BC First Nations Chinuk Wawa: Who’s in charge of helping? It’s complicated

Linguistically, “helping” is a real, real interesting thing.


Yeah, but what about the grammar of help? (Image credit: Software for Students)

Why? In 25 words or less:

“Sentences” (clauses) have a Subject & Object;
but “helping” someone can add another Subject.

For example, “I was gonna fix this brakepad” has a Subject, “I”.

But “Will you help me fix this brakepad?” adds another Subject, “you”, while keeping the 1st person singular Subject “I” (but mutating that into “me”, because, grammar).

It’s funny — all languages can add Objects, and in that case the grammar is pretty straight-ahead. When you have 2 Objects, one of ’em is going to become the Indirect Object. (Etc.)

But you might say languages are less comfortable with multiple Subjects. I feel that exactly what the 2nd Subject becomes is less predictable.

Chinook Jargon’s “help” expressions strike me as a fine example of that variability. Today we’ll see them using various grammar strategies.

It isn’t easy to find example sentences to show us how “help” is said in Jargon. I have the impression that there are relatively few textual (full-sentence) examples documented in the older, creolized, southern dialect. The word for ‘help’ there is (munk-/mamuk-)yéʔlan, spelled in various ways. 

But in the north, BC provides more to work with. We have materials in the Chinuk Pipa alphabet of British Columbia, mainly from the 1890s. I’m going to focus on the examples to be found in the First Nations-written letters that I did my dissertation on. The northern CW word for ‘help’ is (mamuk-)hélp, which is spelled hilp in the Chinuk Pipa. 

Heads up, I’m going to ignore “help” examples that have only one subject, i.e. they don’t talk about helping someone to do something, like this one:

kwanisim naika ayu= mamuk= hilp kopa Lui 
‘I’m always helping Louis.’
(William Andrew, Head Lake (Okanagan), BC, undated, circa 1895)

In fact, the majority of “help” expressions in the First Nations-written Chinook letters of BC are like this preceding one, having only one subject, plus some workaround phrasing, like:

  • Prepositional phrases — “help me with this”, “help me through prayer”,
  • Conjunctions — “help me and I’ll become better”,
  • Relative clauses — “helping my brother who is herding cattle”,
  • etc.

What we’re looking for, specifically, are usages where ‘help’ occurs in a subordinate clause. The helper (the added subject/agent) is in the main clause; the helpee is in the subordinate one.

In principle, we’d expect all ‘help’ constructions to start their subordinate clauses with “irrealis”/subjunctive pus, as happens with any situation where the main-clause subject is influencing someone else to do something.

But this rule, it turns out, isn’t so ironclad when it comes to ‘help’ predicates. And there may be something interesting going on to make this so. 

In the following survey of all relevant First Nations-written ‘help’ clauses in my database, I’ll separate out the different strategies that get used. I’ll distinguish ‘pus’ from ‘plain’ [subordinate clauses]; further, I’ll show you that sometimes ‘help’ takes a Direct Object helpee, sometimes an Indirect Object helpee (‘help+ the preposition kopa…)!

Two-Subject “help” in Chinuk Wawa:

A. ‘help’ + pus… (7 examples):
A1. Direct Object helpee (4 examples):
All 4 use pus as normal, indicating that the subordinate clause has a different subject from the helpee.

o naika papa tlus maika hilp naika [pus iaka= chako= skukum naika tomtom]
‘Oh my father, please help me [so my heart gets strong].’
(Etienne, Shuswap, BC, undated)


nanich naika hilp maika [pus ayu tilikom chako komtaks ukuk Chinuk pipa]
‘Look, I‘ve helped you [so that plenty of people have learned the shorthand].’
(Peter Cole, Barkerville, BC, July 22, 1894)


tlus maika mamuk= hilp naika kopa styuil [pus ST kwanisam tlus nanich naika pus ilo wiht tolo masachi naika]
‘Please help me through prayer [so God takes care of me so sin doesn’t overcome me ever again].’
(Chief François Shilpahan, Quaaout, BC, August 26, 1894)


tlus maika skukum hilp naika [pus sahali taii mamuk= klahawiam ukuk tanas pus sahali taii iskom ukuk tanas kopa sahali ilihi]
‘…please help me powerfully, so God will have pity on that child, (and) so God will take the child to Heaven.’
(William Waspulawh, Canoe Creek, BC, October 11, 1895)

