Why there are so few loan words in Ktunaxa (Kootenay/Kutenai)

A lack of foreign borrowed words in a language doesn’t necessarily tell you there were historically no foreigners present…

ktunaxa 7amak7is

(Image credit: native-land.ca)

There are entire language “families”, and types of languages, that are resistant to foreign loan words.

The Indigenous languages that have the most complex word structures (morphology) often prefer to create new terms using native material.

Chinookan, Algonquian, and Athabaskan languages mostly behave like this, with Chinookan the most self-reliant; Algonquian perhaps a bit more open to outside influence (I haven’t found any yet in Siksika/Blackfoot though); and some Athabaskan languages a bit more willing to take in new words from other languages.

Wakashan and Salish languages, believe it or not, have less-complex words than the families just named. So your average Salish language has accepted many dozens of foreign words, and I’m talking about influences that have accumulated over several centuries, well before Euro-Americans showed up here. Some Wakashan languages use lots of post-contact loan words; I’m not so sure that they have so many ancient borrowings.

On this scale that equates a language’s structural complexity with imperviousness to external influence, the “language isolate” Ktunaxa (“Kootenay”, unrelated to any other languages in the world) really stands out. Disclaimer: I have not seriously researched Ktunaxa. I have been exposed to a fair number of research papers on that language, and have developed a strong impression that it’s a tremendously “agglutinating”, perhaps a “polysynthetic” language — because a single word in Ktunaxa can easily be the equivalent of an entire sentence in a much simpler language such as English. An example is ¢umniyatkaʔni, ‘He is used to people.’ (I guess this refers to a horse, a dog, etc. Ktunaxa writes ¢ for the “ts” sound, incidentally.)

So I’ve never really expected to find many loan words in Ktunaxa, not even from Chinook Jargon, a language that held on longer in Ktunaxa territory than in most other Native territories.

I wanted to check this impression, so I went to the First Voices Ktunaxa website. It has lots & lots of words for post-contact items, but virtually all are Ktunaxa coinages, as we’d expect. As for ancient borrowings, ‘dog’ and ‘horse’ and some other words come from neighboring Salish.

Here are the extremely few possible traces of Chinuk Wawa that I find in this particular source:

  • ¢ikin ‘chicken’ is ultimately the English word, but we’ve also seen in it in BC CW
  • ¢ulay ‘July’ (also used in a word for ‘to celebrate July pow-wows’, as also in Coeur D’Alene Salish juláy-amš) — again an English word also known in Jargon
  • ¢up¢i ‘Gypsy’ (sorry) isn’t in any Chinook Jargon that I’ve encountered, but gosh knows we find every other racially insensitive label from English in CJ
  • ǂika·pu ‘coat, jacket’ could be Jargon, although the /ǂi/ (i.e. /ɬi/) at the start probably instead reflects Métis French le ‘the’ (Ktunaxa doesn’t natively have an “L” sound, so it has sometimes replaced that with /ɬ/; CJ routinely says just kʰapu)
  • pu·s ‘cat’, k̓an(‘)¢u pu·s ‘bobcat’ (‘wild cat’; weirdly lots of Pacific Northwest Indigenous languages call cougars etc. ‘wild cat’, using a native word for ‘wild’ or ‘strong’ or ‘big’, plus a word for ‘cat’ taken from Chinook Jargon or from French — or in this case, possibly via neighboring Salish pús)
  • ʔa·kinq̓uku wuʔu ‘whiskey, [literally] fire water’ (the expression ‘fire water’ was already current in English by the time PNW Native people encountered Euro-Americans, but there’s also páya-tsəqw & páya-wata in Chinuk Wawa)
  • ʔa·kitǂaʔis niǂku ‘bank (lit. money’s house) parallels the classic Chinook tála-haws, which was borrowed either directly or as a loan-translation into almost every PNW language

Let me repeat, Ktunaxa people commonly spoke Chinook Jargon well into the 20th century, later than most other Indigenous groups did. But they didn’t mix CJ into their mother language. We have to turn to other types of documentation, such as visitors’ travel narratives, to learn more about the various languages used by Ktunaxas in previous times.

Another reminder: speakers of the more-complex languages often had the reputation of being multilingual in neighbors’ ways of talking. This was true of the Chinookans, and also of the Ktunaxas. Here’s a quote from KtunaxaReady.com:

“In the old times, some Ktunaxa could speak multiple languages including Chinook [Jargon] (a universal language documented by early explorers). This was helpful and used extensively between tribes in the course of inter-tribal commerce. When there were no common languages the people could resort to sign language to get their intentions across.”

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?