July 17, 2006

Trunca in Monta Sa

About 150 years ago Montana Salish began to undergo a sound change that went roughly like this: Delete everything after the stressed vowel if you want to, but you probably won't want to if there is crucial, otherwise unrecoverable grammatical information after the stressed vowel. This truncation process is variable -- both truncated and untruncated forms of many words exist in the modern language -- and it has produced variable results: although all types of words can be truncated, the change has tended to result in lexicalized truncated nouns but not verbs (assuming that Montana Salish and other Salishan languages actually have a lexical category "noun", an issue that has been hotly debated). The reason is that verbs are much more likely than nouns to have crucial grammatical information in suffixes. Speakers can and do indulge in word play that exploits ambiguities produced by the truncation process, specifically ambiguities in lexical suffixes.

Like other Salishan languages, Montana Salish has a large set of over a hundred lexical suffixes -- that is, derivational suffixes that carry lexical rather than grammatical meaning. Many or most of these suffixes have quite concrete meanings, such as `face/fire', `small round object', `ear', `mouth', and the like; many of them also have abstract meanings. Most of the lexical suffixes begin with a vowel, and most have underlying stress on the suffix-initial vowel. Because the language has only five vowel phonemes, /i e a o u/, this means that deleting everything after the stressed vowel results in extensive ambiguity: there is no formal way to tell, for instance, whether a truncated word ending in the stressed initial =́a of a lexical suffix is from =́alqs `clothes', or =́aqs `nose/road/cost', or =́asq't `sky/day', or =́aXn `arm', or any of a sizable number of other lexical suffixes.

Last week, working with Bitterroot Salish and Pend d'Oreille elders on the Flathead Reservation in northwestern Montana, I heard an elegant example of joking manipulation of truncation-induced ambiguity. We were discussing planting things in gardens, and this reminded one elder of a favorite joke told by a now-deceased Pend d'Oreille elder. She remembered that John used to say

či qsk'ʷisnq'eʔ́u t pat́aq
This sentence begins with či `I' and ends with pat́aq `potato'; the particle t marks `potato' as the object of a formally intransitive verb. The long word qsk'ʷisnq'eʔ́u is the verb, and it literally means `going to go put in' (technically, slightly simplified, qs-k'ʷis-n-q'eʔ=́u `irrealis.future-go-in-put=lexical.suffix').

Now, the lexical suffix =́u is truncated, and there are quite a few possibilities for the untruncated form. The most likely by far is =́ulexʷ `earth, ground', so that the whole sentence would mean `I'm gonna go plant potatoes'. John's joke built on one of the other possible long forms of the suffix, =́ups `tail, bottom' -- which would make the sentence mean (and here I quote John) `I'm gonna go stick a potato up my butt'.

The elders assure me that the old Indians used to have a lot of fun with these shortened forms. They also tell me (as I'd suspected) that John and his late wife were the last married couple to speak Montana Salish together at home, and that the few remaining speakers no longer use the language except when they happen to get together, notably at regular elders' meeting at the Culture Center and at our weekly summer language sessions. They don't have to tell me that (with one exception, a man of about 50) the youngest fluent speakers are now in their 60s, or that there are now only about forty fluent speakers left. So playing with the humorous possibilities of truncated lexical suffixes is just one of the community's linguistic talents that will soon be gone forever.

Posted by Sally Thomason at July 17, 2006 01:05 PM