Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Deixis in the Demonstrative System of Montana Salish

This entry is based on the term paper I wrote for a linguistics seminar about the Montana Salish language. The Salishan family consists of 23 Amerindian languages spoken throughout the Pacific Northwest, encompassing coastal British Columbia and Washington State, including parts of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, the San Juan Islands, and extending as far inland as Idaho and Montana. Salishan languages may be grouped into two primary categories - Coastal and Interior languages. In turn, Interior Salish is grouped into Northern and Southern languages, the latter of which includes Montana Salish. Strictly speaking, Montana Salish is classified as one of three dialects comprising an un-named language, the other two of which are Spokane and Kalispel. Like all Salishan languages, Montana Salish is endangered, with only about 100 native speakers remaining.

My interest in deixis as it pertains to Montana Salish stems from the absolute lack of published literature on this topic. As such, an understanding of deixis as a pragmatic feature of Montana Salish remains opaque to the scientific community. In general, deixis is itself somewhat obscure in the field of linguistics and, more specifically, the study of pragmatics. In light of this, I suspect at least some of you would benefit from a brief overview of deixis.

If you read the article on deixis, you now know that it has its etymological origins in the Greek word for "reference," or something that you point at. Similarly, its application in linguistics is used to describe a common phenomenon in language to denote a referent while simultaneously specifying its distance from a certain point of view. A traditional understanding of deixis accounts for variation in distance within local, temporal and personal dimensions. That is, deictic words emphasize distance that is measurable in space and time, or by distinguishing between individuals specifically.

So far my research on deixis in Montana Salish is limited to the demonstratives of the language. As a lexical class, demonstratives are appropriate for a study of deixis because they denote a specific entity, and in doing so distinguish that entity from others of the same class. In English, demonstratives are relatively simple, consisting of merely four pronouns: this, that, these, and those. However, the demonstrative system of Montana Salish, and in fact all Amerindian languages, is substantially different and more complex than what's familiar to most English speakers. Ultimately, understanding the complexity of such a feature in Montana Salish is where we begin to see some of the profound differences in ways of being, in conceptions of the world as they vary across languages and cultures.

Early in the 20th century the influential anthropologist Franz Boas and his colleagues published several descriptive studies of Native American languages. Among his many findings, Boas discovered that the demonstrative pronominal systems of Native American languages were complex, utilizing various forms to express nuanced differences in meaning. One example he cites is from Kwak'wala (a language spoken in the north of Vancouver Island), whose demonstrative pronominal system recognizes three degrees of distance.  For instance, Kwak'wala would distinguish between the house near me (this house), the house near you (that house), and the house near him (that house that is further away), presumably using a different demonstrative pronoun to capture the meaning of each. Going further still, Boas notes how many Native American languages include even more points of view in their demonstrative systems. In particular, many languages use different forms to distinguish between entities that are visible and invisible to the speaker. As my own research has shown, a similar situation appears to be true of demonstratives in Montana Salish.

Ultimately, what I hoped to accomplish with this project was to formulate a paradigm that characterizes the deictic properties of the Salish demonstratives. In order to do this, my co-author and I referred to textual data in the form of historical narratives. All of the Salish texts were transcribed and analyzed by Professor Sarah Thomason at the University of Michigan. Our task, then, was to record every use of a demonstrative in the texts and describe its deictic properties. In doing so, we came up with the following paradigm:

Salish demonstratives may be used alone or with a preceding particle, with reference either to visible or invisible entities. In turn, the entities in both visible and invisible realms fall under three grades of distance - proximal, medial, and distal. If the phoneme characters in the paradigm are unfamiliar, you can refer to this article on Montana Salish phonology.

