Métis “dret”, Métis “très” at Grand Ronde

Why did drét become the only word for ‘very’, but only in the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation community of Oregon?

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t’úx̣əlq’a-drét? (Image credit: Syracuse Cultural Workers)

Very early in Chinuk Wawa’s known history, the word háyás(h) ‘big’ had grammaticalized into a prefixal intensifier. This usage persisted in virtually all regions that spoke Chinuk Wawa, for its whole span of existence.

But, some time between the 1855/56 establishment of that reservation and roughly 1900, a generation of Grand Ronde speakers emerged who instead said drét [drεt] ‘really; right, straight’ to express ‘very’. This word occupies exactly the same position as hayas- in the phrase, directly preceding the Adjective or Adverb.

What unique factor was present at Grand Ronde, to make this happen?

Métis French, I propose.

Grand Ronde can be seen as the successor to the mixed-ethnicity Fort Vancouver community that had given birth to early-creolized Chinook Jargon around 1825.

Fort Vancouver’s importance had diminished with the establishment of Fort Victoria (Vancouver Island, BC, Canada) in 1843, as a strategy to ensure Hudsons Bay Company operations remained within British territory. But there remained a belt of Métis settlement from Fort Langley (BC) southward through the Willamette Valley (Oregon).

The Grand Ronde reservation had a greater proportion of Pacificic Northwest Native people than those existing Métis settlements had possessed. But still, GR families included plenty of speakers of fur-trade (thus Métis) French, many of them Métis themselves.

So it’s my hypothesis that the Canadian-style pronunciation [drεt] (droit) of Chinuk Wawa’s dret/dlet/tlet etc. was associated by reservation community members with Métis people’s French très [trε] ‘very’.

And vice versa: I suspect the local Métis people identified Jargon dret with their own très.

The meanings (semantics) are quite a decent match, as dret/dlet/tlet was already in use, more or less interchangeable with hayas-, with a sense of ‘really; truly’ and hence ‘very; intensely’. Thus dret was already understandable as très.

And the sounds (phonetics) line up nicely, too. There already existed some notable variation in Métis French, wherein vowel-final words were frequently spoken with a final /t/ sound, and words ending in vowel + /t/ were spoken without the /t/. As you can see from the Jargon pronunciation variants dret/dlet/tlet, our suggested [trε(t)] would seem like a legitimate way of saying dret. 

Ah yes, the word order (syntax) also works out just right. In French, très, like CW dret, stands immediately before the Adjective or Adverb that it intensifies.

So I suggest we add Métis French très to the etymologies of dret — which in any case is already a Métis French word in Chinook Jargon!

Let me close with a reminder that, at Grand Ronde, the intensifying prefix hayas- really fell out of use. It was just about totally replaced with dret.

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