Learning Kalispel: phonotactics and sentence structure

Back again with more lessons on the Kalispel language. The workbook is getting into some simple questions and answers, so this time I can talk about what I think might be Kalispel sentence structure. I won’t know if I’m right until I go further in the workbook (or until someone corrects me, hint hint), so I’m bound to make mistakes.

Kalispel Lesson 2: Numbers and Age

Numbers in Kalispel seem to work about the same as in Japanese.

ʔesél (two) (“esel” accent on the second syllable)

ʔupn (ten) (“upinn” with a schwi between the p and the n)

ʔupn eł ʔesél (twelve, literally “ten and two”)

ʔeslʔúpn (twenty, literally “two tens”) (“esset-tlupinn” with accent on the u)

But there is something interesting going on with the phonotactics.

čeʔłés (three)

čełlʔúpn (thirty) (“chetl-lupinn”)

mus (four)

m̓słʔupn (fourty)

Before the ʔ of ʔupn, the ʔłés of čeʔłés gets condensed into ł, and we get an epephentic l between that ł and the ʔIn the same way, the u of mus becomes a dot over the m and the ʔ gets an ł in front of it to get m̓słʔupn (I haven’t heard this one, but I’m assuming “musstl-upinn”).

That’s nice. Those consonant clusters aren’t actually consonant clusters. It’s just that whoever invented the Kalispel spelling rules just didn’t bother with schwas and schwis. So, when the going gets tough, just insert one of those little throwaway vowels. Plus, those scary glottal stops don’t seem to do much except demand an l or a ł from the end of the previous syllable.

But enough about pronunciation! On to sentence structure.

Here’s a simplified version of what the workbook gives:

kʷ sk̓ʷnšspentč? (How old are you?)

čn ____ spentč. (I am ____ years old.)

sk̓ʷnšspentč? (How old is s/he?)

xʷa eł ____ spentč. (S/he is _____ years old)

My first thought was “why,  must mean ‘what.'” How delightfully Indo-European that would be! But of course, no.  is only the first word in “how old are you,” not in “how old is he/she.” So perhaps  means “you” and sentences are presumed to have a third person subject unless otherwise specified (which is why there is nothing before sk̓ʷnšspentč in the second question).

So what does sk̓ʷnšspentč mean? Obviously “how old is,” since it’s the same in both questions. Perhaps one part indicates a question? spentč shows up in the answers to both questions. So perhaps spentč is a verb that means “is X years old.” That would make sk̓ʷnš into a question suffix attached to verbs.

That just leaves čn and xʷa eł, which are translated at “I” and “s/he” respectively. Okay so čn is “I” and…xʷa is s/he? Leaving , which we already know means “and.” Why and? Maybe whoever wrote the exercise was imagining a conversation: “A: How old are you? B: I am X years old. A: How old is s/he? B: And s/he is Y years old.” Or maybe when you talk about a third person, you should always add “and” in order to be polite?

Find out next time (maybe) on Lesson Three: Objects of Verbs!


This week we learned:

Kalispel Rules:

Sentences are Subject Object Verb (all the time?)

In questions The 3rd person subject is default. (maybe?)

Kalispel vocab:

čn = I (?) “chenn”

 = you (?)

xʷa = s/he (?) (only in statements?)

0 = s/he (???) (only in questions?)

spentč = to be X years old (to have aged?) “spe” or “spentch-ch” (what’s the difference?)

sk̓ʷnš-= question prefix for verbs (?)

= and (?)


And once again, if you know more about Kalispel than I do, please help me learn to speak this amazing language.


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