Non-concatenative morphology in Chinuk Wawa?

Non-concatenative (non-segmental) morphology is, I’d say, assumed to be exotic.


Compounds illustrated (Image credit: Pinterest)

Here I’m talking about those morphemes (i.e. those meaningful building blocks) of a language that are not just made of strings of phonemes (i.e. distinctive sounds). We tend to be taught scads of examples in linguistics classes that show morphemes have pretty fixed, simple-to-pronounce shapes, such as the Arabic prefix mu-, Salish s- Nominalizer, Hungarian -om for 1st person with a definite object, etc.

You’re left with the implication that morphemes not composed of phoneme strings, as seen from Chalcatongo Mixtec’s tonal inflection in káʔba “filth” ↔ káʔbá “dirty”, are unusual. (Thank you Wikipedia for the example.) Yet very large numbers of languages use such processes on a routine basis.

Incidentally, here’s a partial list of what a nonconcatenative morpheme can be like:

  • a tone
  • a stress
  • a reduplication (repeating part or all of a word)
  • a truncation (chopping off part of a word, to impart a new meaning to the word)
  • a change in vowel quality, a.k.a. ablaut
  • a change in consonant manner of articulation
  • (signed languages also have their particular nonconcatenative morphological strategies)

My personal experience leaves me with the impression that we linguists, to the extent that we’re aware of them, tend also to assume nonconcatenative morphemes are as simple as that list would imply, e.g. “place stress here” or “just add low tone there” to convey a certain meaning.

However, it’s easy to find hundreds of nonconcatenative morphemes in the linguistic literature that are more multifaceted than that, e.g. English reduplication to express a canonical example of a phenomenon (as in “No, I want a car car, not a Tesla”) both repeats the stem and puts a special higher intonation on it. That’s 2 non-segmental processes at once. I’ve often noticed that even excellent grammatical descriptions of a language will tend to tell that e.g. “there’s reduplication of the shape CVC” (consonant plus vowel plus consonant), but without providing important details of stress etc.

Furthermore, we characteristically suppose that nonconcatenative morphemes are purely nonconcatenative. And yet, just to look at one of the languages I happen to research, I can easily give you examples from Chinuk Wawa’s co-input language Lower Chehalis Salish of morphemes that are simultaneously concatenative sequences of segments and non-concatenative. There’s a cute little unstressed Diminutive suffix -uʔ that’s just 2 phonemes attached after the word stem — but it also includes a glottal stop that gets infixed inside the word, directly following the stressed vowel. (An example that my readers here might enjoy is skʷəkʷáʔmuʔ ‘an annoying kid’, which is the Diminutive of skʷəkʷə́m ‘a monster’ — the source of “skukoom” in CW. The original stressed schwa of skʷəkʷə́m, you may notice, also gets mutated to .)

Chinuk Wawa disproves still another typical and wrong presumption of linguists, that contact languages are “simple”. Creole CW does not merely rattle off sequences of root-word after root-word, in a babytalk style. It has, not just grammatical affixes (such as hayu- ‘Progressive action’), but also nonconcatenative morphology, in the form of productive reduplication, the ‘Distributive action’ form that places an unstressed copy of the stem after the stressed first occurrence of it. (E.g. nánich-nanich ‘to be looking around’.) I’ve previously suggested that CW’s reduplication is likely to trace back to Salish influence.

This discussion leads up to my proposing that both creole & pidgin Chinuk Wawa include at least one more example of nonconcatenative morphology. Here I’ll be using different wording than I have previously, but talking about something I’ve already examined many times on this website: compound words. (Which we conventionally signal by a joining dash, .)

In my analysis, the prototypical compound in CW is a Noun + a Noun; there are Verb + Noun compounds etc. as well, all fitting a single pattern. Here, a stem that otherwise can be a verb (whether Active or Stative) is turned into the descriptor of an immediately following “head” noun, whose primary stress gets reduced to a secondary stress. Simple examples:

  • kə́ləkələ-tàyi
    (the CW name of naturalist JK Townsend)
  • nánich-lakasèt

The addition of this stress-reduction morpheme, call it V̀, indicates that a relatively simple noun has become a semantically more complex compound. Stated another way, flags the immediately preceding noun or verb as having lost its potential to be a predicate, thus depending on the following noun for its proper interpretation.

Without , you’d have these equally valid, but quite different, CW expressions:

  • kə́ləkələ táyi
    bird chief
    ‘a/the chief is a bird’
  • nánich lakasét
    watch box
    ‘look at the box!’

Now to ask my usual question about everything in Chinuk Wawa — where did this come from?

Tentatively, I’d connect this operation in CW with at least 2 of its major input languages. I’m not really aware of compounds in French working like this, nor of there being many compounds in Chinookan.

But we can pretty obviously look to English, where compounds undergo a similar stress alteration; anyone with a fluent grasp of English grammar knows that a compound “bird-chief” would have secondary stress on the second word: bírd-chìef.

The other potential model is in Lower Chehalis Salish, where I’ve recently found a comparable process, albeit a more complex one. There, I was wondering why unstressed ə becomes stressedin quite a few instances. (An instance of the “ablaut” mentioned above.) The effect seems to be to turn a noun root into a “combining/modifying form”, i.e. the first element in a Noun+Noun compound. (The second, “head” noun, as in CW, is demoted to secondary stress.) Examples I can easily think of:

  • ʔalís-x̣àʔqaʔ
    (compare ʔál̓əs, x̣áʔqaʔ 
    ‘chief, children’)
    ‘children of royalty’
  • ɬulmíš-(s)y̓ə̀q
    (compare ɬəw̓ál̓məš, (s)y̓ə́q 
    ‘Native, name’)
    ‘Indian name’
  • ɬulmíš-q̓ʷəč̓əstəy̓əp
    (compare ɬəw̓ál̓məš, q̓ʷəč̓əstəy̓əp
    ‘Native, onion’)
    ‘wild onion’
  • yəm̓íc-qʷə̀nɬ
    (compare yám̓əc, qʷə́nɬ
    ‘fir, pitchwood’)
  • yəw̓ís-skʷən̓tùʔ
    (compare ?, skʷən̓túʔ
    ‘?, chicken’)

So there you have it, a little lesson on how Chinuk Wawa is more complex than it has historically been described by folks who hadn’t paid terribly close attention to how it operates.

We’ve also seen that CW’s non-concatenative morphology may be an inheritance from its Indigenous ancestors.

What do you think?
qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?