What if there are even more CW nouns from French plurals…?

Maybe a revision of our ideas about French-to-Chinuk Wawa etymologies is in order…


“Mosquitoes are a Canadian Icon” (image credit: Globe and Mail)

Old rule: the majority of nouns from Canadian / Métis French in CW came in along with a French definite article, le / la / les.

Many or most of those nouns, we can tell which of those articles it was. And in some cases it was the plural les, which appears to have been pronounced something like [li]. That’s the typical pronunciation of it to this day in various Métis and Canuck speech varieties. Examples in CW: 

  • lemulá ‘mill, machine’ from le moulin
  • lasél ‘saddle’ < la selle 
  • lipúm ‘apple(s)’ < les pommes

All of the above is still true.

It’s taken me 20 years of researching the “Jargon”, though, to realize that some other of its nouns must have come from French plurals. That is, some that don’t start with an /l/ sound.

Writing here the other day about < mamuk-pat > ‘to thresh (grain)’ (more often ‘thrash’ in Fort Vancouver English), I was puzzling over what the source word in French must’ve been.

After valuable discussion with my readers in the Comments to that article, it seemed as if < pat > was not from French batte ‘threshing implement’ — because it’s such a strong rule that Jargon nouns from French have le / la / les on them. 

So we came to a provisional analysis:

Maybe this < pat > was from the French verbal infinitive battre ‘to beat’ — which would be weird because most French-to-CW verbs were commands! That is, was this a one-time exceptional verb loan?

Today, in thinking about another non-/l/ French noun in Chinuk Wawa, I have a possible alternative solution.

It occurred to me that malakwa ‘mosquito’ must be from a French plural noun. How often do we care to focus long enough on a single specific mosquito to individuate it in our conversation?! Mosquitoes typically occur in swarms. We speak of them, in English and in French, in the plural. So malakwa ought to be from maringouins. And perhaps a cloud of bugs as insubstantial as mosquitoes is seen more as a mass, a substance, than as a plurality of distinct entities.

My idea is that we’d perhaps expect a source form *les maringouins* if mosquitoes were more individuated in our cognition — whereas the simple maringouins would be more relevant in referring to the damn things as an environmental feature.

In fact I would dare say that even des maringouins, ‘some / a bunch of mosquitoes’, is a viable and sensible prospect for an etymology. This is so because — unlike other pidgin and creole languages that owe a lot to French — CW absolutely does not preserve the “partitive” preposition du / de (l’ / la) / des from French. For example, from the French singular du pain ‘some bread / a bit of bread’, Mauritian Creole has dipen ‘bread’, but CW has no such /d/-words. 

So a partitive plural des maringouins would predictably result in CW malakwa, identical to what the singular maringouin would give us. 

Why am I ranting about mosquitoes in February?

Because I’m now wondering if it’s possible that ‘threshing’ was a group activity…

It must be a real big job, beating 1,420 acres’ harvest of grain, eh? This research paper seems to indicate that this was a highly labour-intensive task, often postponed at Fort Vancouver until winter when more workers were free from other duties.

So then: was the real-world Canadian French expression that gave us < pat > something more like (faites avec des) battes, ‘(hey y’all, make / work with the / a bunch of) threshing boards’ — you know, using a plural (des) battes?

Is that even something that these folks could’ve said, in their speech variety? My knowledge of French falls short of providing an answer. 

What do you think?