Didactic dialogues in CW dictionaries, Part 4H (Gibbs 1863 ex phrases/sentences)

It pleases me to present these 4 thematic sentences as a sort of poem…

nothing on my mind

(Image credit: Spotify)
  • Ikta okook? (also given as Iktah okook?) ‘What is that?’
    (íkta úkuk?)
  • Ikta mika tumtum? ‘What do you think?’
    (íkta mayka tə́mtəm?)
  • Ikta mika tikegh? ‘What do you want?’
    (íkta mayka tíki?)
  • Ans[wer to the preceding:] Cultus ‘Nothing.’

A couple of comments from me…


For the equivalent in Jargon of ‘What do you think?’, I’m accustomed to asking qʰata mayka təmtəm? (Literally ‘how is your heart?’) But Gibbs’s literal ‘what/what kind is your heart’ works quite well. The word ikta can be the interrogative ‘what’ but it also gets used as a modifier, ‘what kind of’. I don’t happen to believe Gibbs’s ikta here exactly has its other questioning meaning, ‘why’, but I sense that here he’s asking something like ‘what is your heart for?’

The extremely frequent -təmtəm expressions in the Jargon appear to be describing someone’s təmtəm (heart, a noun), not commenting on their action of təmtəm (thinking, a verb). This ‘heart’ metaphor is so incredibly widespread and well known in North American languages that I think we’re really safe in following it.

But it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference in Chinuk Wawa between ‘What are you thinking?’ and ‘What (kind) is your heart?’ (both being ikta mayka təmtəm?), without additional evidence.

And a cool glimpse into Indigenous-influenced grammar comes out of this: ikta mayka təmtəm? can be validly understood as saying either of the following —

  • ikta mayka təmtəm?
    be.what[VERB] your heart[SUBJECT]?
    (Intransitive, this has the SUBJECT after the verb.) — This is the view I’ve suggested above. It has a “copula subject”.
  • ikta mayka təmtəm?
    what[OBJECT] you[SUBJECT] think[VERB]?
    (Transitive, the SUBJECT comes before the verb.) This has an “agent” subject.

That same ambiguity exists in virtually all Chinook Jargon sentences that use “question words”. It’s extremely Salish.


Now, when I’m asked what I want, I’m used to an answer of ‘nothing’ being conveyed by the more literal equivalents wík-íkta / hílu-íkta / hílu. Instead, the very experienced speaker Gibbs is showing us a reply kʰə́ltəs.

One of the best ways I’ve found to analyze kʰə́ltəs is as an adverb expressing ‘for no purpose; idly’, and the corresponding adjective. Remember, adjectives in Chinuk Wawa can be used as “stative verbs”, they can be the predicate of a sentence. So, to my ears, he sounds like he’s answering ‘It (my heart, referenced here by the “silent IT” pronoun) has no purpose’ — implicitly if not literally, he’s got ‘nothing on his mind/heart’.

This helps us make sense of Gibbs’s reply “kʰə́ltəs”, which is a thing I’ve never heard a living person say in Jargon.

Maybe we should start talking this way.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?