Now you can “know how” kəmtəks- ‘Habitually’ became a prefix early in CW

I’ve been realizing that there were a number of grammatical categories that the non-Native documentors of early-creolized Chinuk Wawa didn’t see the significance of…


(Image credit: Pinterest)

…which could give the impression that the language was less complex than it really was in early days.

[…editing on 12/03/2020 to note that I consider “Characteristic” to be a better label for this morpheme…]

And yet we keep realizing that there were a whole bunch of items that had already become grammatical operators, essentially affixes, in CW quite early.

(One reason that this is at all surprising is that some of those forms went into decline once the language re-creolized at Grand Ronde Reservation, 1855 and onwards — which blows the minds of “creolist” linguists, who assume a lot.) 

One such early-creolized southern CW affix is the Habitual verbal aspectual marker kəmtəks-, a prefix that developed from the verb ‘to know (how to)’.

There are no clear examples of this usage in the earliest substantial document of Jargon usage, Demers-Blanchet-St Onge 1871 [1840s data]. They don’t even list < komtoks > among the verbs in their dictionary section! But, in their religious teachings section, there’s perhaps one trace of it in the 9th Commandment on page 36:

< Wek komtoks, pi wek tikeh^ ikta shem kopa h^oloïma tluchemen. > 
wík kə́mtəks, pi wík tíki(x̣)(,) íkta shím kʰupa x̣lúyma łúchmən.
not know, and not want, any shame with other woman.

‘Don’t be inclined to, and don’t try for, anything shameful with another woman [not your wife].’

Here it’s useful to point out that D-B-S 1871 is really a presentation of Demers & Blanchet’s knowledge by St Onge. That younger priest, who they taught CW to, made his own dictionary in an 1892 manuscript, which has a zillion expressions having kə́mtəks at the start of them. Those include < komtoks-shem-ikta > (literally ‘know-shame(ful)-things’) ‘[be] lustfulʹ — which I think corresponds to D-B-S 1871’s < komtoks…ikta shem… > (literally ‘know…any shame’).  

I want to specify, though, that St Onge’s 1892 phrase isn’t necessarily a formal Habitual verb — because, by the grammar of CW, it can be straightforwardly read as a transitive expression ‘know shameful things’. But if we pause to think this over, the sense of it is clearly habitual: in life, how common is it to order someone ‘not to know’ something? Isn’t it more sensible that we have in D-B-S 1871 a command ‘don’t be a knower’ of shameful things? 

To my understanding, this shows that by the 1840s era of Demers and Blanchet in the Fort Vancouver area, a Habitual expression was already taking root. And there are dozens of structurally similar expressions given in St Onge 1892 [1870s data], for example the ones which also can be read as transitives.

These especially involve < mamuk > (which can be read either as a full verb ‘do, make’ or the Causative prefix) and ending in a noun (which can be read as the object of ‘do, make’). Thus, with justified skepticism, these can be read as ‘know how to make…’, ‘know how to do…’:

  • < komtoks-mamuk-aias-masache >
  • < komtoks-mamuk-mimlust-telikom > 
  • < komtoks-mamuk-pilton-telikom >
  • < komtoks-mamuk-siks > 
  • < komtoks-mamuk-tanas >
    ‘generative [fertile person]’ 

But two points are relevant to make at this juncture:

  1. Even when we insist on reading the above examples literally, as ‘know how to make…’, their sense is still obviously a connotation of an ongoing state, rather than of an “Aha!” moment of figuring out how to fool people or make a baby 🙂
  2. These ambiguous formations are a minority. There are lots more entries in St Onge 1892 where an initial < komtoks > isn’t so easy to (mis)read with its literal meaning. 

Thus, by the 1870s in the lower Columbia region, St Onge is telling us that folks said a lot of things like: 

  • < komtoks-paia >
  • < komtoks-kopet >
  • < komtoks-mimlust >
  • < komtoks-chako-kokshet >
  • < komtoks-kakwa-talapos >

The first 2 phrases there really drive home that < komtoks > doesn’t any longer carry its literal meaning in such formations. Both refer prototypically to inanimate things, and CW at all times has had a horror of treating inanimates the same as animate subjects. Would you ever say that a thing ‘knows how to burn’, or ‘knows how to end’, in any language??

Similarly, in the second 2, ‘know how to die’ would be a pretty absurd thing to say in everyday situations, as would ‘know how to get broken’.

That 5th expression is quite neat, as it clearly involves a Stative verb as the “head” of the phrase: the literal ‘know how to be like Coyote’ is, as we know from other sources e.g. the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary, a description of someone’s character. (There it’s lost the kakwa ‘be like’: kəmtəks-t’álapas ‘be prone or predisposed to deceit; be sneaky, devious, deceptive. This is comparable to Horatio Hale’s claim or observation, 1846:640, that Chinuk Wawa originally said kakwa Pelton ‘(to be) like Pelton’ [an actual guy] for ‘crazy’, before simply developing pʰíltən into the word for ‘crazy’.)

I’m confident in generalizing that virtually any predicate can take the Habitual kəmtəks-Another example from the 2012 dictionary is the active intransitive kəmtəks-kúri ‘be good at running; be a fast runner’. 

The semantics of inherently being a certain way are incompatible with most other CW affixation. So you never see folks saying *mamuk-chaku-t’alapas* or *chaku-kəmtəks-t’álapas* (intending to mean ’cause to be tricky’ or ‘start being tricky; wind up being tricky’, each of which also sounds unlikely in English).

And when you do find the sequence /chaku-kəmtəks/+Verb, it’s actually chaku-kə́mtəks, i.e. not 2 prefixes but one + a main verb ‘to know’, literally ‘learn how to ___’. 

“Habitual” kəmtəks- went into decline, it seems, becoming less frequent in the southern dialect and unknown up north; why?

Well, this was only ever an optional verbal marker. Like most in CW, it could often be omitted without irreparably damaging a sentence.  

And there are other ways to express ideas equivalent to the “Habitual”. For instance, you can call gasoline ‘combustible, flammable’ also by saying áyaq (chaku-)páya uk kás — i.e. ‘the gas could easily catch fire’, making a descriptive predication about it. This is typical of CW’s ways of conveying ideas that English, for example, puts into single highly abstract adjective words. I suspect kəmtəks- expressions have usually stuck to their verbal nature, being used as predications rather than as attributive adjectives. So kəmtəks- may always have had strong competition from alternative modes of expression. 

Plus, as the Jargon was hurriedly transplanted northward during the gold rushes, much of its grammar and vocabulary were lost. The language re-pidginized, becoming simpler, to the point where virtually the only verb affixes left were chaku-, mamuk-, and hayu-

This is not the end of the story for kəmtəks-, though. I have it on good authority that the very successful revitalization work by the Grand Ronde Tribes includes an embrace of the old kəmtəks- expressions…and some efforts at coining new ones. One such is the very pleasant kəmtəks-q’át ‘loving, romantic’ (literally ‘’). 

What do you think?