lapʰísh, and Métis

I thought this would be among the briefest of notes I publish on my site.

saut a la perche

Saut à la perche (image credit: EmojiPNG)

I seem to have vaulted beyond that mark.

Chinuk Wawa’s lapʰísh means a ‘pole’.

It’s noted in the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary as documented in Chinook country at Bay Center, Washington by John P. Harrington — from elder Emma Luscier, circa 1942, if my memory isn’t needing more coffee help this morning.

The 2012 dictionary observes that this traces back to French la perche, supplying an idealized phonetic notation of this as \la pεrʃ\.

I want to add some comments.

I’m thinking that this lapʰísh comes from a Canadian, and in specific an early Pacific NW Métis, French pronunciation [lapεrš ~ lapærš ~ laparš]. This way of saying the word is known to us in Michif and in Métis French.

By the way, a huge argument in favour of this being a Métis word is that the perche was a tool of the trade, in daily use by the Métis crews who powered fur-trade canoes and York boats.

Also this:

There’s an essentially ironclad Métis French tendency to raise what was originally the higher-mid-front /e/ vowel up to [i], as in:

  • MF (St Laurent, Manitoba) < ni > ‘nose’, cf. Standard French nez [ne]
  • MF < dibarasi > ‘[get] rid [of]’, SF débarrasser [debarase]

We might speculate that that an extension occurred by analogy with

(A) the preceding, and

(B) the frequent [o] <=> [u] variation in MF

— causing original French lower-mid-front /ε/ to wind up as a Chinuk Wawa /i/.

I’d add (C), that the wholesale shift from /e/ => [i] in Métis French left what was originally a distinctly non-high /ε/ with lots more phonetic “space” to play around in. It would be unremarkable, on general principles, if original /ε/ thus started to have pronunciations like [e] and even [i].

(Probably unrelated is the MF shift from j’ai [ʒε] ‘I have’ to j’a [ʒa], which is more likely due to analogy with t(u) as ‘you have’ and il a ‘he has’.)

So, perhaps such a shift occurred via an intermediate stage that was pronounced as [εi ~ e]. We find instances of an /ε/ => /εi ~ e/ shift in Métis French, such as:

  • Michif < trayz > /trez/ ‘thirteen’, cf. Standard French treizième /trεz/
  • Michif /seʒ ~ šeʒ/ ‘chair’, cf. SF chaise /šεz/

(Reminding you here that the Cree-French Métis language, Michif, preserves enormous amounts of distinctly Métis French.)

We do indeed find instances of shifts all the way from /ε/ => /i/ within Métis French:

  • MF < nij > ‘snow’, cf. SF neige /nεʒ/
  • MF < kriyon > ‘pencil’, cf. SF crayon [krεyõ]

There also is some tendency within Chinook Jargon to make such vowel shifts, seemingly inspired in part by Indigenous phonological systems.

What I’m saying is that I would think that the Indigenous wives of the Métis men in the founding creole community of Fort Vancouver, and their kids too, had significant influence on the way originally-French words came to be pronounced.

In other words, I’d consider it an oversimplification to broadly explain the [i] vowel in Jargon lapʰísh as “Indigenous influence”, and I say so because the “Indigenous influence” was part & parcel of the Fort Vancouver Métis-creole community’s households!

Such influence wasn’t necessarily from the Jargon’s coming to be spoken by tribes of Native people. (Which I sense is the idea my fellow “creolist” linguists have in mind when they invoke this vague “Indigenous influence”.)

In fact my summary understanding of the countless documents I’ve encountered in 25 years of research on Chinuk Wawa is that in the language’s first few decades of existence, relatively few Native outsiders to the creole community spoke CW, nor did they pick up Métis French words quite as quickly as the Fort Vancouverites did. A robust pattern is that it was usually just a few leaders among the tribal people who first learned and used the Jargon, in sporadic visits to the few fur trading establishments in the lower Columbia River region, such as Fort Vancouver.

All in all, there may be several simultaneous reasons why Chinuk Wawa’s lapʰísh, a Métis word, especially in the earlier pronunciations [lapεrš ~ lapærš], now has that vowel /i/. These reasons range from the known habits of Métis French speakers to the known language repertoires of their creole family members.

Bonus fact:

The loss of the “R” from la perche can safely be credited to Chinuk Wawa itself. Words from both English and French having an “R” in this end-of-syllable environment (a “coda” position) routinely dropped that sound. Thus we have kʰinchóch ‘English’ from King George, and másh ‘leave, throw, put’ from marche!

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