Why it’s hard to tell if míɬayt is also a noun

I have long wrestled with the question of whether Chinuk Wawa míɬayt is a noun…

Which is to ask, does this old, core CW word also function as a noun? 

It’s fundamentally a verb, I feel. 

In its etymology, that’s the case for sure; it’s from a Chinookan verbal command ‘(you) sit! / stay!’ (This information I’m drawing from the awesome 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary.) 

And in observed “Jargon” speech, míɬayt is virtually always a copula, that is, a “be”-verb. Its uses subcategorize into:

  • the existential ‘there is/are/exist’;
  • the locative ‘to be there, to be at a certain place’;
  • and (in older southern dialect, and still in the northern dialect) the possessive ‘to have’. (This is considered a copula, in that it too declares the existence of an entity within a certain sphere — one’s personal range of influence.)  

But once in a great while we come across an exceptional use of míɬayt that we can’t so easily slot into one of those 3 verbal functions. 

I’m thinking of the Kwakwaka’wakw master carver Mungo Martin of Vancouver Island, who in an audio recording of his CW appears to say kʰupa nayka míɬayt, literally ‘at my míɬayt. The context indicates that he means his home or his own “place”, a concept that long-established Jargon tradition phrases as one’s íliʔi or in old Settler sources one’s “illahee“. 

In my experience it’s actually hard to find examples of this maybe-noun míɬayt. (Just now I spent a while hunting for Mungo-style possessed míɬayt in various spellings in Google and in Chronicling America, turning up no results.)

That’s a big reason why I’ve argued that it might be something like a spurious anglophone Settler usage, rather than a fluent Chinuk Wawa expression. 

Well now I’ve found another potential instance of it:

kaba yamilait

…words of Victoria Howard (Jacobs 1936:2, §6.3)

Grand Ronde elder Victoria Howard uses this phrasing in describing a cave where a monster dwells; I’ll put it into current GR spellings, without accent marks: kʰapa ya miɬayt uk íkta. 

What these words mean is expressed to us by anthropologist Melville Jacobs in his 1936 publication “Texts in Chinook Jargon” as ‘at that place that thing lived’.

Which I find puzzling. 

It seems to me that the following are the only two possible fluent readings of VH’s words, depending on how precise we thing Jacobs’ phonetics are:

  • at its “place” that thing, i.e. ‘at that thing’s “place” (of residence)’
  • there it lived that thing, i.e. ‘that thing lived there’

The first proposed reading involves taking Jacobs’s < kaba > as the generic preposition kʰapa.

The second reading is possible if we suppose that Jacobs left out a tiny accent mark, or failed to notice the stress placement, on the typically GR word kʰapá ‘there’.

It’s been noticed before (you’ll find mentions of such stuff in the 2012 dictionary) that Jacobs did not always note down or publish 100% of his data with 100% accuracy. (Who does?!) So I find it simpler and more believable that VH was actually saying ‘that thing lived there’. I.e. míɬayt is a verb here.

Which in turn means I’m seeing no clear evidence, anywhere in the Chinuk Wawa-speaking world, of míɬayt functioning as a noun. 

The possibility of such a thing happening remains. The Jargon most definitely has a pattern of repurposing individual words in numerous ways; míɬayt being a noun isn’t preposterous. 

It’s just a long way from being a proven usage that you would want to copy…

What do you think?