wík-íkta mákuk as a clue…a time capsule, even

Chinuk Wawa’s terminology for value in trade has puzzled me for a long time…

gristbuynothing (1)

(Image credit: BuyNothingProject)

I’ve found the grammar of the phrases used by Jargon for this to be non-obvious.

Take George Gibbs’s excellent 1863 dictionary of Fort Vancouver-area CW: 


< hyas mahkook > ‘dear’ (expensive), < tenas mahkook > ‘cheap’, Gibbs 1863:16

These phrases are built from the root mákuk ‘to buy, sell, trade’, which is pretty much always a verb in Chinook Jargon.

So what are we supposed to make of these structures? The old-fashioned way of writing that Gibbs uses leaves it unclear how to interpret them. Here are the 2 possibilities that occur to me straightaway:

  • Prefix+a Verb root:
    • hayas-mákuk (Augmentative, literally ‘very/really – to.trade’) (using the early-creolized hayas- prefix that’s now extinct in southern dialect but lives on in the northern dialect)
    • tənəs-mákuk (Diminutive, literally ‘a.little.bit/sorta – to.trade’)
  • Attributive Adjective + a Noun root: (but we don’t know mákuk as a Noun anywhere else!!!)
    • háyás(h) mákuk (‘a big trade’)
    • tə́nas mákuk (‘a small trade’)

Horatio Hale, who had collected superb CW data around Fort Vancouver in 1841, declared in his popular 1890 book that these two phrases mean ‘a great bargain’ and ‘a small bargain’, as if < mahkook > is a noun. This is intuitively sensible — but it still doesn’t account for the lack of nouny < mahkook > outside of these expressions. 

Various other CW dictionaries, I can note, tell us other ways to say ‘cheap’. George Coombs Shaw’s 1909 dictionary gives synonyms for < tenas mahkook >, < halo hyas mahkook > and < wake hyas mahkook >, both meaning ‘not < hyas mahkook >‘. But these negations, too, give us no added information to decide between the 2 possible analyses in our bulleted list above. 

Worse yet, we have extremely few reliable examples of these phrases for ‘expensive’ and ‘cheap’ in use in larger phrases and clauses in Chinuk Wawa, which could enable us to judge their functions. It would be really informative if we could tell whether folks used these expressions as modifiers of nouns, or instead as descriptive predicates, or maybe both. 

Here’s where I found the Grand Ronde Tribes 2012 dictionary to be useful, as always. They have an entry for a phrase that they punctuate as wík-íkta mákuk ‘worthless, no good; “not worth a damn” ‘. (Thus it’s some kind of synonym for kʰə́ltəs.) The literal meaning here is ‘nothing mákuk‘, but we still haven’t determined whether mákuk is a verb or a noun here. 

For some help on this question, I’m grateful for the example sentences given in the GR 2012 entry. The first couple of them sound like wík-íkta mákuk could be taken as an adjectival phrase (used as a predicate, ‘to be worthless’) :

  1. ya wík-íkta mákuk ‘He’s not worth a damn.’ (ya is the short form of yaka)
  2. ɬaska wík-íkta mákuk ‘They’re not worth anything.’

But then, interestingly, we have the speaker of Example 1 doing something different. He “fronts” the quantifier, which is highly typical of CW grammar, and thus the subject pronoun intrudes between it and mákuk

  • wík-íkta ma mákuk ‘You’re not worth a damn.’ (ma is the short form of mayka)

Here, the speaker is literally saying, and quite clearly so, ‘You don’t/can’t/couldn’t buy anything.’

I suspect that this particular example sentence is our missing link. Since it’s clearly a verbal usage of mákuk, I went looking for other instances of wík-íkta ‘nothing’ + a clearly verbal root, and I found just such a thing nearby in the same dictionary:

  • wík-íkta tə́mtəm ‘pay no heed to, disregard, not be concerned about’ (literally ‘nothing-think’)
  • wík-íkta wáwa ‘nothing said; nothing to say (as in, what’s the use of saying anything?)’ (literally ‘nothing-saying’)

Based on the evidence, I infer that standard Chinuk Wawa grammar explains the ‘cheap’ and ‘expensive’ phrases. They, like wík-íkta mákuk, can then be understood as something like Quantifier + Verb…

…but with the neat wrinkle that the early-creolized prefixes hayas- ‘Augmentative’ and tənəs- ‘Diminutive’, expressing relative degrees of ‘trading’, are functioning similarly to Quantifiers

It’s as if the hayas- and tənəs- here were fossils of a transitional time between an earlier stage, pidgin CW (where I expect words were more independent of one another and had more literal meanings), and a later stage, creolized CW (where certain words evolved into more dependent, less literal usages as affixes).

We do know that tənas / tunus / etc. ‘little’ have been in use for a very long time as a quantifier ‘a little (bit)’. Was hayas(h) (literally ‘big’) likewise once used as a quantifier, ‘a lot’? Maybe; we do know that it’s pretty much always been confused by some speakers with hayu ‘much, many’! 

If I’ve arrived anywhere near the accurate truth, “linguistic archaeology” has led us to a datable discovery. This would place  ‘cheap’ and ‘expensive’ in a stratum right at the horizon of 1825, when Fort Vancouver was founded and folks began forming households which in turn creolized Chinuk Wawa into a daily home language.

Let’s end with this glance into Natítanui, a.k.a. Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan; ‘not very expensive’ is phrased in that language in a way that’s similar to Chinuk Wawa’s expression, as ‘not very it.is.bought’. So we may have found one source of CW’s distinctive way of talking about prices:

not very it is bought

Boas 1894:261

What do you think?