A2. Indirect Object helpee (3 examples):
One uses pus as expected, with subordinate clause having different subject from the helpee.

tlus maika mamuk= hilp kopa nsaika [pus chako= tlus kwanisim kanamokst kopa ST]
‘Please help us [to heal (and) to be together in God forever].’
(Pierre Placity, Enderby, BC, 1895)

But two are unexpected uses of pus, because subordinate clause subject is same as helpee.

tlus maika skukum hilp kopa nsaika kopa styuil [pus nsaika chako= tlus tomtom kopa styuil]
‘I’ll also ask you, please give us a big hand through (your) prayers [so we get enthusiastic about praying].’
(Moose Dixon, Lac La Hache, BC, September 11, 1894)


tlus maika hilp kopa naika [pus naika chako komtaks kanawi pipa]
‘Please help me [to understand all of the newspaper].’
(Moose Dixon, Lac La Hache, BC, December 20, 1894)


B. ‘help’ + plain subordinate clause (2 examples)
Both lack pus as we’d expect, because subordinate-clause subject is identical to helpee.

B1. Direct Object helpee (1 example):

…pus ilo maika hilp naika [kopit]
‘…if you don’t help me [quit].’
(Etienne, Shuswap, BC, undated)

B2. Indirect Object helpee (1 example):

klunas sahali taii iaka= mamuk= hilp kopa naika [mamuk kakwa]
‘Maybe God will help me [to do that].’
(Baptiste, Shuswap, BC, February 1, 1892)

For a moment now, I’d like to focus in on the 2 unexpected instances — where pus is included in the subordinate clause, even though its Subject is identical with the main clause’s helpee. I have the idea that the writer was focused on the fact that the main clause’s Subject (the helper in both sentences) is indeed different from the helpee. If that’s how he was thinking, he was indeed using pus by the normal rules of Chinuk Wawa grammar.

I think the nature of ‘help’ is inherently kind of ambiguous —

  • Are you as the ‘helper’ becoming part of who the subject of the subordinate clause is?
  • Or should the ‘helpee’ alone be the subject of that clause?

And that’s the point I hope for you to take away. ‘Help’ has its own distinct meaning (semantics), such that it’s apparently 100% OK to phrase ‘help’ in all of the ways seen above.

  1. ‘Helping’ can be seen as inherently transitive, or as needing you to add the Causative prefix mamuk-.
  2. ‘Helping’ can be felt as having a direct effect on the helpee, or as indirectly providing them a benefit.
  3. ‘Helping’ can be understood as helper+helpee together doing the subordinate-clause action, or as just the helpee doing so.

Aside from the examples shown today of BC Indigenous people’s Chinuk Wawa, which I place great trust in because they show people writing the way they talk, we also have thousands of newspaper pages of Kamloops Wawa, and hundreds of pages of books in Chinuk Pipa, showing Father Le Jeune’s, Bishop Durieu’s, Father St Onge’s, et al., literate CW. And sure enough, their Jargon also shows all of the above variations! 

Further directions for research (hello, linguistics students!) — 

  • Quantify the non-Indigenous CW writers’ ‘help’ strategies. I have the raw data to share. 
  • Examine southern-dialect CW texts for comparison. 
  • Look into additional CW structures that similarly add a Subject/Agent, “valency-adding” notional Causatives such as ‘let’, ‘order to’, ‘ask to’, etc.

Bonus facts:

English is another language where ‘help’ expressions vary quite a bit. Do you always feel like you have to say ‘help me do it’ vs. ‘help me to do it’, for example?

Also: in part 6 of our mini-series on Myron Eells’s northern CW sermon, we saw him use a ‘help’ expression

Kloshe mesika help huloima tillikums [chaco Christian].
It is good that you should help other people [to become Christians].‘

Maybe you can see where in today’s typology this sentence fits…

What do you think?