Monster talk: A genderless use of yaka…

… and non-inanimate uses of both ikta ‘thing’ and “silent it”?!


“Direach Ghlinn Eiti, or Fachan” by JF Campbell (image credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome to the bizarro world of monster grammar!

Grand Ronde elder Victoria Howard’s Chinuk Wawa tale “Just One His Leg, Just One His Arm” was taken down in notebooks by the folklorist / anthropologist / linguist Melville Jacobs. He published it in 1936 in his collection of “Texts in Chinook Jargon“.

There are some really neat facets of Mrs. Howard’s Jargon, when it comes to dealing with the one-armed and one-legged skukúm at the center of her narrative.

#1. An odd thing: VH’s 3rd-person (singular) pronoun yaka refers, as is normal in CW, for an animate being. And yet I’m translating this particular seemingly boring usage as ‘it’! I feel the title of the story, seen above in Jacobs’s translation from VH’s Jargon, really ought to be more literally “Just One Its Leg, Just One Its Arm”. English traditionally pushes you to make 3rd person singular animates either ‘he’ or ‘she’. But we don’t know for certain that the monster is female or male, or has any particular gender. Jacobs translates yaka as ‘he’ and ‘his’, despite the lack of evidence that I can see in the CW text.

#2. A weird thing: VH’s utterance by her young female character, t’lúnas-íkta ya q’uʔ kʰapa nsayka” (page 2, paragraph 6) is a super interesting expression. Jacobs translates this as ‘something reached us’. Now, on the one hand, t’lúnas-íkta (literally ‘maybe-something’) means ‘something-or-other’, which sounds really vague. It’s one of several occurrences of ikta in the story to mean ‘a (nonhuman) thing, a monster’, which already is a super novel, implicitly animate, use of that almost always inanimate word. And on the other hand, the explicitly animate, and specific-reference, “resumptive” pronoun yaka is used along with it! The overall effect of VH’s sentence is to convey that ‘a certain animate mysterious being has arrived at our place’.

#3. A wild thing: much of the way through the story, the monster finally reveals that it can speak. It says (paragraph 8, section 3), “x̣áwqaɬ na pálach-k’ílapay msayka”. Jacobs’s translation is “I certainly will not give her back to you.” But the monster’s words, as reported by him, lack an animate object yaka for ‘her’. Instead, the kidnapped old lady, whose brains the monster has eaten, is being spoken of with the fluent CW “silent it” — as if she were an inanimate, or dead, object! I’ve seen a few other instances where an entity that was hitherto animate in a CW story suddenly starts being referred to with “silent it” once it dies, such as a cat in one of Grand Ronde elder Eula Petite’s stories. Anyhow, a more accurate and creepier translation of this sentence as shown to us by Jacobs would be “I can’t give it back to you folks”. (Which also echoes so many prophetic things said in traditional stories about how “people will stay dead forever from this day onward”, etc.)

#4. A strange thing: In this light, it’s evocative that the old lady’s son continues to refer to her with animate yaka…except that he lapses (paragraph 9) into saying that “wík tílixam álta”. Here too what we have is a “silent it” for a subject, so literally he’s saying about his mom, “it’s not a person now”! 

I’d like to end with this: I’ve read this story of VH’s many times over the last 25 years or so. I see it with somewhat different eyes each time, as I continue researching and figuring out ever more of Chinuk Wawa’s workings. Until I taught a lesson on “Just One Its Leg…” a week ago, I hadn’t seen any meaning in the oddities noted above. Each of them had struck me as an isolated strange detail, maybe due to Jacobs making mistakes in writing down and publishing Mrs. Howard’s words. Now I see there’s a plausible pattern that unites these quirks into a tribal storyteller’s highly nuanced and intentional art of speaking. 

What do you think?