Portland dictionary with numerals for accent marks?!

There’s always something new to be found among all those old Chinook Jargon documents…

Thanks to @Incunabula on Twitter, who shared a visual that arrested me in my tracks.

Look at the “accent marks” on Chinook Jargon words here:


I called them “accent marks” in scare-quotes, but those symbols over a lot of the vowels don’t seem to mark word stress.

  1. For one thing, they’re almost all on unstressed vowels.
  2. For another, some of the words have more than one of these symbols, whereas Chinuk Wawa has just one significant stress per word. 

So, more accurately we should term these as “diacritical marks”, “diacritics” for short.

(Cancel that phone call to linguists Morris Halle & Noam Chomsky, whose 1968 book “Sound Pattern of English” proposed 4 numbered degrees of stress in my native language!) 😁

Their purpose then seems to have been to indicate vowels that were less than “full”, that is “reduced” or “indistinct” ones (in a sort of old-school linguistic terminology) that more or less resembled /ə/ (schwa). So those superscripted numerals are phonetic symbols.

This argument is highly plausible, because actually every vowel with a number on top here is an < a >. And, out of the /a e i o u ə/ vowel system of CW, it’s specifically /a/ that sounds most like /ə/ when unstressed. 

Most noteworthy to my eyes: the page shown above tells us that the Yes/No question particle na is unstressed no matter whether it’s put before or after the proposition that it’s modifying.

I’m excited to learn this, because na is no longer used in any dialect of the Jargon, so I’ve never heard it used by a knowledgeable speaker. The generation of “young” elders on whose way of talking the present-day Grand Ronde variety is based didn’t seem to use this na — except in the petrified interjection wíkna ‘Isn’t that right?’, which indeed is pronounced [wíknə].

And, as in the above illustration, some dictionaries wrote a comma after a sentence-first occurence of this interrogative na. I had always taken that punctuation as implying a stressed pronunciation *[ná]* — which would be identical with the also-obsolescent “attention-getting interjection” ná — instead of the apparently intended [nə]!

Beyond our discovery of a unique new phonetic notation, I see a couple more uses for the above-sampled text, which I take to be the extremely rare 3rd edition (1856? 1862? pre-1868 anyway) of Francois Norbert Blanchet’s dictionary as published by Portland, Oregon bookseller SJ McCormick: 

  • It shows that we need to collect every edition and variant of the classic Chinook dictionaries. Some of them ran to about 20 editions, and edits that were sometimes significant got made to some of those new editions. For instance, Samuel V Johnson’s 1978 dissertation observes on page 65 that the 2nd edition visually distinguishes several different pronunciations of “a”, “u”, “i”, “e”, “o”, and “h”, today’s snippet does not. Johnson also tells us (pages 70-71) that the third edition is organized very differently from the first two, and (on page 72) that James C Pilling’s 1893 “Bibliography of the Chinookan Languages” lists two third editions.
  • The visual above shows yet another example of “Didactic Dialogues in Dictionaries of Chinuk Wawa“, as I’ve titled a sporadic series that’s running on this site. I’ll have to make sure to include this teaching conversation in that series.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?