CW numerals and language universals

One of the many ways Chinuk Wawa can be proved to be just like any other human language —

chinook numbers

Do Chinook numbers follow Benford’s Law? (Image credit:

— and I mention this because, believe it or not, some scholars have proposed that pidgin-creoles aren’t languages (!) — 

— is that CW numerals behave in ways that numerals tend to across the entire sample of the world’s languages.

(I’m calling the words for ‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’, etc. numerals to keep them totally distinct from the concept of grammatical number, i.e. first / second / third person. Today’s discussion should be understood as referring to simple cardinal numerals, unless otherwise specified.)

To wit:

The linguist Greville Corbett has observed that lower numerals in languages tend to be treated more like adjectives. Higher numerals tend to operate more like nouns.

In his contribution to Dixon & Aikhenvald’s 2004 book “Adjective Classes”, Corbett illustrates this with the extraordinarily clear example of the numeral words in Russian:

  • ‘1’ (odín) has the greatest amount of adjective-like traits,
  • ‘2’ (dva) has slightly fewer,
  • ‘3 – 4’ (pjat’ – četyre) fewer still,
  • ‘5 – 99’ (pjat’ etc.) still fewer, and have more noun-like properties, 
  • ‘100’ (sto) even more noun-like,
  • ‘1000’ (týsjača) even more so, 
  • and ‘1,000,000’ (millión) the most noun-like. 

Now, the Russian language’s numeral words, and its adjectives and nouns, notoriously use a complicated system of suffixes for case, number, and gender. Chinuk Wawa has nothing of the kind! 

So how is that I’m suggesting CW can still be shown to have lower numerals that are more like adjectives, and higher numerals that behave more like nouns do?  

As with so many properties of “the Jargon”, a good deal of the argumentation will come down to syntax — the ordering of words into phrases & clauses.

First, as a quite simple practical matter, the lower numerals in CW occur much more frequently in the adjective-like function of modifying a following “head” word (which accordingly is functioning like a noun) than vice versa. That is, for quantities above ’10’, it’s normal to find e.g.

  • łún táłlam (literally ‘three tens’) = ’30’
  • íxt ták’umunaq (southern dialect) / íxt hə́ndrid (northern) (lit. ‘one hundred’) = ‘100’
  • mákwst táwsən (northern) (lit. ‘two thousands’) = ‘2,000’

(Also note in older/southern dialect, táłlam ták’umunaq, lit. ‘ten hundreds’ = 1,000.)

A second syntactic point of nounishness for the numerals above ’10’ is that CW’s way of adding a “one place” to them is identical to noun coordination — that is, you say táłlam pi íxt, táłlam pi mákwst, táłlam pi łún, etc. (Literally ‘ten and one’, ‘ten and two’, ‘ten and three’, and so forth.) 

A third observation, of perhaps a more pragmatic than syntactic nature, is about the “diachronic” development of CW — i.e. how it changed through time. As the decades passed, the language tended to be more and more influenced by the ascendant English language spoken all around it. Consequently, CW took in ever-increasing numbers of loanwords from English (a fact that’s especially prominent in the younger northern/BC dialect).

Among those borrowings were numeral words — but some more than others. The lowest and presumably most frequently spoken CW numerals held out pretty solidly against being replaced, as my dissertation on Kamloops Chinuk Wawa shows. Higher numbers, though, were fair game; ‘six’ and everything above it were normally expressed with English words. (Related evidence suggests that years A.D. were spoken as in English.) Let’s be clear, this is not to say that ‘six’ and up are inherently more like nouns than ‘five’ and below are — it’s just that the higher numerals have an extra reason for occurring in their more nouny distribution! 

Here is a fourth observation, not syntactic but morphological. I’ve recently happened to write about the southern-dialect adverbializing suffix -i which is known on numerals only. Thus there’s documented use among Grand Ronde elders of:

  • íxt-i ‘once’
  • mákst-i ‘twice’

I feel there’s some significance to this distribution, with -i only known on the two lowest numerals. Among innovating new speakers these days, this pattern gets extended, but I can’t recall ever hearing anyone take it above ‘four times’. (Similarly, in the Lower Chinookan source language of this affix, we find it used only to form ‘one time’ through ‘six times’, and especially the culturally important ‘five times‘, plus the nice round ‘ten times’ — but not ‘seven / eight / nine times’!) The connection I’m drawing here, at any rate, is that CW grammar overall allows only adjectives to freely get used as adverbs — so here we may have indirect further evidence that the lower numerals are adjective-like!

In summary, I think there’s pretty good reason to agree that Chinuk Wawa’s numeral words meet the generalization that lower ones will be more adjectival, and higher ones more nominal in behaviour.

I’ve added the suggestion that considerations of naturalness are likely a driving force behind this language universal, just as real life gives languages such strong tendencies as the animacy hierarchy.


‘Zero’ is a whole different bag, as there’s no known word for it in spoken CW from the language’s heyday. Thus it’s my understanding that the Grand Ronde immersion-teaching program has innovated a term for it; I don’t find this listed in the materials I have, but I think I’ve heard hílu, literally ‘none; nothing’. And in BC, you can find Kamloops Wawa (1891-1904) infrequently trying out a new word < siro >.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen negative numbers expressed in CW, beyond maybe one or two references to < kikwili kopa siro > ‘lower than zero’ temperatures in Kamloops Wawa

What do you think?