Why x̣áwqał isn’t an adverb, & why that matters

negative potential

(Image credit: Physics Stack Exchange)

x̣áwqał ‘unable to, can’t’ is not an adverb.

Nor is it a helping-verb or some such thing.

Instead, it’s a grammatical marker — “Negative Potential” in linguist talk, “can’t” in the real world.

How can I tell?

x̣áwqał can’t occupy any of the (other) adverb positions available in CW.

There are 3 places I see adverbs going in a Jargon sentence, roughly the following:

  1. sentence beginning
  2. right before the verb
  3. sentence end

Now, here are example sentences using x̣áwqał, all drawn from the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary:

  • x̣áwqał na wáwa
    ‘I can’t talk (don’t know what to say)’
  • x̣áwqał na kə́mtəks qʰáta pus múnk
    ‘I couldn’t understand how to do it’
  • x̣áwqał ya łúsh-wáwa
    ‘He can’t speak well at all’

You can see in all 3 that x̣áwqał comes right before what I think of as the “verb complex”, that is, the verb inflected by its subject marker. In my understanding, this is because x̣áwqał is part of the verb complex, a non-optional indicator of Negative Potential mood.

You won’t find variations in this ordering, for example (with asterisk showing hypothetical but not actually used expressions:

  • *na x̣áwqał(-)wáwa / *nayka x̣áwqał(-)wáwa
    intended as *’I can’t talk’
  • *na kə́mtəks qʰáta pus múnk x̣áwqał
    intended as *’I couldn’t understand how to do it’

Those two illustrations of an immediate pre-verbal position & a sentence-final position go clearly against my understanding of Chinuk Wawa grammar. To be frank, though, I’m a little bit on the fence about a correspondingly simple hypothetical example of a clearly sentence-initial position for x̣áwqał:

  • ?*x̣áwqał úkuk bástən-mán ya łúsh-wáwa
    intended as *’That white guy can’t speak well at all’

The reason that this example doesn’t sound wrong enough 🙂 to me is that, even though I jammed a bunch of extra words in to try stranding x̣áwqał far from the verb, the entire string of “úkuk bástən-mán ya” is functioning as the subject marker of the verb. So it’s not functionally any different from the original simple ya. (In fact it’s synonymous, and equally grammatical, if you totally leave out ya ‘he’ from my hypothesized sentence.)

But…if you can find a way to clarify that you’re attempting to use x̣áwqał as an adverb at the very start of it, you could then judge acceptability…and I know how to do that:

  • *drét(-)x̣áwqał úkuk bástən-mán ya łúsh-wáwa
    intended as *’That white guy really can’t speak well at all’

This version, with the intensifier/adverb drét forcing an interpretation of x̣áwqał as a (supposed) adverb, does strike me as going against our understanding of Jargon grammar.

And even without the (revised) third hypothetical sentence, I argue that at least the first two hypotheticals are enough to prove that x̣áwqał is not an adverb. (Likewise with the “northern dialect” equivalent, which is wík-qʰáta.)

This same point applies to some other words marked as “adverbs” in the 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary. A number of them, that is, are also actually grammatical markers instead.

Why do I point this out?

I argue that it’s extremely important to see exactly how a language works. Details can be really valuable, can’t they, when you’re trying to speak as your ancestors did?

A personal example for me is the expressions I remember my elders using in English. No single one of these was terribly important, but all together they tell the story of my family: Great-grandpa said “colyumn” for column and “fillum” for film. Grandma reminisced about “when you was just a little guy”. Mom sang a very particular version of the nursery rhyme “Christmas is a-comin’ in” (Welsh-influenced?), and liked to exclaim “Perfidy snakes!”

Details add up, like the difference between adverbs (which are usually not very important to how a language functions) and grammatical markers (which are crucial to speaking the language right).

We have the ability to deeply analyze Chinuk Wawa, as preserved in such great amounts of documents and recordings. Let’s keep at it!

By the way, note that quite a few words that are known to be at least sometimes used as adverbs don’t have that pointed out in the same 2012 dictionary.

All of the above is kind of to be expected. Adverbs, and other “minor word classes”, are often overlooked and underanalyzed in language documentation.

The 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary is the highest achievement in the entire history of Chinuk Wawa work. We owe Henry Zenk & crew a gigantic debt.

— As I keep showing (and I hope I show it humbly), there’s a great deal more grammatical analysis, as well as historical background, needing to be done to tell the full amazing story of this language.

Inquire within for further details. My professional linguist rates are reasonable.


is my not very subtle sales pitch!