Red River Métis syntax and Chinuk Wawa

So far, I’ve posted discussions of parallels between Red River Métis French words and their relatives in Chinuk Wawa. Now, on to syntax…


Red River Colony, in red (image credit: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

When we look beyond individual words to the structure of phrases, clauses, and sentences, we find a number of features that are characteristic of Métis French (tracing back to the Red River Settlement around today’s Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada) — and are shared with Chinuk Wawa.

As we’ve seen with the vowels and consonants, some of these features are also paralleled in the Pacific Northwest Indigenous languages that played major roles in shaping Chinook Jargon. (That’s mainly Natítanui or Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan, and ɬəw’ál’məš or Lower Chehalis Salish.)

So I want us to keep our eyes open for a larger pattern. I think we find that there are so many parallels, in so many linguistic and social domains, that Red River Métis influence on the formation and growth of CJ is proven.

Here’s a first list of traits in common between the Jargon and the French of Red River Métis folks (the latter being also seen in the mixed Cree-French language, Michif):

  • A lack of a be-verb, a.k.a. “zero (Ø) copula”, in some equative clauses, contrasting with an overt be-verb in locative clauses (compare Chinuk Wawa’s Ø in equatives vs. míɬayt in locatives):
    • < J’ Ø pareyl mwin ito. > ‘I’m the same, too.’ In standard French spellings Je (suis) pareil(le) moi et tout, ‘I (am) same me and all.’ p. 42
    • < J’ Ø tro plin powr mawnji plus. > ‘I’m too full to eat any more.’ In standard French spellings Je (suis) trop plein pour manger plus, ‘I (am)…………….. p.43
    • < Aki Ø saw? > ‘Who is this?’ In standard French spellings (à) qui (est) ça? p. 43
    • < Kosay Ø kon l’aten powr? > ‘What are we waiting for?’ In standard French spellings Quoi c’est qu’on l’attend pour? p. 51
      (Note: I believe < kosay > is originally from quoi c’est ‘what is it’, and is shared with other North American French dialects, but note that Métchif French & the French part of Michif both have /i/ as their normal correspondent of est. On this and other evidence, < kosay > only means ‘what’, not ‘what is it’.)
    • < Kel lert Ø ki vyan avan? > ‘What letter comes before?’ In standard French spellings Quelle lettre (est) qui vient avant? p. 53
    • < Kel lert Ø ki mank? > ‘What letter is missing?’ In standard French spellings Quelle lettre (est) qui manque? p. 54
    • CONTRAST the preceding with a locational copula, which does use an overt verb, as in < Ivo ti res? > ‘Where do you live? In standard French spellings Où tu restes? p. 43
    • FULL DISCLOSURE, some equative be-verb expressions in Métchif French do use a copular word, e.g. < Y li l’plus pyr shawntewr. > ‘He’s the word singer.’ In standard French spellings Il est le plur pire chanteur. p. 53.
    • Michif, too, uses a Métis French “be” verb in some sentences and not in others. Examples from the Turtle Mountain dictionary:
      • < Aen nofisyee daw l’armee Ø Zhawn > ‘John is an officer in the Army’, standard French spellings Un officier dans l’armée (est) Jean ‘An officer in the Army (is) John’.
      • < Li kawnsayr si ten grous malajee > ‘Cancer is a major disease’, standard French Le cancer c’est une grosse maladie ‘The cancer it’s a big disease.’
      • But the reasons determining use and non-use of the French be-verb in Michif are more complex, as the Cree part of Michif tends to use verbs to express most ‘be a Noun’ / ‘be Adjective’ concepts.
  • ‘Yes/No’ question particle < ti > standing in postclitic position after the element being questioned (cf. earlier CW’s na):
