Learning Kalispel: Orthography

Okay, I had a dream in Kalispel Salish* last night, which I guess is a signal I need to talk about it.

It all started when I found this webpage of the Kalispel Tribe  which has both written and recordings of spoken Kalispel**.

And dudes, Kalispel is a coooool language.

The following is my armchair-linguist’s commentary on the glorious process of working through the assignments of Student Workbook 1 (pdf)

Kalispel Lesson 1: Greetings
“Good evening” in Kalispel is “ʔa x̣est sč̓luxʷ” which is…daunting.

I’m not going to badmouth the people who put this workbook together. As one linguist to another, however, I will shake my fist at whoever chose this orthography. My guess is that that linguist just used the IPA of his or her time, producing something very phonetically precise, but devilishly opaque for the average Anglophone.

Since I know the international phonetic alphabet, I can guess that this phrase “ʔa x̣est sč̓luxʷ” is probably pronounced something like “a khest schlukhw.” And  when I listen to the pronunciation of these phrases (the first phrase in this mp3), the actual pronunciation is closer to “khests chtlukhw.” Note how the s moves from the beginning of  sč̓luxʷ to the end of x̣est, making  x̣est sč̓luxʷ much easier to pronounce. The ʔa seems to disappear without a trace. Where did it go?

As an EFL teacher, and remembering that the vast majority of the people studying Kalispel will be Anglophones, I would have chosen an orthography closer to English. Rather than “ʔa x̣est sč̓luxʷ,” I’d spell it “khests chtlukhw” or even “hests chlukh.”

Of course, if I said “hests chlukh,” I’d be speaking Kalispel with a terrible American accent. But I have to start somewhere. After all, if we made the official spelling of English “good evening” the more phonologically precise “gʊd ‘ivnɪŋ,” we would be throwing more barriers in the way of anyone who wanted to learn English. Students would have to learn several new symbols as well as the corresponding phonemes in order to even begin to read their very first lesson. Rather than insist on absolute accuracy, the goal of language instruction should be to give the student a good start, which a native speaker can then correct. And in the mean time, you can write “hests chlukh” on a sign without taking up too much space. You can write it in Word, too, or in a text message.

But that’s just my pointless griping. As nice as transparency and low barriers-to-entry would be, standardization is more important.  ʔa x̣est sč̓luxʷ, is the official, proper way to spell the Kalispel phrase that means “good evening,” and it is up to me the student to remember…

What I learned:

ʔa is swallowed

x̣ is a hiss in the back of the throat like the ch in Scottish “loch”

a tough-looking consonant cluster like sč̓l might be made easier by moving the first phoneme to the previous word like WORD-s č̓l (and perhaps clusters at the end of a word can be moved to the beginning of the next word?)***

č̓ is like the ch in “cheese” but more forceful.

xʷ is like x̣ but with rounded lips.

ʔa x̣est means “hello”

sč̓luxʷ means “evening”

ʔe means “likewise” so ʔe x̣est sč̓luxʷ means “good evening to you, too”


What does ʔa mean? Does it contrast with ʔe? If ʔe means “likewise” does ʔa mean “anti-likewise”? If so, is ʔa generally swallowed if it doesn’t contradict previous statements? In a statement like, “No, it’s good morning,” should I expect ʔa to be pronounced?

Will there will be more sandhi, splitting up consonant clusters across word-boundaries? I bet so!

Tune in next time for lesson 2: Sentence structure!


*the only word I remember is “sikskɫ” which supposedly meant “hanishte” (“speaking” in Japanese? What is wrong with me??)

**Wikipedia calls the language Salish-Spokane-Kalispel, but the workbook calls it just “Kalispel,” a convention I’ll adopt too.

***English does this too, as in “tasks and jobs” being pronounced “task sand jobs.” In general, this is called sandhi and French is famous for something similar: “liason

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