July 05, 2005

Danger! Gullible fieldworker!

Unfortunately for me, the elders I work with in my efforts to understand and help document the Montana Salish language have long since figured out that I am one of the world's most gullible people. A few weeks ago I was working with the usual congenial group of speakers -- some of the last few fluent speakers of the language -- and the word for `white man, white person' came up. The language has two words for this, the descriptive piq-sqe, literally `white person' (possibly a calque from English), and the etymologically opaque suyapi, which has the standard phonetic values for the vowels, like the vowels in English boot, pot, and beat, respectively.

This language (which is a combination of two main dialects, [Bitterroot] Salish -- also known, for mysterious reasons, as Flathead -- and Pend d'Oreille) has a regular though partly optional rule that deletes everything after the stressed vowel, as long as no semantically crucial material follows that vowel. Suyapi is stressed on the second syllable, so it often appears simply as suya. When we were discussing this word, one elder remarked, `We used to just say suya. But then someone followed a white man's tracks, and saw a yellow spot in the snow, and he said: "Hm! Suya pee!" And that's how we got the longer word, suyapi.'

I hate to admit this, but it took me a moment (with all the elders already giggling) to get it. I try not to wonder whether less obvious jokes might have made their way undetected into my dictionary files. But I don't delete the bilingual puns that I do detect from my field notes: they have their own interest for any linguist, and besides, they help make our all-day sessions a lot of fun.

Posted by Sally Thomason at July 5, 2005 10:13 PM