    • < Ti chi kapab l’fayr?> ‘Can you do it?’, standard French spellings Tu es-ti capable le faire? ‘You are-YNQ able it’ p. 42 (This < ti > presumably developed from a broadening of verb-final /t/ + il as seen in standard French Y/N questions such as a-t-il ‘does he have?’)
    • < Ta chi fin? > ‘Are you hungry?’ in standard French spellings Tu a-ti faim? ‘You have-YNQ hunger?’ p. 42
    • < Si chi O.K.? > ‘Is this O.K.?’ p. 43, in standard French spellings C’est-ti OK? ‘ OK?’
    • < Ti chi pari? > ‘Are you ready?’ p. 43, in standard French spellings Tu es-ti paré(e)? ‘You are-YNQ ready?’
    • For a Michif (Cree-French) example: < Kitayawnawn chee lee zavis di bwaw? > ‘Do we have any lag screws?’ (‘We.have YNQ the.Plural screws of wood?’)
  • Lack of gender distinction in 3rd person pronouns (cf. CW yaka)…many examples, including:
    • < Aten li > ‘Wait for him/her.’ p. 51, standard French spellings Attends-le ‘Await him.’
    • < Y sten ali shizu > ‘He/She went home.’ p. 50, standard French spellings Il ?c’est-en allé chez eux ‘He ? gone to.the.home.of them’
    • In Michif, French personal pronouns are used less than in Métchif French (again due to the big role of Cree), but I can tell you that the Turtle Mountain dictionary defines both ‘she’ and ‘he’ as < il >. In Michif, ‘(s)he’ is otherwise the Cree-sourced < wiya >.
  • [+Definite] 3rd person noun as possessor => ‘Paul his toys’ — Bakker 1997:73 says this is distinctly Métis as opposed to Canadian French. The St Laurent Michif French dictionary shows this structure with a definite-noun possessor; the few other 3rd-person nouns as possessors appear to be indefinite nouns. (The [+Definiteness] parameter hasn’t previously been pointed out in the linguistic literature that I’ve seen; it’s also in Chinuk Wawa, Paul yaka lipʰyi ‘Paul’s feet’ vs. lepʰul-lipʰyi ‘chicken feet’.)
    • < Paul si jojo/bebel > ‘Paul’s toys’ p. 52, standard French spellings Paul ses jouets ‘Paul his toys’.
    • CONTRAST this with apparently indefinite nouns as possessors: 
      • < li pat di shyin > ‘the dogs [sic] legs’ p. 52, standard French spellings les pattes de chien ‘the paws of(/the) dog’ (I take this as ‘dog legs’)
      • < li jojo/bebel di shyin > ‘the dogs [sic] toys’ (I take this as ‘dog toys’)
      • < li jojo/bebel d’enfan > ‘the childs [sic] toy’ (I take this as ‘kid toys, child’s/children’s toys’ in general)
    • In Michif we also say e.g. ‘the dog his collar’, < li shyaen soun kwalay >, for definite-noun possessors, versus that same “of” structure for indefinite possessors, e.g. < lee pist di poul > ‘imprints of chicken feet’ (‘tracks of chickens’).
  • Superlative degree of adjectives => optionally specified as ‘the more ADJ of all’ (compare CW iləp- ADJ, optionally specified as iləp- ADJ kʰapa kanawi)
    • < l’plu gro di tot > ‘biggest’ p. 53, standard French spellings le plus gros de tous ‘the more big of all’.
    • < la plu jown di tot > ‘yellowest’ , standard French spellings la plus jaune de tous ‘the more yellow of all’.
    • < l’plu gran t’om di tot > ‘that [sic] tallest man’, standard French spellings le plus grand homme de tous ‘the more tall man of all’.
    • CONTRAST these “more of all” constructions with:
      • < Paul y li l’plu gran t’om dan la shawm > ‘Paul is the tallest man in the room’, standard French spellings Paul il est le plus grand homme dans la chambre ‘Paul he is the more tall man in the room’.
      • < Y li l’plu pyr shawntewr > ‘He’s the worst singer’, standard French spellings Il est le plus pire chanteur ‘He is the most worse [sic] singer’.
