March 04, 2004


Yellow Waterlily There doesn't seem to be much of a correlation between grammatical features, such as whether or not a language has a future tense, and culture, such as whether people stay put or travel around a lot, but there is a relationship between culture and the fine grain of the lexicon. People who live in hot climates don't have refined terminology for snow and ice; people who live in the northern forest don't have refined terminology for camels. Sometimes small details are meaningful.

In Carrier, there is a word for the roots of the Yellow Pond Lily Nuphar lutea. In the Stuart/Trembleur Lake dialect it is [xuɬ]; in the Southern dialects it is [hʌwuɬ]. There is no relationship whatever between these terms for the roots and the name for the plant as a whole, which is [xeɬt´az̻]. There is no other plant for whose roots Carrier has a distinct term. In every other case you just say "the roots of such-and-such a plant" or "X roots", just as we would in English.

Why is there a term for waterlily roots? When you know what Carrier life was like until recently it makes sense. As I've described before most of the food consumed during the long, cold winter was stored during the summer. By the end of the winter, the food supply was often running very low. Some years, people would be starving. Waterlily roots (photo here) are edible and easy to obtain once the ice is gone, so they were a valuable source of food at the time of year when supplies were likely to be low. They also had a medicinal use. So the reason that waterlily roots have a distinct name is that they played a particularly important role in traditional Carrier life.

Waterlily roots are the only roots that have a distinct name in Carrier, but there is another kind of root that is referred to in a special way. This is the root of the Black Spruce Picea mariana. Spruce roots are called [xi] or [xʌi] depending on dialect. The tree itself is called [t̻s̻´u]. This isn't a distinct term in quite the same way that [xuɬ]/[hʌwuɬ] is though. [xi]/[xʌi] is the bare stem of the word for "root".

In Carrier, there is a class of dependent nouns. These are nouns that cannot occur in their bare form. They can be used as components of compounds, but if they are used on their own they must be used with possessive prefixes. For the most part, the nouns in this class are kinship terms and body parts, that is, the things that are thought of as inalienably possessed. The parts of plants are treated like body parts. In Stony Creek Carrier, for example, "flower" is [indak], but [indak] never occurs as such. If you want to say "the flowers of this rose bush", you would say [ndi xwʌs bindak] "this rose its-flowers". If you want to talk about "flowers" without saying whose they are, you have to say [ʔindak] where /ʔ/ is the indefinite possessive prefix, meaning "someone's" or "something's". If you want to talk about the flowers as separated from the plant you have to use a special form for the alienable possession of inalienably possessed things; "my elder sister's flowers" is [sjat beʔindak], where [sjat] means "my elder sister". If you were to say [sjat bindak] it would mean that your sister was a plant and that the flowers were part of her body.

So, taking our examples from the Stony Creek dialect, the stem of "root" is [xʌi]. When it is possessed it becomes [ɣʌih]. Since "root" is a dependant noun, you can't use [ɣʌih] by itself. If you want to talk about some unspecified roots you have to refer to them as [ʔʌɣʌih]. So, the word for Spruce roots is not exactly a distinct word. Rather, it is the generic term for "root", treated in a special way. Unlike the generic term, it is not dependant. In effect, the Carrier word for "root" can be used both as a generic term, in which case it is dependent, and as the specific term for Spruce roots, in which case it is not dependent.

So, why are Spruce roots special? Well, Spruce roots play an important role in traditional culture. They are split to make a kind of fine cord used for such purposes as sewing up baskets.

Basket sewn up with Spruce roots
A Basket by Madeline Johnnie

By and large, roots did not play a large part in traditional Carrier life, but Spruce roots had a special role and so were treated as the prototypical root.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 4, 2004 12:53 AM