Another Fort Vancouver CW word from Canadian French

You can read something a thousand times before it sinks in…


An antique French threshing board (image credit: Chairish)

Today, while writing and researching another article, my eyes landed on a particular expression in Demers – Blanchet – St Onge 1871, a little book based on data from circa 1838-1840 in the vicinity of Fort Vancouver.

The phrase is < mamuk pat > ‘to thresh’, that is, to beat stalks of grain in order to release the seeds.

I don’t recall any of us linguists previously drawing attention to the root verb shown here, uniquely, I think; no other source seems to document it. (And Samuel V. Johnson’s 1978 dissertation, which combines many old CW vocabularies, left out this important 1871 source.)

The etymological source is surely one or both of the following in (Canadian/Métis) French, if I take my Petit Larousse Illustré 2004 as a guide:

  • battre ‘to beat grain’
  • batte ‘threshing implement’

If we trace < pat > to the verb, it’s presumably from the familiar (2nd person singular) imperative form, batte! I say this because we’ve previously established that the big majority of CW words of Canadian origin were commands in French.

It seems slightly less likely that < pat > is from the French noun. It’s not semantic grounds that cause me to say so, as I find it totally plausible for the name of a Euro-American tool to be French; there are several such in the Jargon, including (le)mula ‘mill’ and kalapin ‘rifle’.

It’s just that almost all nouns from French in CW came with a definite article le/la/les, which we don’t see on < pat >. (On the other hand, as the previous two examples show, it’s mechanical implements that are most likely to show up without articles in CW.) 

If there had been a Canadian expression making an indefinite use of the noun, along the lines of *faire (des) battes*, we would have a good case for this second analysis — But I find no such phrasing in a Google Books search on the 19th century. 

So I recommend we go with the etymology in the French verb “batte!”

In either eventuality, the shifting of an original French voiced “B” to a Jargon voiceless “P” indicates the relatively great age of this word in the language. It was present long enough, and in a sufficiently Indigenous-influenced environment, to have evolved in pronunciation.

What do you think?