For example, 

  • wek-komtoks-mokamok-lom
    literally ‘not-know-drink-alcohol
    actually ‘teetotaller’

  • wek-komtoks-pait
    literally ‘not-know-fight’
    actually ‘peaceful’.

    We don’t seem to have any negated kəmtəks- forms at modern Grand Ronde.]

The inanimate usages seem to have fallen away by what I call the modern period, so that the elders who Henry Zenk worked with starting in the 1980s seem not to have had it.

Thus we may have not just grammaticalization but also a subsequent instance of (partial) de-grammaticalization in the creole here. This resonates with the course of development of that Intensifier prefix hayas- that I described the other day: from a lexical item háyás(h) ‘big’ to a prefix to (at Grand Ronde) only the lexical item once again.

Because we linguists typically assume that creoles have a greater quantity of grammaticalized and affix-type material than the “mere” pidgins that they may develop from, this is news. Except that my 2011 dissertation reports that the pidgin dialect, Kamloops Chinuk Wawa, has as much or more of dedicated grammatical material than Grand Ronde’s creole does…

What do you think?

I will have to do more research into whether there’s a likely model/source for this Characteristic in any particular language. Stay tuned.