Lillie Dremeaux on Slavey Jargon *and* far Northwest Métis speech

An unpublished linguistic article that I’ve long thought deserved more attention is Lillie Dremeaux’s senior thesis in Linguistics from Swarthmore College:

slavey sample

A sample of the Slavey language proper (image credit: Language Museum)

Slavey Jargon and the Presence of French Loanwords in Northern Athabascan” (2003). Yes, you can go read it at that link.

I will spoil the end for you, in that I’ll tell you Dremeaux found no more Slavey Jargon material than anyone else. As Craig Mishler’s 2008 article confesses, we know rather little about that Métis-associated pidgin of the North.

Dremeaux’s inspired idea was this: What amounts to more Slavey Jargon data than was ever overtly documented exists in the form of the many Métis French (Michif French) loans into northern Dene languages.

To be clear with you, that’d be indirect evidence at best. And I definitely don’t see it as evidence of SJ, especially because those MFr words pop up in numerous Dene languages far away from the Yukon/NWT/Alaska zone where SJ was spoken. Instead, the simple fact is that Métis people and their languages predominated in the fur trade era throughout the greater Pacific Northwest.

One of Dremeaux’s neat observations that I want to give full credit for — it appears as if “Slavey Jargon’s” French (non-Athabaskan) component is almost all nouns, not verbs (page 10). That’s promising! It’s long been reported that there’s something about Athabaskan languages’ syntax that disfavors borrowing of verbs from foreign languages, a fact also seen in the Cree-French “Southern / Heritage” Michif language.

(By “foreign” we mean non-Athabaskan; it seems to me the Dene languages have probably borrowed from each other a lot through time, which would help explain how similar they are to each other across such an enormous range of land.)

In fact we find additional non-verb MFr stuff in northern Dene languages, including a couple adjectives such as (le) fou ‘crazy’, some high numerals like le mil ‘thousand’, and sort of cussing interjections like the insult sahgriy mowjiy from MFr sacré maudit), an expression of frustration.*

* By the way, unlike sacré(e)(,) la merde” in Slavey Jargon, “sacré maudit” is indeed an existing cuss within French.

But hold on — among the very few known sentences of Slavey Jargon itself (pages 15 and following), we seem to find French verbs in most of them! 🙂

An example is yuw sleyviy kombrah? ‘Do you understand Slavey?’ Hmm, comprends is a French verb! And vahldəmos finiy, translated as ‘No more Sunday. Six o’clock’ may, I think, be a purely French-based verbal phrase: va le dimanche fini ‘go (when) Sunday is finished’.** So the whole “no French verbs” thing is true of Northern Dene, but not of this pidgin language.

** Take note of this, too: saying le dimanche fini for ‘when Sunday is finished’, i.e. without any introductory conjunction or preposition, is totally typical for PNW Métis contact languages’ expressions of time. BC Chinuk Wawa works exactly like this. 

A shortcoming that Dremeaux discloses is that she, like almost all researchers until the last few years, had no access to good descriptions of Métis French. Her admittedly weak workaround was to use the much more thoroughly documented standard European French as a comparison in working out how Dene adapted the sounds of loanwords. As a consequence, she missed quite a few far stronger comparisons with MFr as we know it. A specific difficulty caused for her is that she finds various phonological changes from French to Dene hard to explain, whereas most of these are easier to handle once you have MFr information. For instance on page 9 Dremeaux grapples with French le thé ‘tea’, phonetically [ləté] in standard French, emerging with [i] in the second syllable in Dene languages; this is actually not much of a puzzle when you learn that MFr (and Michif) say liti, following the regular MFr sound change of earlier [e] to [i].

Similarly, acquaintance with Dene phonologies and writing systems would’ve saved Dremeaux from going down a few rabbitholes where she puzzles over e.g. the seeming “insertion” of a “z” into a MFr word le baril ‘keg’ borrowed into Hän Gwich’in as lëbäzrii. Hän orthography actually writes a retroflex sibilant as < zr >, so what we have here is just one Indigenous approximation of MFr /r/. Dremeaux also muses over the apparent insertion of [h] after many vowels in the loanwords, but this too reflects native rules of how Northern Dene words in general are pronounced.

On pages 17 and following, Dremeaux aptly surveys which semantic fields are represented by MFr loanwords in Northern Dene: “imported food, clothing, tools and religious terms” in her view, plus some words for “authority figures” in the acculturated society. Here I’ll note that the MFr cuss words, mostly found in Slavey Jargon rather than in Northern Dene, are typical of broader French Canadian culture in using religious expressions for shock value. (I remember being told years ago that the nastiest thing you can say in Québec is calice! [‘chalice!’].) We need to realize that these rude loans help prove that the religious vocabulary in N Dene really came from personal contact with Métis and their folk religion, not from the formal language used by Catholic priests.

On pages 20 and following, Dremeaux cites previous researchers who concluded the word for ‘sugar’, which shows up in many Northern Dene languages with no trace of the French definite article le, must have been borrowed from English. (Otherwise nearly all MFr nouns borrowed into these languages start with an l-.) I would refine this view — I feel sure ‘sugar’ came in during the earlier Métis French-dominated era, but then English came to be a bigger force, inspiring a change in pronunciation; we see traces of this in the history of Chinook Jargon’s word for ‘sugar’ also.

Dremeaux very appropriately concludes her discussion with a call for more research into the social history of what she’s calling “Slavey Jargon”. Again, for her this means both the pidgin SJ and the set of Métis French loan words into Northern Dene. She notes that most histories of Native-and-Newcomer contact refer to English-speaking Europeans, so we need to have more knowledge of Indigenous historical dealings with French-speaking fur trade workers.

For me the immensely useful section of her study is its appendix of several pages listing the dozens of French loanwords she had found in Northern Dene, in part by accessing a 1983 survey of these by the eminent Athabaskanist linguist Michael Krauss with help from his knowledgeable colleagues. I have independently hunted down MFr loans in every Northern Dene language and dialect that I can access good information on, as you can see from my posts on this website. There are now many more good dictionaries of these languages available since Dremeaux wrote her paper — so we can be glad of the opportunity to pool previous good work like hers with ample additions.

The result is that we gain a new and deeper understanding of the Métis history of the Northwest, thanks to those who have cared enough to investigate it before.

Go read Lillie Dremeaux’s study of Métis presence and linguistic influence in the farther Pacific Northwest! — “Slavey Jargon and the Presence of French Loanwords in Northern Athabascan“.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?