Adding the Métis back to Prunet 1990

Much appreciation to David Gene Lewis, PhD, for providing me a copy of Jean-François Prunet’s interesting article!


(Image credit: Whistlefritz)

This is “The Origin and Interpretation of French Loans in Carrier”, International Journal of American Linguistics 56(4):484-502.

“Carrier” is the Dakelh Dene (Athabaskan) language of central interior British Columbia.

Prunet and I agree that Dakelh displays an unusually high number of French-etymology words and personal names. He shows some figures that suggest there are significantly more such in this language than in other Northern Athabaskan languages of BC, NWT, Yukon, and Alaska.

And, in a move that my readers can appreciate, Prunet evaluates whether these “French” words came via Chinuk Wawa. As do I, he concludes that they came directly from some kind of Canadian French: “…the French speakers must have been employees of the Hudson Bay Company or Catholic missionaries” (page 490).

I appreciate how Prunet’s careful attention catches an irregularity — that some of these loanwords show what he calls “Canadian” French affrication of dentals before high front vowels (lʌjab ‘hooligan’ from le diable, jug ‘woolen hat’ from toque) while others preserve standard French /di/ (dimos ‘Sunday’ from dimanche, l

He observes that the presence of both standard French and Canadian French in the environment would account for this variation, but I differ with his idea that it’s “during the adaptation to Carrier” — not within Can Fr! — that the affrication happened. (Page 491.) This is a needless complication, I believe. The words preserving the formal, and older, French pronunciation are from a more formal register of French; they refer to days of the week and to Catholic observances, concepts that, in the 1800s fur-trade environment, the European-born missionary priests would’ve been more concerned with than other local French speakers would be.

Even the laypeople living locally would’ve presumably honoured these pronunciations — just as I, growing up in a Catholic church, pronounced my English-language prayers and hymns in the priest’s formal register. For example,

Make me a channel of your peace
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned     (not my local dialect’s pardonin’)
It is in giving to all men that we receive     (not givin’)
And in dying that we are born to eternal life     (not dyin’)

Those other French speakers, Métis, were the majority locally. You had just one priest serving quite a large geographic area, whereas there were at least dozens if not hundreds of fur-trade associated Métis present. And that’s before we even mention the known fact that plenty of Indigenous people were speaking Métis French in BC, too.

This is where I feel we can contribute a refinement to Prunet’s study. We have been seeing on this website that it’s specifically Métis French speech (and just possibly Michif) that supplied all these words to BC tribal languages.

I’m certain that we can discount Prunet’s hedges that it’s hard to tell whether the heavy Francophone influence on Dakelh is due to “a strong contingent of French-speaking traders” or “a strong French Canadian [sic] Catholic missionary presence (or both)”.

Again, the missionaries were from Europe, there were extremely few of them, and local communities saw them fairly seldom. In addition, I’ve found that the missionary who spent the longest in Dakelh country, Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice, disdained the use of “French of the Mountains” despite its currency in the area, leading him to study the Dakelh language instead. And he often coined new Dakelh words for Catholic concepts, instead of proposing French words for use.

It’s abundantly clear that Métis fur-trade workers are precisely the source of the French lexicon in Dakelh.

I’m satisfied that it’s not Prunet’s suggested mix of standard & “Canadian” French that explains the varying realizations of French < oi > in Dakelh, sometimes as /wa/, sometimes as /we/. I’ve found within both Métis French and Michif’s French component that this variation exists there too, in the same selection of words.

Similarly, if Prunet had recognized specifically Métis French as a possible source, he could have seen e.g. that Dakelh lʌwel ‘sail’ is a more exact replication of MF /lawεl/ than of general French /lavwal/.

I’m grateful to Prunet for reserving space to show a complete list of the loanwords, not just French ones, that he turned up in Dakelh. It adds some French items I might not otherwise have known of, such as lʌfu ‘scythe’ from (a Métis pronunciation of) le fauxmadal ‘medal’ from médaille, and bʌsdʌle ‘revolver’ from pistolet.

Prunet’s search for words of strictly French origin, unfortunately, prevented him from finding other words that I’ve shown to be typically Métis, brought to BC by French speakers but etymologically from Indigenous languages. These are the words like sagunaz ‘Englishman’ and sooniya ‘money’, respectively tracing back to Ojibwe and to Plains Cree.

His 1990 article is really worth a look, as a reference on Métis French — but be advised, nowhere in it does it use the word “Métis”.

Kosay ti pens?
kata maika tumtum?
What do you think?