Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa explains puzzles in “The Earliest Clackamas Text”

welcome to clackamas

(Image credit: Reynolds Defense Firm)

See if you agree with this insight, will you?

I was rereading a fine scholarly piece by a guy who many of us in the Native languages world look up to with awe: Dell Hymes’ “The Earliest Clackamas Text“. (It’s in the International Journal of American Linguistics 50(4) (October 1984):358-383.)

Clackamas is one of the Chinookan languages, and a number of its speakers wound up as members of the Grand Ronde Reservation community from its inception in 1856. The myth story of “The Boy Who Lied about His Scar” that’s the subject of Hymes’s analysis was collected in 1890 or 1892 at Grand Ronde by another great, Franz Boas, and was originally published in the remarkable Edward Sapir’s book of texts in the related Wishram or Kiksht language (1909).

Dell Hymes had numerous moments of quizzicality in analyzing this anonymous text, and by careful textual analysis (linguistic archaeology really), he came to a sort of forensic sketch of whoever it was who told the story to Boas.

But his inferences are somewhat vague, because he leaves several of the linguistic oddities that he’s astute about noticing in its use of Clackamas only tentatively explained. Hymes arrives at a rough picture of someone with exposure to a number of Native languages, and not 100% fluent in Clackamas.

Now here is where my new suggestion comes in. I’m going to leave the credit with Hymes, though, in the following way.

Ironically, it happens that Dell and his wife Virginia Hymes had earlier — in a joint 1972 article that was one of the first to suggest creolization at Grand Ronde — come up with exactly the right words for an explanation.

Their notion of “Chinook Jargon as ‘Mother’s Tongue’ ” explains nearly everything that Dell puzzled over. (The article by that title is also in IJAL, back in 38(3) (July 1972):207.)

You see, a whole lot comes into focus if you start from the realization that the 1890s Clackamas Chinookan speaker who gave Boas the text — said to be quite possibly a young man named John Williams, son of Molale Kate (that link takes you to a superb article by David Lewis) — probably spoke Chinuk Wawa, probably even at home, and likely from infancy.

IN OTHER WORDS, things start making sense if you remind yourself that this Clackamas speaker was a typical Grand Ronde Indian of the era when the Jargon solidly creolized into a communitywide first language.

(Remember, I have often written here about how Jargon had creolized well before 1856. But at the moment I’m specifically thinking of conditions at Grand Ronde.)

I’d like to briefly run through the features that Dell Hymes found odd in the Clackamas text, and suggest that they are explained by the one factor he did not seriously tackle in his article: Chinuk Wawa.

  • Page 369: Sapir pointed out three nouns occurring without the gender/number prefix expected in Chinookan grammar: qálamuq ‘stick’, q’eyúqt ‘old man’, k’áškaš ‘boy’. (IMPORTANT: two of these words are also discussed in the next bullet point.)
    C.W. EXPLANATION: Someone who was used to speaking Chinuk Wawa might be thinking in it while telling the story, and if also fluent in Chinookan Clackamas, would be cognizant of the pattern of gender/number-prefixed Chinookan words corresponding with unprefixed C.W. words. (Tony Johnson, Henry Zenk, George Lang, and others have written plenty about that.)

  • Pages 374-375: Hymes notes the Clackamas word translated by the speaker as ‘stick’ really means ‘bark’. And the word for ‘old man’ is used oddly, to express a boy growing old.
    C.W. EXPLANATION: If the speaker was thinking in his native Jargon, he would have in mind stík-skín ‘bark’ or stík ‘wood’, and he would translate his Clackamas for Boas as ‘stick’ in either English or Chinuk Wawa. (Boas typically communicated in C.W. with the Indian-language speakers he worked with.)

  • Page 375: “…’He went to get wood’ is expressed by the common stem ‘to go’, -y(a), followed by a generic word for ‘wood’, it-mqu.” Fluent Chinookan would either use the words for ‘go get wood’ or a single verb whose meaning is ‘fetch wood’.
    C.W. EXPLANATION: It’s plausible that the speaker was thinking in Chinuk Wawa here too. In that language, you can say …łátwa Ø stík… (literally ‘go to the wood(s)/forest’, using the un-pronounced null preposition Ø that is common), with an effective meaning of ‘go get wood’.

  • Page 375: “…’he gathered sticks’ is expressed by the “factotum” verb stem -x̣- ‘to do, make’, preceded by the word for ‘bark’…The expressed meaning is something like ‘he will do, make bark’.” This is not idiomatic Chinookan.
    C.W. EXPLANATION: This exactly matches the Jargon way of expressing an action that characteristically involves the named noun, e.g. mamuk-samən ‘to fish’ and mamuk-stík ‘to cut wood’.

  • Pages 375-376: “…’he finds his scar on his head’ is expressed…literally ‘he-it-gets, takes, holds’…” (And the verb lacks a grammmatically expected suffix.) ‘Find’ is not a normal Chinookan sense of this verb.
    C.W. EXPLANATION: A person thinking in Chinuk Wawa would have in mind the verb t’łáp which does mean both ‘to find’ and ‘to get, take’.

  • Page 380: the boy uses the word for ‘deer’ where other information has us expecting ‘elk’. Hymes notes that Chinookan cultures use their word for ‘birds’ as a generic meaning ‘any animal’ (e.g. horses, in Wasco-Wishram), and guesses that ‘deer’ is being used similarly here.
    C.W. EXPLANATION: In the Jargon, máwich ‘deer’ is indeed used generically for ‘(any) animal’. We definitely know this from the Kamloops, BC, area, and it makes the same kind of intuitive sense as the fact that nánich máwich, literally ‘look for deer’, also generically means ‘to go hunting (for animals)’. 

What do you think, have I built a convincing case for explaining the oddities of this speaker’s Clackmas in terms of his being a native speaker of Chinuk Wawa?