Zenk’s Law

zenks law

(Image credit: Justia Trademarks)

Zenk’s Law. Learn it, my friend, and you will speak better Chinuk Wawa.

The phonology (sounds and their combinations; stress patterns; intonation; and such) of Chinuk Wawa hasn’t been analyzed in any great detail.

Why? Well, it’s almost certain that a reason for this non-research has been the persistent linguistic myth that the Jargon “isn’t a language”. (!!!)

But also, linguists have always tended to skim over the “mere details” in favor of easily-observed units like roots, affixes, and such.

So, credit where it’s due: The earliest study that I see as a serious start on the subject is the brilliant U-Dub linguist Melville Jacobs’s 1932 article “Notes on the Structure of Chinook Jargon(Language 8(1):27-50). Definitely an expert, Jacobs had done a great deal of original field work with fluent speakers of the Jargon, and went on to publish the only collection of texts in the language until the Grand Ronde Tribes 2012 dictionary came along.

Jacobs did write about phonology, some. But his remarks are confined mainly to the sound system (the consonant and vowel “segments”) and to stress. He claims on page 32 that syllables in Jargon words are either stressed or unstressed, with no in-between.

Okay, now that’s the background info…now, what is Zenk’s Law?

In a nutshell, it’s the observation that Chinook Jargon sentences have a certain rhythm, a pattern where stressed syllables alternate with unstressed ones.

Breaking that down into the details that prove the claim:

  • The average Jargon word has 2 syllables, like English having “primary” stress — áéə́íóú — on the first one (so the second syllable is unstressed — aeəiou). This pattern is traditionally called “trochees” or “trochaic”, if you like old classical Latin words, or “boots ‘n’ pants ‘n’ ” if you’re a fan of the pig in Geico commercials. Examples include mákuk ‘buy’ and łúchmən ‘woman’.
  • And, also like English, Jargon words that are longer than 2 syllables, especially if they have multiples of 2 syllables in them, tend to also have “secondary” stress — àèə̀ìòù — every other syllable away from the main stress. Examples would be t’əmánəwàs ‘spirit power’ and k’ílapày ‘come back’.
  • Take note, the secondary-stressed syllables can look like separate words in some people’s writing of the language. That’s when they are stuff like…
    • (A) the subject pronoun before the verb ( / predicate head), like nàyka ‘I’, yàka ‘she’, etc;
    • (B) the little grammatical markers like màmuk- ‘Causative; ‘make” and chàku- ‘Inchoative; ‘become”;
    • (C) the pronoun object following a verb, like nàyka ‘me’, yàka ‘her’, etc.;
    • (D) the parts after the first word in a compound, like łúchmən-tənàs ‘girl child; daughter’ and músmus-skìn ‘leather’.
      (It’s not that easy to notice (D) in the Grand Ronde dictionary, but my sense from hearing Jargon spoken is that the first part/modifier, not the main word, in a compound takes the main stress! I understand this as Chinuk Wawa putting the highest priority on having a main stress early in a word, even when it’s a compound word.) 
    • (E) a reduplication of the main word, as in nánich-nànich ‘keep on looking; stare; etc.’ or for that matter tunús-tunus ‘little ones; little bits of’.

There are a few further wrinkles in the full picture. (Nerdy note: variations occur with odd numbers of syllables etc. etc. Very nerdy note: as I did in my dissertation on Kamloops Chinuk Wawa, I’m defining “compounds” only as Noun-Noun structures. I have my reasons.) 

But the above gives you the concept.

I think Henry Zenk is the first to have verbalized our alternating-stresses pattern, for example in an obscure earlier conference paper and on page 380-381 of the Grand Ronde dictionary. That’s why in my mind, I habitually credit him by calling this “Zenk’s Law”.

Now knowing what I’ve told you, you can think through questions like this one that was asked of me…

Which syllable emphasis do you think is better:

hyAS taNAS
HYas taNAS
hyAS TAnas
HYas TAnas

Nice try at a trick question!
Assuming the above expression means “very small”:
  • First off, the hyas here is the Intensifier prefix, so technically it’s stressless.
  • Second, tanas has many functions/meanings; here it’s got to be an Adjective “little” (since it’s modified by hyas). So I tend to give it the stress pattern tánas that distinguishes it from the meaning “child” (tanás at Grand Ronde).
  • Third, though, complex vocabulary items in Chinuk Wawa such as this Diminutive-inflected Noun tend toward a pattern of alternating secondarily-stressed and unstressed syllables (thus a trochee pattern), oriented around the primary stress of the “head” (semantically core) word.

In other words, you wind up with hàyas-tánas as the answer to your question!

What do you think?