      • MICHIF: I’m not sure I’m finding the “more of all” construction in the Turtle Mountain dictionary or the Fleury 2013. So far I just see stuff like < mee pleu miyeur souyee > ‘my best shoes’, < li pleu boon piyee > ‘the best state’. The closest match I notice is a single solitary sentence < Wiya, pour sartaen, li pleu boon shawnteur di tout lee shawnteur > ‘He is indeed the best of all singers’, out of the thousands of expressions in the Turtle Mountain dictionary! Should we infer that Michif lost the “more of all” structure — or that Métchif French innovated it after Michif came into existence?
  • Noun subject takes a (3rd-person) Resumptive subject pronoun — mainly with animate subjects in Métchif French, just as we find in Chinook Jargon? Note, the examples found in the tiny St Laurent dictionary are all “be-verbs”, but I suspect all sorts of verbs use this structure. Perhaps it’s obligatory?
    • < Paul y li l’plu gran t’om dan la shawm > ‘Paul is the tallest man in the room’, standard French spellings Paul il est le plus grand homme dans la chambre ‘Paul he is the more tall man in the room’ p. 53.
    • < Paul y li plu gran ki John > ‘Paul is taller than John’. Standard French spellings Paul il est le plus grand que Jean ‘Paul he is the more big than
    • CONTRAST these with inanimate subject, with (?)no resumptive pronoun, e.g. in < Mon no si June > ‘My name is June’ p. 80. (Metis French < si > appears to function as a verb rather than being analyzed by speakers as pronoun < sa > ‘it’ + < i > ‘is’; more research needs to be done.)
    • MICHIF: examples with a “resumptive pronoun” are given by Bakker 1997:91; here are a couple from Turtle Mountain:
      • < Li grawn shmaen noombr saenk il i nwayr > ‘Highway Five is a black top road.’ Standard French spellings: Le grand chemin numéro cinq il est noir ‘The big road number five it is black.’
      • < … la mayr il i salee > ‘…the sea is briny.’ Standard French spellings: …la mer il est salé ‘…the sea he is salty.’
      • I would’ve guessed that the resumptive-pronoun strategy would be less frequent in Michif than it is in Metis French, because Michif statives/adjectival ideas tend to be verbs from Cree; subject pronouns are an inseparable part of a Cree verb, so we couldn’t expect them to be reiterated separately. (And indeed they’re not, when the Cree verbs are used.) But in fact I find hundreds of instances of this strategy in the Turtle Mountain dictionary, for both animate and inanimate subjects, when the lexeme expressing an adjectival sense is from French. So I tentatively think resumptive pronouns are obligatory in Michif, if only in its French component, just as I’m guessing for Métchif French.
      • This is a difference from Chinook Jargon. In CJ, resumptive pronouns seem somewhat optional.
      • In CJ, I’ve analyzed resumptive pronouns as a 3rd person verbal “agreement indicator”. Virtually all main clauses in the Jargon have a pronoun as their subject, certainly the 1st & 2nd-person ones (with mayka, nayka, nsayka, msayka). But when there’s instead a noun as a subject, that’s already functioning to show there’s a 3rd person subject. This sets up a dilemma — whether or not to mark the accompanying verb with a pronoun. The “feel” of the language, if I can put it that way, nonetheless still expects a subject pronoun on the verb. So we still frequently also get yaka ‘(s)he’ / ɬaska ‘they’ in such clauses, e.g. Ukuk ɬuchmən yaka wawa… ‘That woman said…’.

Whew! This post took lots of man-hours to put together. And it’s admittedly a preliminary study using syntactic structures that the limited available materials on Métis French show me.

But, taken together with what I’ve been posting about Métis vowels and consonants, and what I’m about to post on further related topics, I’m seeing ever clearer connections between Red River and the Chinuk Wawa’s Pacific NW homeland.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?