Trains (not planes or automobiles) in Upper Chehalis

I was trying to figure out a long, complicated and obscure Lower Chehalis word by comparisons with nearby languages when I came upon a Chinook Jargon loan into Upper Chehalis Salish.

railroad tracks

M. Dale Kinkade’s 1991 Upper Chehalis dictionary has on page 131:

Pai-a-tsik’-tsĭk-cu-was “its door, ME its road”

(I’ve bolded the CJ part.)

“ME” indicates that the source for this form is Myron Eells’ 1885 vocabulary of Upper Chehalis. The “cu-was” part is pure Salish.

I’m inclined to think Dale’s gloss as “its door” is unlikely.  Paia-a-tsik’-tsik can easily mean “train” or “automobile” in Chinook Jargon varieties.  But in 1885, autos weren’t part of the landscape.  Doors on cars are a very important feature, since you have to constantly open and close them in the operation of the vehicle.  On trains, not so much.

Here is where I need to change your life (thanks, Paula Poundstone), with a very cool fact about Salish languages.  They have one and the same word for “door” and “path/road”.  Which makes a ton of sense, doesn’t it?  This word is that “cu-was” bit in Upper Chehalis.

So the phrase I quoted from Dale’s dictionary clearly means “railway”, “railroad tracks”–literally “train road”.

The value of today’s lesson is threefold:

  1. You will find unexpected Chinook Jargon data tucked in the funniest places if you have eyes for it.
  2. You can always find an excuse for referencing one of your favorite movies.
  3. Serendipity is a force to be reckoned with: my day so far has included a radio story on the 20th anniversary of River Phoenix’s death as well as the surprise find of non-cross-referenced Chinook Jargon material in Dale’s dictionary, both relating to railroads. And my friends’ excellent NYC band, Versus, sang a song about River Phoenix. And they’ve played shows in Portland. I could go on…