Red River Métis vowels in Chinuk Wawa

There are several ways a linguist can link Métis (and therefore Red River) French with Chinuk Wawa.


“M∞ n∞ si Chin∞k Man!” My suggestion for a Métis vowel symbol 😉 (image credit: Riel Heart of the North)

In today’s post I’m going to focus on vowels.

I’ve been able to get hold of a copy of Peter Bakker’s masterpiece, the book “A Language of Our Own: The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the Canadian Métis” (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Let me specify, I’m not trying to directly link Michif with Chinook Jargon. Based on what Peter Bakker writes, and on my own research, I believe the two languages are of approximately identical birth date, circa 1800, but under differing circumstances. So they’re not sisters; they’re cousins born thousands of kilometers apart.

Using this analogy to tell you more, both Michif and “Chinook” have Métis parents — specifically, French-speaking Métis parents.

From Canada.

From the Red River Settlement (today’s area of Winnipeg, Manitoba and widely surrounding environs). That heritage is what gives the “Big M” in Métis.

In my previous writing here about the French parts of Chinook Jargon, I’ve mostly noticed early members of the Chinuk Wawa-speaking community who were best described as French Canadians. That’s folks from Québec (Lower Canada), primarily. It includes people of mixed Indigenous & European heritage, who would thus be considered métis. (With a “small m“.)

But a focus on the Lower Canadians who were in the Pacific Northwest limits us to comparing CW with general Canadian French. (Which appears to be identical with Mississippi Valley French.) That’s not totally inappropriate, because at least it is a North American variety of French — much more relevant for our purposes than standard “metropolitan” French from France would be!

When analyzing the well-known French component of Chinook Jargon, what I had not yet done was to research Red River history and biography, nor had I learned much about the Big-M Métis people’s French speech. This is why a lot of my posts on this site have so far used the purposely vague label “Canadian/Métis French”. Resources on specifically Red River Métis French eluded me for several years.

But recently I picked up the St Laurent (Winnipeg-area) dictionary of Métchif French, as well as Bakker’s book. Between them, they supply a good picture of what makes Métis French distinctive, and it turns out that they are describing phenomena that we see in Chinook Jargon’s French vocabulary.

Here I’ll focus on Bakker’s book, as he makes explicit observations and claims. I’ll present 3 traits distinctive of Métis French that correlate with CW’s French lexicon.

#1: On pages 72-73, Bakker remarks:

Métis French is the dialect of French as it is still spoken by the Métis. Phonologically, it stands apart from all other French dialects in that the standard French /e/ and /o/ are systematically raised to [i] and [u].

I’ll list some words of CW, just from the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary (more exist in other CW dictionaries), that seem to match that description. Incidentally, it appears from both Métchif & CW data that the (standard French) “open” mid-high vowels /ε/ and /ɔ/ also participate in this raising, a fact that I haven’t seen mention of yet in the literature. Such words are indicated by *** below.

(I’m leaving out words that can also be explained by an English etymology, such as tʰi ‘tea’)

  1. bibi *** ‘kiss’ thought to be Canadian French baby talk, perhaps a reduplication of the first syllable of (le) baiser [bεze]; also compare Métchif French < bek > ‘kiss’
  2. budi ‘pouty’ from French boudé(e)
  3. dilit, təlit *** ‘right, real(ly)’ from Canadian French drette
  4. kʰapu ‘coat’ from Canadian French capot [kapot]
  5. kuri ‘run, travel’ from French courez!
  6. kushu ‘pig’ from French cochon 
  7. lakʰli ‘key’ from French le/la clef
  8. lakum *** ‘pitch, sap’ from French la gomme
  9. lamatʰin *** ‘mitten(s)’ from French la mitaine [lamitεn], cf. St Laurent Métchif French < visel > ‘dishes’ from vaisselles [vεsεl]
  10. lamil *** ‘mule’; the 2nd vowel in French la mule is a short/more “open” [ʏ] in Canadian/Métis French, isn’t it? And Métis perhaps pronounced it  [lamil]? The phoneme /ü/ gets a variety of pronunciations in these dialects, cf. St Laurent Métchif French < jumaw > [žuma] ‘mare’, standard French jument [žümã].
  11. lamiyi (Bay Center, Washington CW) ‘old woman’ from French la vieille
  12. lamutay ‘mountain’ from French la montagne
  13. lapʰəyush *** ‘hoe’ from French la pioche
  14. lapʰish *** ‘pole’ from French la perche, in Canadian pronunciation [lapε(r)š]
  15. libarədu ‘shingle(s)’ from French le(s) bardeau(x)
  16. ligwin ‘saw’ from Canadian French l’égoïne/l’égouine
  17. likart ‘cards’ from French les cartes
  18. lima ‘hand(s)’ from French les mains
  19. lipu‘apple(s)’ from French les pommes
  20. lipʰyi ‘foot; feet’ from French le(s) pied(s)
  21. lisayu ‘onion(s)’ from French les oignons — this word’s French plural /s/ and its use as both singular and plural can be compared with the “fossilized liaison consonants” that Bakker notes to be characteristic of the phonology in the French part of Michif (1997:81-82)
  22. malyi ‘marry’ from French (se) marier
  23. nipʰərsi ‘Nez Perce (tribe)’ from French Nez Percé(s)
  24. puyu ‘broth’ from French bouillon
  25. sandəli ‘roan horse’ from French cendré
  26. sisu ‘scissors’ from French ciseaux [sizo]
  27. shati ‘sing’ from French chanter
  28. ubut ‘end’ from Canadian French au bout [obu]

