Chxí ~ ‘recent past’ is tenseless!

(Don’t read this unless you want to talk fluent Jargon.)


(Image credit: Good Things Guy)

I like to point out that previous Chinook Jargon dictionaries have been wrong in telling you there are verb tenses in this language.

Jargon verbs definitely have no marking/inflection for tense.

So, why were older dictionaries & such known to advise that ánqati + verb = past tense, álta + verb = present tense, and áłqi + verb = future tense? (Older spellings: ahnkuttie; alki.)

More than one good reason led to that.

For one, we typically find ánqati / álta / áłqi directly before the “verb complex”. That’s what I like to call the cluster of bits that form a fully inflected Chinuk Wawa verb, fitting into an ordered pattern: subject, verbal aspect & diminutive/intensive prefixes, verb root (sometimes reduplicated), directionals, objects. So ánqati ‘(some time) in the (effectively remote) past’ / álta ‘now; then/and then’ / áłqi ‘(some time) in the (effectively remote) future’ start looking as if they’re just filling a separate dedicated slot for tense marking. (So, why is it that ánqati / álta / áłqi can & sometimes do appear elsewhere in the sentence, albeit less often than other time-related expressions such as úkuk sán ‘today’ and úkuk kʰúl cháku ‘next year’?) 

Another reason why folks considered ánqati / álta / áłqi as tense markers is that they are in reality the clearest way to mark any Chinuk Wawa expression for time reference relative to a point established in the flow of discourse. (So, why is it that ánqati / álta / áłqi are often left out of sentences — I think more often than they actually are used?) 

Third (and I’ll list none more here), the writers of older CW dictionaries and commenters on its grammar were White. Thus they were accustomed to languages that do have tense. (Their own English and French, and the Latin and Greek that the educated among them knew, come to mind.) It was typical for the first descriptions of non-European languages to be presented in an outline structure that was typical, and useful, for teaching those White people languages…usually resulting in a woefully misleading picture of Indigenous languages. 

The questions I’ve already thrown in above point you to what I analyze as a more accurate way of understanding ánqati / álta / áłqi — that they are adverbs. In the Jargon, adverbs typically have the ability to be placed in any of several places in a sentence, and they don’t have to be in the sentence at all for an utterance to be grammatically okay. Chinuk Wawa, like most Pacific Northwest languages, is way more interested in verbal “aspect” — the degree to which a situation has progressed — than in the time when it might take place. Aspect marking is (more) mandatory in CW than time-marking, and the fact is, ánqati / álta / áłqi pattern like other adverbs in this language. 

Having said, that, there are sub-classes within the adverb category (as there are within the “syntactic classes” of any language). The time adverbs have minor patterning tendencies that contrast with other types of adverbs, such as those expressing speed (áyáq ‘quick(ly)’, ławá ‘slow(ly)’). 

Now, with that laid out, I’d like to note that there is at least one additional time adverb in Chinook Jargon, chxí ‘just recently; a moment before the moment of reference’. (Older spelling: chee.) 

This one has slightly different patterns of use from ánqati / álta / áłqi…

  • For instance, it rarely if ever shows up anywhere but right before the “verb complex”.
  • And it frequently occurs along with the present-tense-referring adverb, giving us chxí álta ‘just a moment ago, “just now” ‘.
  • Plus, chxí can, in efffect, give less of a tense-like meaning than an aspect-like one, ‘begin(ning) to…’!
  • And, chxí has an additional, separate function as an attributive adjective meaning ‘new’, a multi-functionality that we don’t find with álta or áłqi (although ánqati can also be used as an adjective modifying a noun — nayka ánqati łúchmən is ‘my ex-wife’). 
    (I say “attributive adjective” because none of these words can function as a stative-verb, i.e. as a “predicative adjective” … their meanings then woudl have to be along the lines of *it is a “now” thing*, *she is former*, and such!)

Using other words, shorter: 

ánqati / álta / áłqi / chxí are tenseless.

Being adverbs, these — like adjectives, nouns, and exclamations — have no business being time-bound. 

Only verbs in Chinuk Wawa have tense, and even then, only in the sense that there is quite certainly a proper time frame in which to understand any given CW verb that you hear used — even though you almost always are aware of that tense only by virtue of participating in the flow of CW speech. 

I’ve said parts of this lesson before, separately. There’s a simple reason why I’m pulling it all together today:

I have a beautiful example to emphasize to you how chxí really doesn’t have to refer to the past, in any signficant way. 

The late Grand Ronde elder Victoria Howard’s traditional story, “Just One His Leg, Just One His Arm”, published in 1936, contains this nice illustration. A young lady’s uncles are going out hunting in the morning, and they tell her, 

“tumála áłqi láx̣w-sán chxí ntsa q’úʔ.”
tomorrow future leaning-sun newly we arrive.
‘It will be tomorrow afternoon before we arrive back.’ (published translation)
‘Tomorrow some time in the afternoon, we’ll just be getting (back) here.’ (my translation) 

Those who have a “scorekeeper” mentality 🙂 are now asking me, well, how is this chxí “a moment before the moment of reference”?

Easy peasy! 

The point of reference that everybody understands with such a sentence is the moment when the uncles have finally, fully, arrived back home. 

That’s why, in my understanding, an equally valid & more literal translation of their sentence is ‘Tomorrow some time in the afternoon, we’ll have just gotten (back) here.’

The reason I didn’t go with that version above is, regular folks don’t talk that way. That’s literary English. Chinuk Wawa is, as a previous Grand Ronde Tribes cultural director brilliantly characterized it, a “street language” of regular folks. 

Any linguists who are reading this and who are “scorekeepers” might justifiably still be pondering whether to go ahead & call chxí an aspect marker. To that I say, it only seldom carries that sense of ‘beginning’, which actually is more often conveyed by the genuinely aspectual, and essentially mandatory, prefix chaku- (literally ‘come (to)’). 

I hope learning more about Chinuk Wawa time & tense has relaxed you and helped you be more confident speaking this lovely language!

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?