Métis vowels & Chinuk Wawa: denasalization

I have not heard much spoken Métis French, but modern written sources give good information…


(Image credit: STLInfo)

For instance, the little book “Michif French: As Spoken by Most Michif People of St. Laurent, MB” (Winnipeg: McNally Robinson, 2016) paints a portrait of quite a distinct variety of French.

It’s a kind of French with noticeably fewer nasalized vowels than you’d expect. Many vowels have been de-nasalized, for instance in these words, shown in the dictionary’s unique spelling system:

  • komaw ‘how’ (compare standard French comment)
  • kazimaw ‘almost’ (quasiment)
  • jumaw ‘mare’ (jument)
  • oyon ‘onion’ (oignon)
  • komaws ‘begin’ (commence)
  • na porti kel ten ‘whenever’ (~ n'(a) importé quel temps)
  • kobyin ‘how much’ (combien)
  • mawmaw ‘mother’ (maman)
  • nuk ‘uncle’ (oncle)

We can’t fail to record here that there are some non-standardly nasalized vowels too:

  • minzon ‘house’ (maison)
  • jamin ‘never’ (jamais)

But the point, today, is that Métis French has a distinctive tendency of de-nasalizing quite a few vowels.

This must have been going on for quite some time, as Michif (the Métis language that’s an “intertwining” of Plains Cree with Métis French), which came into existence by 200 years ago as a separate speech form, has the same thing going on.

For example Michif has moo, boo, noo, and from the above list, mawmaw, nook, kazimaw, zayoon, zhoumaw — compare mon, bon, nom, maman, oncle, quasiment, (les) oignon(s), jument ‘my, good, name, mother, uncle, almost, onion(s), mare’. (Michif doesn’t have the above denasalized question words or ‘whenever’, because it uses Plains Cree words for those concepts.) In Michif I also find mootawyn / moontawy among the pronunciations for ‘mountain(s)’, cf. Chinuk Wawa’s lamətay.

The simplest explanation there is a shared inheritance, rather than two independent & identical innovations.

And that’s to say that the Red River Métis people who were working in the Pacific Northwest 2 centuries ago in such numbers were denasalizing French vowels already.

I mention this because none other than Chinuk Wawa has always denasalized French vowels as well. From the first solid documentation of CW, in the lower Columbia River’s heavily Métis Fort Vancouver zone in the 1820s and 1830s, this has been shown.

Previously, we researchers have supposed that CW’s denasalization of French vowels was simply due to the Pacific Northwest tribal languages’ lack of such sounds. And that remains one good explanation.

But why wouldn’t those languages’ influence have resulted in a “strengthening” of the nasalization, into sequences such as /an, en, in, on/, and so on? That’s what we see in lots of French expressions borrowed into spoken English, like salon, coupon, en masse, and I’d argue even Chopin.

When we bring in the tendency of the French-speakers themselves to denasalize, I think we have a stronger explanation of why Chinook Jargon treats French vowels as plain old /a, e, i, o/, etc.

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