Cree influence on Chinuk Wawa?

A smart & interesting question was asked the other day by Luke Etxeberria in the “Chinook Jargon” group on Facebook.

cree mushrooms

Actual Cree mushrooms (image credit: Matsutake & NTFP – PFNL, Gift of Eeyou Istchee)

Luke asked:

Any info out there on Cree influences on Chinook Wawa phonology? There seem to be some phonetic accommodations that wouldn’t be needed given the phonology of local Indigenous languages or English or French…but WOULD be needed by someone whose primary language was Cree…for example cry>klay>kilay (Chinookan speakers wouldn’t have any problem with the “kl” cluster…whereas a Cree speaker would), or kaynutlh>kaynush/kaynut (a Cree speaker would likely hear a final “lh” as “hs” or just “s/sh”…potentially a T, or most drastic of all: pikhwatlh>pihwati. Has anyone seen any old forms with simplifications of initial “tlh”, or “lh” aside from “kl”? Plains Cree doesn’t have an “l” phoneme…and usually replaces it with “n”…but that would be tough next to a “k”…thinking an expected form would be “tlhahawya>tshahawya”, “tlhus>tshus…or maybe tlhahawya>tiyahawya, tlhus>tiyus…

My colleague, Michif-man Dale McCreery, responded —

I think the best bet for Cree influence on Chinook Wawa comes from Cree influence on Metis French, which then gets borrowed in to CW. and might bring some of that influence… But off the top of my head I can’t think of any examples

I concur with Dale on this, and I volunteered to add a few thoughts here on my site. So here we go:

There were indeed speakers of Cree, probably of more than one of the Cree dialects/languages, in the Pacific Northwest during the formative years of Chinook Jargon. Quite a number of fur-trade employees were married to women from Cree-speaking communities in Rupert’s Land, that is, farther east, in the areas served by HBC forts in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, etc. Many traders and trappers themselves learned to speak good Cree. So in some households at Fort Vancouver, Cree may have been one of the main languages.

For such reasons, logically speaking, Cree has to have been one of the more important languages in the Fort Vancouver environment, and it’s indeed mentioned a couple of times as being used both by locals and by some visitors. However, on the lower Columbia River, one function that Cree had in the interior — as a lingua franca — was conspicuously lacking: Cree did not function as an all-purpose interethnic language here. One way that we can check for the presence of a “contact language” is to look through the lexicons of local languages for traces of words borrowed from it, and we just don’t find Cree words in the local Salish, Chinookan, etc. languages, whereas we do find plenty of definite Chinuk Wawa borrowings into tribal speech.

In a parallel with the Nuuchahnulth vocabulary of CW, it’s a definite pattern in that the Jargon words we know to have come from Cree & other Algonquian languages always carry signs of having been brought in by Euro-Americans, a category in which I’m including Métis. (That is, in both cases the lexicon was picked up by non-tribal people before Chinook Jargon existed.)

  • Some are known from specific incidents that involved nobody but Canadian/Métis speakers, such as < siskiyou > ~ sìs(i)kayáw ‘bobtailed horse’.
  • Some have the Canadian French definite article le-, la-, or les tacked on at the beginning, as with lápʰusmu ‘appichemon, saddle blanket’.
  • Some have pronunciations not found within Algonquian tribal speech: papus ‘baby’ came in via 1600s North American English, almost certainly.
  • And the sum total of the Cree/Algonquian words in CW strongly correlates with the known cultural features of those who spoke North American/Métis French, thus we have mikwen ‘horn spoon’, mitas ‘leggings’, and other terminology that’s also well documented over in the Mississippi Valley and Rupert’s Land.
  • We can also take this opportunity to repeat that some rumoured Algonquian/Cree etymologies for Chinook Jargon words are wrong, e.g. wáptʰu ‘wapato plant/bulbs thereof’ is actually from PNW languages, not from a Cree word for ‘mushroom’.

And the consonant-cluster dissimilation that prompted Luke’s excellent original question need not be due to the Cree preference for “open” (just one consonant + one vowel) syllables.

  • Even though many Pacific Northwest languages are famously tolerant of jamming a bunch of consonants together, we shouldn’t take that fact as allowing any and all clusters. English ‘cry’ (and Canadian French crier) becoming CW kʰíláy perhaps tells us more about PNW tribal people’s struggles to pronounce an /r/ sound, rare in this region.
  • A pronunciation ~kaynut or ~kaynus for k’aynuɬ ‘tobacco’ would simply be characteristic of English and French speakers’ frequent difficulties with the PNW ‘slurpy L’ sound, throughout the frontier period.
  • ‘Thin’, p’ixwati, is not an alteration from /tɬ/ in the first place; it appears to trace back to an original Chinookan word ending in /ti/.
  • I’ve never found the theoretical Cree simplification of initial /tɬ/. Note that that’s a single phonemic sound in PNW languages, but English and French speakers are indeed known to have *complicated* it by pronouncing it as 2 consonants, /kl/, at the start of words. This was in order to satisfy the restrictions of English & French “phonotactics”, which don’t allow words to begin with what speakers perceive as a stop /t/ plus an “L” sound.

The case is pretty ironclad that Cree exerted next to no direct influence on Chinuk Wawa. There are 2 words in British Columbia CW, a word for ‘money’ that’s like ~shnuya and a word for ‘white guy(s)’ that’s like ~moniyas, that are definitely Cree. But both of those are known to us from BC tribes having sustained contact with Métis before they experienced significant exposure to the Jargon.

So, add Cree to the heap of languages that have been claimed to have played a major role in shaping Chinook Jargon, but which didn’t, really. Fellow occupants of that heap, which I’ll call Actual History 🙂 , include Hawai’ian, “Chinese”, Russian, Spanish, and Kwak’wala. And Hebrew.

There’s more provable influence from Nez Perce and K’alapuyan in CJ than there is from Cree, and both of those languages contributed less than a handful of words…

What do you think?
qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?