Problems of English Spelling: Native American Words in French
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Problems of English Spelling: Native American Words in French

Many native American words and names are pronounced differently in English than in the original languages because the words and names have come to us through the French, who use different sounds, and use letters of the alphabet differently than English does.

One may have discovered that words coming from native American languages, including people's names, may two or more ways to be spelled or pronounced. This is because we rely on oral tradition and writing to preserve words for things. In English we often find that the way we say something now may have been different in the past, though the way we spell the word has not changed to reflect the contemporary pronunciation. However, an astute student of phonology --the sounds that we make --can see through the variations that cause confusion.

This problem comes up a lot with native American words living in the English-dominated environment of the United States. A famous issue is that of Sakakawea, a Lemhi Shoshone women who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition as a guide. According to several sources, her name, in her own language, is pronounced /s??kak??wi?/ (IPA transcription). We should all know that /?/ means "unstressed vowel," like the {a} at the beginning of "accept." This is supported by the Hidatsa language's transcription "tsakáka wía," which indicates the same stress marks, allowing us to naturally interpret the vowels.

If we know that /k/ and /g/ are the same mouth articulation, being voiced and unvoiced, respectfully, and that the letter c usually marks the sound /k/, then it's understandable that one spelling is sacagawea. Phonological study points out to us that an unvoiced consonant like /k/ can easily be pronounced voiced (hence /g/) when between two voiced sounds (such as vowels), which gives us the {aga} instead of {aka}. Finally, the matter can be further confused by how {g} makes the zh sound in French, which would lead a fellow French speaker to read the name and pronounce it in a way that reflects the English pronunciation, alternately spelled "sacagawea" and sacajawea." English doesn't have zh, but does have the closely related geminate that we write with j or g.

Now let's get further into French. We would like to consider the words "Cherokee" and "Mankato." Cherokee is a family of people with a car named after it, and Mankato is a town in southern Minnesota. Both words, and hence their pronunciation in English, have been affected by their having been written in French.

The Cherokee people are called Tsalagi (this is a Creek word and not a Cherokee word, but that's a whole other story). Let's consider the French convention of spelling palatal fricatives as ts. Skeptics are welcome to buy a bottle of Tsing-Tao beer, pronounced roughly "ching-dao," the ch being another way to write a palatal fricative (like German ich), which will be familiar to speakers of German, French, and plenty more European languages. This is also related to why we call the country "China" when older languages called it the kingdom of Sin, which survives today as the prefix sino-, as in Sino-Indian relations. So that handles the first syllable of the word as written in French.

Readers who have read our article on lateral l/r alternation will understand that the French who transcribed the group's named could well have heard /r/ when the people were actually saying /l/. This accounts for the middle syllable, and then, as above, we understand that /g/ and /k/ are the same sound being either unvoiced or voiced. As for the vowels, they're always heard and written differently. So there we have it: tsalagi becomes cherokee, and the difference between them, from an informed point of view, is really not much, and is completely justifiable through descriptive phonological interpretation.

In Mankato, local native groups will also spell the word "Mahkato." Let's consider that the French, when spelling a nasalized sound, will add an n (see matin and the name Ingres, in which the n is not pronounced, but rather nazalizes the preceding vowel). So the h used by the natives could be marking the same nasalization, or at least a lengthening of the vowel that could have been heard by the French as having a nasal quality.

The take-home message is, as always when considering language through writing, that if two things appear to be related, they probably are. Our task is to use a variety of tools to prove which way they are related. We can apply the simple tools above to a host of other native American words. The French issue is a huge key to understanding why the words in English appear to have strayed so far from the original languages, and also help us keep French in mind when thinking of the odd spelling of some English words.

See also:

https://knoji.com/how-to-take-advantage-of-lr-sound-alternation-in-speech/

https://knoji.com/problems-of-english-spelling-french-ou-demystified/

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