There is only one Negative prefix in CW…but it’s attached to a cool fossil

Thinking this over —


Some other “non-fossils” 🙂 (image credit: The Statesman)


To my understanding, in both southern and northern dialects the negator hílu, even as first member of an idiomatic expression, is non-prefixal. Specifically it’s a quantifier meaning ‘none (of X); no (X)́ without any (X)’. The head X is normally/always a nominal (noun or pronoun). (These then are Noun phrases.) 

Note that in both dialects the simple negative quantifier hílu ‘nothing’ is by itself the antonym of such positive QTFs as Northern qʰə́nchi / Southern qʰə́nchi-háyú ‘some, several’, tənəs-háyú ‘a few’, etc. Any sequence that you find of wik- plus a word that’s otherwise known as a QTF will prove to have a non-QTF reading. E.g. wik-qʰə́nchi means ‘never’ (because qʰə́nchi can also mean ‘when’), but not ~*’none-amount’*, which I find is hard to assign even a fictional translation to.


Both dialects, for sure, have prefixal wik-, in several expressions each. (These are Adjective/Adverb phrases.) 


So then the only big difference in negation between the dialects is in a separate domain, clausal negation: Southern dialect strongly prefers to negate a whole clause/sentence with wík (which is then definitely not a prefix!), while Northern dialect strongly prefers hílu (also definitely not a prefix).

Reiterating this: 

Even though an expression such as hílu íkta may look equivalent to wik-íkta (both are NEG plus ‘thing’, and some writers have implied they have parallel structures by writing both hyphenated), the meaning of each is distinct:

  • hilu íkta is literally ‘(having) none of anything’, thus ‘devoid; indigent; destitute, poor’ in St Onge’s 1892 manuscript dictionary,
  • whereas wik-íkta is literally ‘non-(any)thing’, that is ‘nothing’. 

We find that at least this one wik- expression has such a “false friend” synonym that uses hilu … but that’s the exception, not the rule. 

Both wik- and hilu occur in more or less numerous expressions, depending on the time period and the dialect of Chinook Jargon that you’re looking at.

But, aside from their clausal (“sentence”) negating powers, these two negatives have separate functions, as a carryover from their etymological sources. This is borne out by inspection of these lists selected from St Onge’s manuscript:

wik- (‘un-; non-; not’)
(from Nootka Jargon ‘not’, originating from a Nuuchahnulth root wi- ‘not’, which always occurs word-initially so it superficially resembles a prefix there!)

  • wik-áyáq ‘sluggish, slow’ (‘non-fast’)
  • wik-qʰáx̣ ‘nowhere’ (‘not-somewhere/anywhere’)
  • wik-x̣lúyma ‘identical’ (‘non-different’)

hilu (‘none of; lacking; without’)
(from Nootka Jargon, originating from Haida ‘used up, all gone, etc.’)

  • hílu íliʔi ‘clean’ (‘without dirt’)
  • hílu klís ‘skinny’ (‘lacking fat’)
  • hílu másháchi ‘harmless’ (‘without badness’)
  • hílu ním ‘anonymous’ (‘no name’)

A stem’s ability to combine with hílu in fact amounts to one valid “test” for noun status in Chinuk Wawa. The stems (well, they’re also roots) in the following expressions are also found in Jargon as verbs, but here they have to be read as nouns:

  • hílu pʰáyt ‘peace’ (‘without (any) fights’)
  • hílu pʰliyé ‘impiety’ (atheism) (‘lacking prayer/religion’)
  • hílu músum ‘insomnia’ (‘no sleeps’)

And we’re unable to combine hílu with any roots that are known only in verbal function, so you can’t say e.g.:

  • *hílu nánich* for something like ‘blind’ (that is, you can definitely use the verb phrase hílu nánich to convey that same general idea, but only as a relative clause — a person ‘who doesn’t see’ … the way to say ‘blind’ is the noun phrase hílu siyáxus ‘no eyes’)
  •  *hílu ɬátwa* for something like ‘paralyzed’ (similarly, this phrase is OK as a relative clause for a person ‘who doesn’t/can’t move/walk’)

Correspondingly, wik- doesn’t combine with nouns, e.g. you can’t say:

  • *wik-mán* which might theoretically mean ‘a non-male’ (but in southern dialect you can say wík mán for ‘(is) not a male’, using the non-prefix, stressed word wík)
  • *wik-ním* for something like ‘a non-name’ (but non-prefixal wík ním would be fine, meaning ‘(is) not a name’)

Equipped with these guidelines, you should be better able to speak fluent Chinuk Wawa.

Bonus fact:

wik(-)hayas(-)mákuk ‘cheap’ is a neat old CW expression combining what were 3 words of the older Nootka Jargon.

But there’s a reason I wrote it with parenthesized dashes. I’ve written before about how hard this one phrase is to grammatically analyze. We have to parse this mákuk: 

  • either as an otherwise unknown adjective ‘valuable’, thus wik-hayas-mákuk ‘inexpensive’ (‘not-very-valuable’);
  • or else as a noun ‘bargain’, thus wík háyás mákuk ‘not a big bargain’.

The simpler, more elegant explanation is the first one. The worse, clunkier explanation is the second one.

For comparison, we have two parallel but unhelpful CW expressions from older documents, but darn it, they’re equally impossible to parse definitively:

  • tənəs(-)mákuk ‘cheap’, which we can conceivably analyze as something like
    • tə́nəs mákuk ‘a little bargain’ or
    • tənəs-mákuk ‘slightly valuable’, and
  • hayas(-)mákuk ‘valuable’ (expensive), which likewise could be either
    • háyás mákuk ‘a big bargain’ or
    • hayas-mákuk ‘very valuable’.

It occurs to me that perhaps an explanation for the weirdness of wik(-)hayas(-)mákuk ‘cheap’ is that it dates to the Nootka Jargon days, before Chinuk Wawa existed as a distinct language! It may be a fossil in CW. Linguistic fossils, by virtue of originating when things worked differently, often violate the present-day rules of the language that they’re preserved in; examples in modern English are the set phrases “what have you”, “willy nilly“, “woe betide you“, and “God rest ye merry, gentlemen“.

wik(-)hayas(-)mákuk ‘cheap’ might be an extremely valuable relic, if it turns out to be one of the very few multi-morpheme expressions that’s survived from NJ.

Long live linguistic archaeology!

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm? What do you think?