Interplay of definiteness and verbal aspect

In previous articles here on my site, I’ve pointed out “definiteness effects” with CW’s resumptive yaka and ɬaska.


(Image credit: Definitely Her)

These are the third-person pronouns in Chinuk Wawa, as you can learn from any of the old dictionaries.

In order to speak better CW, it’s helpful to know more about them:

  • Both of these words, for the most fluent speakers, are “animate” only — they only refer to humans, large animals, and other entities perceived as having personalities or volitional control over themselves.
  • yaka, for many highly fluent speakers, is the all-purpose 3rd-person, regardless of “grammatical number” — so it means ‘she’, ‘he’, or ‘they’ for such folks. This and the following property reflect traditional Indigenous Pacific Northwest language patterns.
  • Therefore, those speakers only use ɬaska when they feel the listener needs help knowing that a “plural” referent is being talked about.
  • yaka and ɬaska, unlike all other “personal pronouns”, have an additional use as “resumptive pronouns” — when the subject of the clause is a noun (such as mámá ‘mother(s)’, táyí ‘chief(s)’, or tənəs-mán ‘boy(s)’), you can optionally also have yaka and ɬaska indicating the subject.
  • When you do use these “resumptive pronouns”, you can achieve a difference of meaning from the same clause without a resumptive pronoun. The addition of yaka or ɬaska tends to increase the “definiteness” of the noun that they refer to, tipping the scales away from a possible indefinite reading like ‘a mother/chief/boy’, and towards ‘the mother/chief/boy’.

Now, in order to extend that observation in a minor but useful way, here’s an example concocted by me:

A. “úkuk másháchi ɬúchmən kapshwála nsayka mákwst tənəs-ɬúchmən”
that evil woman steal our two DIMINUTIVE-female


B. “úkuk másháchi ɬúchmən yaka kapshwála nsayka mákwst tənəs-ɬúchmən”
that evil woman she steal our two DIMINUTIVE-female

When you read those sentences from a myth (?) in the unnatural setting of being said by themselves, out of all context, they’re pretty much synonyms — both saying something about ‘that evil woman’ stealing ‘our two daughters’.

And it is equally valid to think of both sentences as expressing either a finished action , or an ongoing one. (Chinuk Wawa’s ongoing-action prefix hayu- is somewhat optional, in terms of still being able to express your intended meaning.) So, ‘That evil woman has stolen/is stealing our two daughters.’

Likewise, you can take either of those sentences, in isolation, as indicating a present action, or a past one. Thus, ‘That evil woman stole/steals our two daughters.’

But here’s the neat part. When you have the actual natural flow of speech, which provides background context for your sentence, the absence or presence of resumptive-subject yaka/ɬaska also has a tendency to fine-tune the definiteness of the verb.

In context, with a “resumptive pronoun” in it, as in B., I perceive the sentence to take on a definiteness whose scope spreads beyond the noun subject ‘evil woman’, implicating also the action of the verb ‘steal’.

That is, in my experience of Chinook Jargon, the resumptive yaka/ɬaska tend to have a side effect of giving the predicate a preferred reading as a state of things that has already come to be — thus, perfective aspect (and past tense).

I’m extremely interested in getting the input of folks who have read or listened to a good deal of connected Jargon sentences…

qʰata msayka təmtəm?
What do you folks think?