Why kʰapa, and why at Grand Ronde?

Throughout the known history of Chinuk Wawa, folks have written the main preposition as something like  < kopa >.

So some folks have been surprised when they first encounter the CW spoken as a tribal language among the Grand Ronde Indian community, with its usual pronunciation kʰapa.

That sounds like “cubba”, but I want to focus on just one difference — the first vowel.

It feels remarkable that a “rounded vowel” (which is really how linguists describe [o] in our super-duper technical lingo) could’ve turned into an unrounded one.

But I feel there are a couple of plausible reasons that caused this.

1. It’s a normal sound shift

First, just thinking in those phonological terms that I referred to: [o] is a “mid, back” vowel according to our map of where sounds are made in the mouth.


(Image source: IPA for Canadian English)

[ə], which is how linguists think of the first vowel sound in “cubba”, is a “mid, central” vowel.

It’s common in languages for a vowel to eventually, with years of use, slide from an original location to a nearby one in the above chart. The classic proof of this, for speakers of English, is The Great Vowel Shift that happened between 1400 and 1700AD:


(Image credit: The Great Vowel Shift)

Just look at all of those little hops from one space to the next! 

2. Frequent use leads to “reductions”

Another great rule of thumb in languages is, the more you say a word, the more “reduced” it gets.

This can mean the loss of consonants or whole syllables (a favorite example of mine is how some English-speakers are now saying “owys” [ówiz] for “always”, and “p’tickly” for “particularly”).

But reduction can often just be the loss of the more distinct-sounding vowel positions, at or near the corners of our charts, such that a vowel becomes “centralized” to schwa, [ə]. 

And that would describe the change from < kopa > with [o] to kʰapa with [ə].

This little word is not quite the only preposition in Chinook Jargon. (We also have ínatay ‘across’, for example.)

But it is by far the most frequently used one, having a large number of senses (‘at, in, on, to, for, among’, etc.), and multiple functions (location, comparison, indirect objects, etc.). 

3. Grand Ronde is the most likely place for this to happen

Where have folks spoken Chinuk Wawa the most, on a daily and even hourly basis? 

Kind of obviously, that’d be within the creolized southern-dialect communities, the chain of multiethnic settlements from Nisqually on south Puget Sound, through Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, and along the Willamette Valley of northwest Oregon. 

More to the point, it includes the now well-documented Jargon of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community in Oregon, established in the mid-1850s. 

And, because we see few signs of the < kopa > to kʰapa change north of GR, even though those communities were established about 30 years earlier, we might infer that Grand Ronde folks historically spoke Jargon even more than any other community previously had. 

Even at Fort Vancouver, where creolized CW was born as a home language, a couple of other languages (French and English) were in widespread use for daily work and worship.

And the creole communities from Fort Van northward only remained coherent in-groups for a couple of generations, compared with Grand Ronde, which is now into the 7th generation and beyond as a people with a distinct identity.

When GR was already into its 4th+ generation, around 1930, their Chinuk Wawa finally started being documented in detail. 

By that time, many unique changes had occurred, including the preposition’s pronunciation. 

The fact that some (community outsider) Jargon experts of the time, such as the highly experienced Dr. Franz Boas, angrily protested that “the language is certainly not the Chinook Jargon” when they saw Melville Jacobs’ documentation of GR CW, tells us something too. 

Even though he had worked with some southern CW speakers up to about 1900, none of them had been Grand Ronde folks, and none had displayed the evolved Jargon that we know from GR. 

Put it all together and…

It makes a good deal of sense that Grand Ronde’s particular style of Chinook Jargon developed kʰapa as its usual pronunciation of the generic preposition.

What do you think?