Drawing a different, silent moral from “A Stingy Girl is Taken Away by Mountain People”

I’ve recently come back to studying a certain tale by the Grand Ronde elder, Victoria Howard…

stingy girl

(Image credit: hippostcard)

…This is part of our truly wonderful Saturday “Snass Sessions” hosted at 8 A.M. Pacific time by Rein Stamm. You should ask about joining in!

In the Snass Sessions, our project is on revitalizing Chinuk Wawa as a BC language. So I often present a text from a BC source, such as < Kamloops Wawa >or else I “translate” a southern-dialect source such as Mrs. Howard.

One side effect of such work is that I revisit southern, creolized texts that in some cases I haven’t read since years ago. In the intervening span, I’ve done a ton of research, and I feel I’ve advanced in my understanding of the language.

For instance, while the creolized southern dialect is in some respects more sophisticated (to use a non-technical word for it!), the pidgin northern dialect that developed out of it is sometimes even more developed. This is an insight that I hadn’t had in a terribly deep way, just a couple of years ago.  

One feature that both dialects hold in common is the 3rd-person null pronoun, for non-animates. That includes “it”, as well as “some” and “they” when those words refer to stuff rather than folks. And, being a silent pronoun — yes, such a thing really does exist, according to linguists — it’s mighty hard to spot “Silent It” in a page of written Chinuk Wawa. It takes a lot of awareness of the flow of sentences, and a fair amount of thinking, to realize when “Silent It” is there & when (it’s) not. 

In the instance of “Victoire’s” tale, whose published form is titled “A Stingy Girl is Taken Away by Mountain People” (Melville Jacobs 1936), I’m finding that my view of the entire plot is different — ever since I put in serious time understanding the CW null pronoun.

Frankly I’m returning to one particular section of that tale today because I found myself feeling confused — and when a story that someone is telling in their mother language doesn’t make sense to you, it’s on you to do some more thinking! So here’s some of my musings about the section that confused me. 

Here’s the dramatic final scene as Jacobs published it with an English translation (1936:12), where the grandmother is trying to dig her granddaughter out after 4 mountain girls have danced her into the ground. I’ll interlinearize his English version, and put Mrs. Howard’s Jargon into current Grand Ronde spelling style, standardizing the spellings a little:



álta ya munk-ɬxwáp uk íliʔi, álta yaka hayu-t’ɬáp tənəs-tílixam,
‘She dug in the ground, she found the little one,’ 

kánawi-ikta. ya tə́mtəm, “ú ya t’úʔan tənás t’ɬúnas!” álta wə́x̣t ya 
‘(with) all (its) things. She thought, “Why she must have had a little one!” She dug again’ 

munk-ɬxwáp íliʔi, álta ya hayu-t’ɬáp íɬʔwəl, tənəs-líli álta ya t’ɬáp uk ya kʰwiʔím. 

‘in the ground, she found meat, a little later she found her granddaughter.’ 

ya hál-ɬáx̣ni kʰapa uk íliʔi, ya lu’lu kʰapa háws. kʰapá ya munk-t’úʔan. 
‘She pulled her up out of the ground, she took her home. There she laid her down.’ 

Fortunately for us, this story is also published in the awesome Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary, updated with valuable additional information from Jacobs’s original field notes of it, for example punctuation marks that got left out of the published version. So here’s the same passage, as found there (2012:425), again with the CW just slightly modified by me to reflect current punctuation and to standardize the spellings:

álta ya munk-ɬxwáp uk íliʔi. álta yaka hayu-t’ɬáp tənəs-tílixam
‘Then she dug the ground. Now she is finding all kinds of BABY’ 

kánawi-íkta. ya tə́mtəm “ó ya t’úʔan tənás t’ɬúnas!” 
‘things. She thinks, “Ohhh she must have a CHILD!” ‘

álta wə́x̣t ya munk-ɬxwáp íliʔi. álta ya hayu-t’ɬáp íɬʔwəl. 
‘Then again she digs earth. Now she’s finding flesh.’

tənəs-líli álta ya t’ɬáp uk ya kʰwiʔím. ya hál-ɬáx̣ni kʰapa uk íliʔi. 
‘In a little while then she found that grandchild of hers. She hauled her out from the earth.’

ya lúlu kʰapa háws, kʰapá ya munk-t’úʔan. 
‘She took her home, there she put her up.’

