Nominal Classification in Michif

  • Author / Creator
    Sammons, Olivia
  • The maintenance of multiple systems of nominal classification is typologically uncommon, as is the transfer of noun class systems in language contact situations (Corbett 1991; Good 2012). Michif (ISO 639-3: crg), a critically endangered language spoken by members of the Métis Nation on the northern Great Plains, presents an exception to both of these generalizations, having inherited two systems of nominal classification from its source languages—French-derived gender (masculine/feminine), and Algonquian-derived animacy (animate/inanimate) (Bakker 1997; Papen 2003a). This study investigates Michif nominal classification in detail, considering both the relationship between the animacy and gender values observed in Michif and their equivalents in Cree and French, and the assignment of animacy and gender values to loanwords from English. Corbett (1991) questions whether or not any clear-cut examples of languages with “two independent gender systems” (188) can be identified cross-linguistically, and others have claimed that masculine-feminine gender in Michif is either weakening (Gillon & Rosen 2018) or fossilized (Stoltzfus & Boissard 2016). However, through quantitative investigation of animacy and gender assignment patterns, this study finds that Michif has two independent and productive grammatical categories of noun classification, each inherited from a different source language. The data analyzed in this study are drawn from a subset of a 60-hour multimodal corpus of contemporary spoken Michif, developed by the author in collaboration with 42 members of Métis communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, Canada primarily during the period of 2011–2016. Statistical analysis of a dataset consisting of 261 lemmas from this corpus finds that the animacy and gender values of Michif nouns align with those of its Cree and French source languages in the overwhelming majority of cases. This large-scale alignment, even in cases of semantic irregularity, indicates that these systems have largely been inherited in their full complexity in Michif. With more than one source language introducing syntactic and semantic categories into Michif, this finding underscores the importance of (a)symmetry in speakers’ linguistic competence in the development of models of language genesis in contact situations. Additional statistical tests find no signs of interaction between animacy and gender systems, motivating a treatment of Michif as having two separate, co-existing systems of nominal classification, rather than a single, merged gender system—a cross-linguistically uncommon result which has relevance to current typologies of nominal classification (e.g., Corbett 1991). This is further substantiated by the observation of a statistically significant difference between gender assignment patterns in French-origin lemmas as compared to English-origin lemmas, while no such difference is found in animacy assignment patterns. In addition, the synchronic results of this study partially corroborate the hypothesis that French-derived gender will be less stable than animacy over time (cf. Gillon & Rosen 2018), although it is found that animacy is also not immune to regularization to a default grammatical value. This study concludes that animacy and gender remain productive categories in Michif, rather than appearing only as fossilized elements in nominal constructions. This is supported by the observations that a) every lemma in the language must have values for animacy and gender, as indicated by the mandatory nature of grammatical agreement for these categories; b) with few exceptions, these values are stable and shared by speakers; and c) these values are always assigned to new lexical items brought into the language, even when the resulting classifications cannot be easily attributed to inheritance, as in the case of English borrowings.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Spring 2019
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
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