November 23, 2003

It has wrinkled feet

English speakers, or at least English-speaking linguists, are thoroughly used to the idea of loanwords. English has many thousands of words borrowed from French and Latin, and sizable numbers from other languages; and many or most other languages also do a lot of borrowing. So it's a surprise to find that some languages have few loanwords.

A `no-borrowing' strategy is shared by many Native American languages, at least as far as borrowings from the colonial languages English and French are concerned. Montana Salish is typical of languages of the US Northwest in this respect: it has virtually no English loanwords and only a handful from French (most of which it probably got from other Native languages, not directly from French).

So what do Montana Salish speakers do when they acquire something new from the dominant Anglo culture? What they do is invent words for new things, using materials that are already present in their own language. My favorite example is the word for `automobile', which is p'ip'uyshn -- literally, `it has wrinkled feet', a word that was obviously inspired by the appearance of tire tracks and/or of the tires themselves. And this word is not peculiar to Montana Salish. The same basic formation is found in two Salishan languages that are closely related to Montana Salish: in Coeur d'Alene the word literally means `thing with wrinkled paws' (according to Dale Sloat, via Julia Falk), and Moses-Columbia has k-p'ip'uyxn for `automobile', beside an English loanword, 7atmupil ( Dictionary of the Moses-Columbia language , compiled by M. Dale Kinkade, 1981).

There's a puzzle here: did speakers of these three languages independently come up with the same metaphor to designate `automobile', or was the word invented in one language and then borrowed (with appropriate phonetic changes according to a borrowing routine) into one or both of the others? I wish I had an answer to this question, but I don't.

Posted by Sally Thomason at November 23, 2003 07:48 PM