The different categories may seem obscure at this point, but this is how Salish organizes the world linguistically. Visible entities are simply referents in the speaker's physical field of vision. Invisible entities, then, are those which are not in this field, whether the referent itself is theoretically visible (but too distant to see) or abstract, such as an idea or memory. Within each realm, a demonstrative may be used alone or combinatorially to denote a proximal, medial or distal referent. In this order, proximal, medial and distal are determined to be regions close to, somewhat further away from, and furthest from the speaker. Determining distance in this way may seem very subjective, and thus variable, but it's a form of expression that's associated with the culture and therefore fixed in the language.

There are a few things worth noting about the matrix above. First, considering all of the "deictic dimensions," the demonstratives in this paradigm are only relevant to the local dimension. This is because demonstratives in Montana Salish can't refer to the personal dimension, and they are only rarely used to express temporal distance. Also, with respect to demonstratives used either alone or with a preceding particle, both appear to have essentially the same function in a given instance. That is, there are no clear differences in meaning when using a single demonstrative versus one with a preceding particle for a visible, proximal referent. However, there are some things that can be said about the variants.

In this vein, both /yé/ and LOC + /ʔé/ seem to occur interchangeably for visible, proximal referents. LOC represents a locative particle, which is used to indicate a particular physical location. However, what's interesting is that  /yé/ and LOC + /ʔé/ may be used together in a sentence, possibly to emphasize the location of the referent more strongly.  

The demonstrative /cí(ʔ)/ stands out because it occurs in contexts that read as either medial or distal. Its meaning as such is therefore anchored to the particular situation, from which medial or distal can be inferred. Interestingly, the variants of each include the oblique marker /t/, which appears to de-emphasize distance with respect to the speaker. Note that /šé/ is otherwise used for invisible referents, and /ʔé/ occurs with other preceding particles in the invisible realm as well. Therefore, /t/ is thought to de-emphasize the distance of a referent by making it visible.     

Perhaps what stands out most about the paradigm is that the categories for invisible, proximal are marked null. This is because we didn't find any examples of demonstratives used for this category in the textual data. However, there are most likely demonstratives in the language that can be used this way. A possible explanation for the complete lack of data for a referent that is both invisible and very close to the speaker is that it's simply a difficult category to satisfy. That is, we can expect that situations arise somewhat infrequently in which a speaker must refer to an entity that is invisible yet close by. If this is the case, then we simply didn't come across any texts that provided this context.

For referents that are invisible and medial, /šé/ may occur either alone or with the preceding particle /i/, which is thought to act as a specifier. When i šé is used, the details of the referent's location become more specific, as if to say, "this one right here!" Appropriately, there are attestations of a nearly identical usage of an i- specifier in the closely related dialect, Kalispel.

Finally, referents that are invisible and distal are expressed by one of three forms; either /šéy'/, /l šéy'/ or /ɬu i ʔé/. However, we were unable to reveal any functional or stylistic differences between these.

Ultimately, this information is supposed to represent a sketch outlining how demonstratives in Montana Salish function deictically, a feature of the language that has been largely under-researched. Certainly, it would require a greater command over the language and additional research to analyze the deictic properties of Salish more definitively, but this is a start. And from it, we now know about a feature of Salish that is markedly different from our own language. If nothing else, I hope this information offers some insight into the unique world of this remote culture.



  1. Originally I tried embedding a video of a Salish elder speaking the language, but there seems to be a problem showing an embedded video when you create an expandable post summary, as I did in my post. So after hours of struggling with this, I decided I could just post the video here. It's worth looking at just to get an idea of how the language sounds.

  2. Stephen Smallsalmon is really cool. I'd love to know what he was talking about.

  3. If you scroll down a little bit from that video there's a link to Dave Chapelle's bit about Native Americans. Also edifying.

    Great post Gabe.. I learned a lot! More about linguistics than Montana Salish, but it was still awesome.

  4. Also, the link to the IPA chart with audio is the coolest thing ever.

  5. Alida I didn't notice the Dave Chapelle link. But I knew that he and Mr. Smallsalmon are good friends. Hilarious. Thanks for keeping my blog active!