July 07, 2004

Field Notes

The other day, working with a group of elders on the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana, I was eliciting words for `tight'. (Some of the elders speak a dialect known as Bitterroot Salish; others speak Pend d'Oreille. Systematic dialect differences are hard to find, though, and I've been using the cover term Montana Salish for this particular dialect complex. Other dialects of the same language, which is nameless, are spoken in Washington state -- Spokane and Kalispel. Four different tribes, one language.) As usual when `tight' is being discussed, someone mentioned kʷ tinps, consisting of the second-person singular intransitive subject particle `you', the root tin `tight', a prefix n- `in', and a suffix -ups `tail, butt'. The phrase means `you're a tight-ass, you're stingy'; an alternative form, kʷ nc'anps, means the same thing but uses another root for `tight'. Question: is this a traditional native concept, or is it a calque from English tight-ass?

This isn't a simple issue. On just one occasion I've found clear evidence of calquing, and that may have been a case where the phrase was only uttered once. Several years ago, an elder told me a story about one day when his younger brother came home from school (on a week-end, I guess) and found their mother in a foul mood. School, as was typical on Indian reservations, was boarding school at the Mission, where the nuns punished the children for speaking their own language, with two major results: the children learned English quickly, and Montana Salish entered a rapid decline. Anyway, this child reacted to his mother's crankiness by saying, ``Xeyɬ kʷ pocqn!'', meaning `Boy, are you a sorehead!' -- where pocqn is literally `sore' (poc) plus a suffix for `head'.

But except for this single case where I was told that a kid had invented a new Salish word by combining two Salish morphemes in a new way, inspired by an English word, and where the invented word looks like an exact calque of the English expression, I haven't been able to distinguish between calques and independent inventions. And sometimes the elders I work with, who are all native speakers of English as well as Salish, see connections between English and Salish that strike me as doubtful. An example: the word sut's literally means `(he has a) stretched face' (the root is sut' `stretch', and the suffix means `face, fire'). The elders told me that it's used to mean `have a long face, look mean' -- and that it's an English word, not a traditional word, but `Salish people used it'. Trouble is, there's no English source for this calque that I can think of: in English, `have a long face' means `look sad, gloomy', not `look mean'; and in any case `long' doesn't mean the same thing as `stretched'.

Of course, people have put on both gloomy and mean faces forever, and for all I know stinginess is a modern Western concept; if it is, then that would strengthen the case for `tight-ass' as an English calque. But the general problem interests me. Calquing is a subtle sort of borrowing, often (I bet) completely unnoticed because its results are so unremarkable, and hard to establish even when it's suspected.

Posted by Sally Thomason at July 7, 2004 12:25 PM