More early Chinuk Wawa grammaticalization: chaku-

come together

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One of the early and omnipresent grammatical formations in the Jargon seems Native in its inspiration, while it may reflect universal tendencies coming together also.

Here I’m talking about this pidgin-creole language’s development of the full verb cháku ‘to come’ into an additional function as a grammatical prefix chaku-.

Yes, despite a couple centuries’ commentary tradition that CW “just strings words together” without grammar, this little chaku- is

  • stressless,
  • nothing comes between it and the “head” stem that it modifies,
  • it doesn’t change the fundamental meaning of that stem, and
  • its own meaning is predictable (~’come to be ___’)

Therefore it’snnot a word. It’s a grammaticalized prefix. (For you linguists, I’m specifying it’s not a proclitic or that nebulous entity the “particle”.)

IMPORTANT BORING FACT (eat your oatmeal)… I call the meaning of chaku- ‘Inchoative’, to show that I see it having more of a verbal “aspect” flavor than the “Passive” voice that most English-speaking writers have called it.

IMPORTANT FUN FACT (hey kids, pile Cap’n Crunch on top of it)! Chinuk Wawa, like a huge number of the Earth’s languages and most of its pidgin-creoles, has no true Passive. The closest approximation to one that I find in actual and widespread use throughout CW dialects is a “pseudo-Passive strategy”. It’s formed with the 3rd person plural subject pronoun ɬaska + (transitive) Verb + object. So, the words for “they say X” in Jargon, in practice, are often understood as ‘X is said; it’s said that X’. Likewise, an utterance like ɬaska miməlust yaka often is taken as ‘he was killed’ rather than its literal meaning of ‘they killed him’. In a separate article, if my readers like, I can go into an examination of all that. 

Our ‘Inchoative’ chaku- can modify all kinds of Chinuk Wawa predicate stems. Intransitive verbs can have it (so we see chaku-músum ‘to fall asleep’). Transitive verbs can too (thus chaku-kə́mtəks ‘to learn (something)’). Adjectives are also eligible (therefore we get chaku-ɬíʔil ‘turn black’). Nouns, even: you can say chaku-ɬúchmən ‘to become a woman’.

Like several other grammar developments in this pidgin-creole language, I see solid reasons to pin the development of chaku- ‘Inchoative’ at least partly on Native parent languages of Chinuk Wawa. Let’s take a glance at two faces of this…

(that is, the forms that express similar ideas to this, in the 4 main source-languages of the Jargon):

  • Southwest Washington Salish languages:
    • any predicate type can take a prefix txʷ- hitherto labeled as ‘Transitional’ by the one linguist, Dale Kinkade, who did most of the work on them.
  • What is there that’s comparable in Lower Chinookan?
    • verbs: a prefix for which Boas (1910:577ff) too uses a label “Transitional”, a-/n-, precedes (a few?) verb stems to broadly suggest a change of state.
    • non-verbs can be followed by an inflected form of the verbal root -x ‘be, become, do, make’. This is an extremely common construction.
  • Informal English:
    • verbs: be ___-ed
    • verbs/adjectives, for example ‘get burned’; ‘get red’: get ___(-ed), turn ___(-ed), wind/end up ___(-ed), etc.
    • verbs, adjectives, nouns(be)come ___(-ed/nonverbal stem).
    • I analyze the forms of “be” used in the first structure as phonologically dependent (“clitics”) on the following stem; in the second set of expressions, the case is less clearcut but the stem is still the stressed center of the construction.
  • Informal Canadian French:
    • verbs:
      • the Passive être (‘be’) + Past Participle of Verb ‘to be ____-ed’
      • the Reflexive se + Verb (literally ‘to Verb oneself’)
    • adjectives, nouns, ?verbs:
      • devenir (‘become’) + adjective/noun/?verbal participle
      • specialized derivatives whose infinitive is formed from adjective+-ir(?)
    • Note, the forms of être used in the first structure can be argued to be “clitics”, not full words but dependent on the Past Participle Verb form that they accompany. And the se in the second structure is definitely that kind of dependent form. What other roughly equivalent expressions exist? I’m not highly fluent in this language.
  • THE TAKEAWAY: Frankly, you can make the case that all 4 of the above (only 2 of which are related to each other) happen to share a structure that’s parallel to Chinuk Wawa’s, in which an unstressed dependent inflection precedes and is more-or-less bound to a following Verb stem that carries the main meaning besides “change-of-state”.
    • Notably, that template is the only available strategy in SW WA Salish and informal English, while it’s the most common in French, but is the less common option in Chinookan.
    • Only in SW WA Salish does a single form apply freely to every kind of predicate stem. There are similarly flexible structures (be)come ___ in English and devenir ___ in French that, however, I understand as being fairly rare with verb stems.

(the meanings involved with the above forms):

  • SW WA Salish:
    • based on the translations of e.g. Lower Chehalis example words by native speakers into English, txʷ- forms basically convey ‘to get ___(-ed)’.
    • These signal a “change of state”, so you find txʷ- in the words for “fall asleep”, “get shamed”, “turn religious”, “that’s the end of the story”, and so forth.
    • Like Chinuk Wawa’s chaku-, this one can be used with both “perfective” and “imperfective” verbs…in plain words, you can use it to say “I was becoming ___” as well as “I became ___”.
    • This prefix is not a passive; these languages have true passives, which can even occur in the same word with txʷ-. Besides, it’s usable with not just transitives (which you need in any language to form a Passive), but also with intransitives like ‘sleep’, ‘be pimply/spotted’!
  • Lower Chinookan:
    • it’s hard to translate the n-/a- words in a way that reflects the presence of this prefix, because Chinookan verbs are built out of such a large number of affixes each reflecting highly specific nuances. Some of Boas’s glosses for such forms, for example, are ‘she went home’, ‘somebody told him’.
    • This prefix is used both on intransitive and transitive verbs: ‘say’, ‘stand’, ‘do’, ‘go home’ are among the examples Boas highlights.
    • n-/a- seems usable in both perfectives & imperfectives; same with the second structure (non-verb + ‘do/be’).
    • And these are not passives, as Chinookan has a separate true passive affix.
    • It shows up on both transitive and intransitive verbs.
  • Informal English:
    • essentially, either Passive or change-of-state. This set of change-of-state forms includes the closest thing in English to a true passive (be + past participle), but is not limited to it.
    • Mostly transitive verbs?
    • Tends to imply perfective aspect, unless you add imperfective marking?
  • Informal French:
    • essentially Passive, I believe.
    • Mostly transitive verbs?
    • Tends to imply perfective aspect, unless you add imperfective marking?
    • English provides the closest match for the (original) literal meaning of Chinook Jargon’s chaku- (‘come’). However: the linguistic “typological” literature, i.e. research on common traits among the world’s countless unrelated languages, proves that a verb “to come” is among the most common sources from which Transitional/Passive/etc. inflections get grammaticalized. Possibly English is not special here.
    • The two Native language groupings agree with Chinuk Wawa in lacking a Passive use for their Transitional affixes, and in those forms being insensitive to imperfective/perfective aspect.

Today’s essay would take enormously more time to fully research — the literature on the relevant English and French structures is huge — but I want to end this little article by claiming:

Out of all the likeliest inspirations for Chinuk Wawa’s chaku- ‘Inchoative’ prefix, it’s yet again Southwest Washington Salish that appears to give the best match of both form (broadly understood in this instance as ‘morpho-syntactic strategy’ rather than phonological shape) and meaning.

Yes, this has necessarily been a pretty technical discussion. Thanks to my readers for hanging in there with me!

What do you think?