/r/ in Chinuk Wawa is Métis

If I’m not mistaken, the phoneme /r/ in Chinuk Wawa is essentially Métis in origin.

The Grand Round (image credit: CTGR)

Let’s get one thing straight first: Lots of the “R’s” that you see in old Jargon dictionaries are “R”-tificial.

When you see the oldtime folks writing “pire” or “doctor” or “dollar” for what the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary has as paya, dakta, dala, they’re just trying to show English(-like) spellings for the convenience of their Settler audience. It doesn’t prove the presence of any “R” sound in those English-derived words, which as far as we can tell have always been pronounced with a final vowel in Chinook Jargon.

And English-origin words of CJ with an “R” at the start of a syllable have normally been pronounced with “L” instead, e.g. klis ‘grease/fat’, lam ‘alcohol’, Biktoli ‘Victoria, BC’.

Quite distinct from that, I’m talking today about actually pronounced “R’s” in Jargon. These are almost always in Métis/Canadian French-origin words, such as

  • dret ‘really; right; straight’ (droit)
  • kuri ‘run; travel’ (courez!)
  • lesipʰro ‘spurs’ (les éperons)
  • lipʰret ‘priest’ (le prêtre)
  • kabreys ‘rawhide rope’ (cabresse)
  • Viktwar ‘Victoria (Howard)’ (Victoire)
  • kʰri(ye) ‘cry out, yell’
  • likʰrem ‘light-coloured (horse)’ (le crême)
  • larp ‘tree’ (l’arbre)
  • rawn ’round’ (rond(e), as in Grand(e) Ronde ‘big round (valley)’) (possibly this was originally a French word, then influenced by English round)

Granted, not all “R’s” of Métis/Canadian French were preserved in Chinuk Wawa. Some became /l/, presumably involving Pacific Northwest Indigenous languages’ influence on CW:

  • limolo ‘wild (especially of horses)’ (le marron)
  • lalam ‘oar’ (la rame)
  • legley ‘gray (horse)’ (le gris)

Certain syllable-final “R’s” of Canadian French may already have been silent in Métis speech, in which case we couldn’t really say that they were lost in Jargon:

  • lapish ‘pole’ (la perche)
  • mash ‘leave; throw’ (marche!)

But my point is that when we do find an “R” documented as being pronounced /r/ in CW, the word is normally from our northern friends. 

And where do we find the most consistent cluster of “R” pronunciations in Jargon? In the Grand Ronde reservation community of northwest Oregon. — That’s a community where, guess who, Métis families played an important historical role.

Those Métis French words are relatively old in the language, known to trace back to Fort Vancouver days. But Grand Ronde folks went on to expand on their habit of using an /r/ phoneme, adding further, more recent words with “R” in them, from local English:

  • or ‘or’
  • rawn (see note above)
  • meri ‘to marry’

Bonus fact:


Rougarou (image credit: WIkipedia)

There’s been some degree of variation between /l/ and /r/ within Métis French for a good long time, to judge by one prominent word in Métis culture, rougarou ‘werewolf’.

All three Michif (Cree/French mixed language) dictionaries that I have include this word, spelled as ruugaruu or roogaaroo.

If you haven’t heard of this creature before, it’s worth explaining that it’s the same thing that’s also known as loup-garou in Louisiana French culture, and elsewhere.

A strange detail in the older history of the name is that the garou part comes from Frankish *werawulf, literally ‘man-wolf’, closely related to English. So loup-garou means ‘wolf werewolf’!

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