The strange case of malyí

voyageur wedding

Voyageur wedding (image credit: Kern Photo)

Wouldn’t you just know that Chinuk Wawa would take its word for ‘marry’ from Canadian French…

…And it’s the perfect candidate for a creole word, as it refers to the founding of the mixed-ethnicity CW-speaking families of the lower Columbia River region, which led to so many French words entering the Jargon.

(We first know it from Demers & Blanchet’s late 1830s-1840s Fort Vancouver-area data.)

But what sort of word is it — an adjective (French marié(e) ‘married’), a verb ((se) marier (avec) ‘to get married (to)’), or a noun (le/la marié(e) ‘groom; bride’)?

George Gibbs for instance, guesses it’s from a French verbal infinitive (1863:16):


Mal-i-éh,  v. French, MARIER. To marry.

I was surprised to not find this Jargon word documented, let alone commented on, by the knowledgeable Horatio Hale (1846).

My two cents’ worth of comment on it —

  • Chinuk Wawa borrowed very few adjectives from French, most of them being words for color-types of horses, which typically carry a French definite article le/la/les on them.
  • Almost all of the numerous nouns from French in CW likewise have a definite article on them.
  • CW verbs from French, as a rule, are best understood as francophone commands (the imperative form).

When we consider all of this, it seems to me that malyí is shaped most like a verb. Demers & Blanchet, native Canadian French speakers, translate it as ‘to get married’. Gibbs has ‘marry’, again a verb. Neither gives example sentences for it, unfortunately.

I say that’s unfortunate because we might get some useful clues from seeing how the word is used. My own inference is that this verb is the rare instance that couldn’t trace back to a command form. Who says “get married!” in ordinary conversation?

An alternative guess as to how this became a Jargon verb could be that it began as a phrase (never documented on paper) *chaku-malyí ‘become/get married’, with malyí functioning more like a noun or adjective. But the arguments above against a non-verb origin still hold.

This word, like the institution it names, represents a charming mystery for us, and it shows us that sometimes things have more than one explanation.

What do you think?