I want to acknowledge right away that there exists a similar tendency in Pacific Northwest Indigenous languages, which typically have few or no phonemes */e/ or */o/, and therefore sometimes pronounce words containing /i/ with an [e] sound as in CW saplil~saplel ‘bread’, and those having /u/ with an [o] sound as in CW tulu~tolo ‘to win’.

The question then is whether there’s any further evidence to tip the balance from “PNW influence on French words in Jargon” to “nope, this is distinctly Métis talk”.

This leads us to…

#2: Bakker 1997:81 tells us “…in unstressed syllables French phonemes [in Michif] are more or less centralized in value, which is not the case in the Cree part [of Michif].” If we can assume this is particular to Métis French, which is the source of the French words in Michif, as opposed to other French varieties, this trait may be relevant for us. In Chinuk Wawa’s French words, too, there’s a tendency for unstressed vowels to become more centralized and schwa-like. Examples:

  1.  əbə ‘or’, from French ou bien.
  2. Most of the above-listed (and more) words from French starting in la- have pronunciations as [lʌ]- listed in the 2012 dictionary. The symbol ʌ is a schwa sound. That dictionary often favors etymological over phonetic spellings, thus la- for most French feminine nouns.
  3. kabréys ‘rawhide lariat strap’ — first vowel is shown [ʌ].
  4. karapín ‘gun, rifle’ — the second vowel is shown as [ʌ].
  5. ləsanchél ‘belt’, from French la ceinture.
  6. pʰasáyuks ‘French’ (part of its etymology is français) — first vowel is shown as [ʌ].

Again there’s a tendency in other CW words, not just French ones, to centralize unstressed vowels. Make of it what you will.

#3: “Another feature in the French part of Michif is that a form of vowel assimilation seems to have developed…The place of articulation of one vowel is often  adjusted to the value of other vowels in the same word. This is valid only for the French component…Vowels tend to get raised and/or rounded under the influence of [the last] fronted or rounded vowels in the word. I suspect that such a system also exists in Métis French (the source dialect of the French component, but this has not been studied.” (1997:81) Linguists also call this sort of thing “vowel harmony”. Bakker cites Michif examples from Rhodes 1986:

  • [pujy ~ pyjy] pouilleux ‘lousy’ ([y] = ü)
  • [myzyr] mesure ‘measure’
  • [šuvry] chevreuil ‘deer’
  • [fizi] fusil ‘rifle’
  • [myzyk] musique ‘music’

Possible examples from Canadian/Métis French in Chinuk Wawa:

  1. pi ‘and’ from French puis [püi]
  2. kushu 
  3. nipʰərsi
  4. puyu
  5. ubut
  6. For a parallel harmony involving low vowels (not previously described?), cf. perhaps:
    CW aba ‘OK, all right, yes’ from French eh bien,
    litowa ‘finger(s)’ (compare Canadian French (les) doigt(s) [dwæ], St Lauren Métchif French < dway > [dwey],
    and the variant pronunciation boya of the above puyu.
    These can be compared with e.g. Métchif French of St Laurent < tolten > ‘always’ from tous le temps.

Summing up a data-heavy post, to my eyes there is fairly compelling reason to see Red River Métis speech as having put its stamp on the vowel system of Chinuk Wawa.

We already knew that it wouldn’t be only Red River folks who influenced CW. The history of the Jargon is thoroughly one of cultural mixture, so the speech of other (little-m) métis people and Canadians has also left traces. As have the languages of Indigenous tribes, and various dialects of English.

Stay tuned, I’ll be posting more kinds of information that will solidify that case that there’s a really fundamental connection between the heartland Red River Métis and the homeland of Chinuk Wawa.

Bonus fact:

The above Métis (Métchif) French traits, as well as others that I’ll write separate posts about here, also seem to appear in what’s been called British Columbia’s fur-trade era “French of the Mountains”. That was the lingua franca in most of BC…until Chinook Jargon expanded from the coast into the interior!