Saturday, July 18, 2009

The derivation of "Missoula"

As you know if you've read my little info box on the right side of this page, I currently live in Missoula, Montana. The derivation of the word name "Missoula" is somewhat opaque, but is generally agreed to derive from the Flathead (Selish) word nmesuletkʷ. However, not everyone agrees on the meaning of this word. I have heard perhaps most commonly from white people and historians "river of ambush/surprise", and from Native people "icy water", referring to glacial lake Missoula. Naturally I'm inclined to give more credence to the latter (though of course indigenous people are just as prone to folk etymologies as we Euro-Americans are). After doing some research it seems that my hunch was justified.

The easiest part of nmesuletkʷ to deconstruct (for a non-speaker of Salish) is the suffix -etkʷ, which means "liquid", often specifically in the sense of "water" in place names, cf. ntx̣ʷetkʷ, 'river'. The nmesul- part is a bit harder, but there are clues in several of the Salishan languages. The root sul seems to mean "cold" or "frozen": slsulčsti, 'his hands are freezing'; suł, 'froze'; cf. Spokane sul, 'cold'. The initial n- is presumably the locative marker present in many Salishan languages, including Spokane and Okanagan. The me- is the only part for which I was able to find an unequivocal answer, but may be a stem formative cognate with Okanagan -m-. So a rough translation would presumably be something like "place of the frozen water", quite likely a reference to glacial lake Missoula.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Garden path sentences

I came across a headline recently that momentarily stumped me: "Judge accused of sex crimes impeached". This was because I automatically parsed this as "a certain judge has been accused of sex crimes", but then I came across "impeached" and had to fit it in somewhere". This happened because I initially interpreted "accused of sex crimes" as a verb phrase, whereas semantically it functions as a relative clause modifying "judge". These types of sentences, where we assign an initial interpretation and then have to revise it when we get to the end, are often referred to as "garden path" sentences, because we get led down a figurative garden path before getting to the actual meaning. A classic oft-repeated example is "The horse raced past the barn fell". Can't make sense of it? Try "The horse that was raced past the barn fell". (This doesn't work for everyone, because for some people racing a horse past a barn just doesn't feel right semantico-syntactically.) We initially think this is going to be just "The horse raced past the barn", with racing as the action the horse is performing, but when we get to the end we realize that actually the horse is falling, not racing, and "raced past the barn" is a relative clause modifying "the horse".