There, we have the benefit of researcher Henry Zenk’s decades of intimate acquaintance with Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa speakers, helping us to understand what’s intended by Mrs. Howard’s words. Read it and learn, my friends. 

The CTGR 2012 edition of it captures more nuances of Mrs. Howard’s grammar, for example by taking tənəs-tílixam kánawi-íkta ‘all kinds of BABY things’ as a single, compound phrase — removing the comma that appeared in the middle of it in the published version. From this compound I imagine that by implication we could add a useful entry to our dictionaries, tənəs-tílixam-íkta ‘baby things, baby supplies’. (Note that the baby never turns up in this scene, which is why Grandma is merely surmising that Stingy Girl has had one.) 

But as regards the remainder of the passage, I did catch myself wondering: “Does this story make sense to me?” 

So I want to do that thing I sometimes do, where I revisit old Jargon texts with a critical eye, to apply the sum total of what we’ve learned about this language’s grammar and history. As I’ve done with material such as Franz Boas’s published collection of “Chinook Songs”, I’m going to show you a critical, analytic take on this little final scene of the “Stingy Girl” story, incorporating insights from CTGR 2012:

álta ya munk-ɬxwáp uk íliʔi. álta yaka hayu-t’ɬáp tənəs-tílixam
now she CAUSATIVE-hole the earth. now she PROGRESSIVE-find DIMINUTIVE-person
‘Then she dug into the ground. Then she was finding’ 

kánawi-íkta. ya tə́mtəm “ó ya t’úʔan tənás t’ɬúnas!” 
all-thing. she think “oh she have child INFERENTIAL!”
‘all sorts of baby supplies. She thought, “Oh, she must’ve had a child!” ‘

álta wə́x̣t ya munk-ɬxwáp íliʔi. álta ya hayu-t’ɬáp íɬʔwəl. 
now again she CAUSATIVE-hole earth. now she PROGRESSIVE-find flesh.

‘Then again she dug into the ground. Then she was finding (dried) [1] meat.’

tənəs-líli álta ya t’ɬáp uk ya kʰwiʔím. ya hál-ɬáx̣ni [2] kʰapa uk íliʔi. 
DIMINUTIVE-long.time now she find the her granchild. she pull-out from the earth. 
‘After a while then she found that granddaughter of hers (dead). She pulled it (the body) out of the ground.’

ya lúlu [2] kʰapa háws, kʰapá ya munk-t’úʔan [2]. 
she bring to house, there she CAUSATIVE-store.
‘She took it home, (and) there she stored it away.’

And now a couple of notes: 

íɬʔwəl [1] can mean your ‘body’ or, as both Jacobs and CTGR 2012 have it, it can be ‘meat’. Now it’s time to catch you up on the action earlier in this story: Having already misbehaved by repeatedly serving her grandma only the smaller, less delicious roots from the batch that she digs every day, the Stingy Girl then disobeys grandma’s advice to stay away from a certain dangerous camas-digging place. The granddaughter is abducted by 4 female mountain people (skukooms, I reckon). To make her a fit wife for their brother, they teach her how to make ‘dried meat’. Now, at the end of the story, they’ve agreed to bring the homesick protagonist home to Grandma, and they drop her off near the house. But she now disobeys their advice to keep her baby swaddled up, and they’ve returned & danced her into the earth. Her terrified shrieks bring her elder running. 

This leads us to the 3 occurrences of “Silent It” [2]. These all serve to emphasize that the disobedient granddaughter is now dead meat, if you’ll pardon my slang. And this detail doesn’t show up in the previous translations of this passage, both of which say that Grandma brings “her” (animate yaka, the girl) home, implying — I think falsely, because yaka is not used here — that she’s alive. Adding to the horror of the Stingy Girl’s fate, as I understand Mrs. Howard’s words she has turned into dried meat, which her unwitting grandmother is now taking home as valued food to be stored (which is the fundamental etymological meaning of t’úʔan) for times of need. 

Sometimes it seems like nobody agrees what “the moral” of an Indian story is. I’ve been told that you draw your own conclusions. I might say that what I learn from my new “silent it” view of the Stingy Girl story is an ethics lesson: (A) listen to advice (remember, grandparents play a huge role in your upbringing, in traditional Indigenous culture), and (B) be generous with your bread or you might be turned into steak. 

Wel, qʰata mayka ma təmtəm ukuk?