Shinook and other Native loans to English

A friend on Facebook brought up the subject of how people pronounce the word “Chinook” in English.

Chinook arch

I gave him more of a response than he was asking for—the perils of conversation with a linguist (you all know this)!

He noted that people in southern Alberta, Canada, tend to talk about the “Shinóok” wind or arch, and wondered whether that’s the case elsewhere.  He wondered, too, if that pronunciation were due to French influence.

In my response, I said I think that pronunciation is pretty universal in the Northwest; so far so good.

But I just had to add my extra 79 cents.

I tagged on my observation that I’ve seen the word “Chinook” used for the warm wind all the way back to pretty early pioneer sources in Oregon and Washington.  The word (and the Chinook Jargon) show every sign of having traveled northward from there into later-settled British Columbia.

I imagine that the pronunciation “Shinóok” came along for the ride.

My speculative explanation of how the word mutated in the mouths of English speakers from an original “Chinook”–because I think there’s no call to bring French into this–goes like this:

  • English likes its words to have their stress on their first syllable.  “Chinóok” violated that preference.
  • So then we could use the pronunciation “Chínook”.  That’s known but pretty rare, a minority preference.
  • Otherwise, we could preserve the stress on the “oo” while reducing the unstressed “i” a lot (to schwa) or totally (to nothing).
  • Now, English, like languages around the world, hates to stress a schwa.  Even our “uh” vowel, as schwa-like as it is, generally comes from a different historical source from our schwa, which explains how it can take stress.  At any rate [writing ə for schwa], “Chənóok” is an okay shape for an English word–fitting the same abstract form as “kaboom” and “shidoobie”.  And this is one of the actual pronunciations of the word.
  • But the totally reduced version would be in principle something like “Chnook” [sic], and that would involve a cluster of consonants that English as she is spoke just don’t allow nohow.
  • As a result, what occurred then was what we can call a simplified pronunciation, or a weakening (all kinds of terminology gets used by historical linguists, so we’ll make up our own as well), of the initial “ch”, which thus became “sh”.
  • This way, you wound up with a competing well-formed English word “Shnook“, which is another of the pronunciations I hear people use.
  • I imagine the “Chənóok” and “Shnook” pronunciations having influenced each other, with this being a reason why we hear a lot of “Shənóok” as well.

In conclusion I’d offer the observation that a number of other “Ch-” words from Native languages have wound up pronounced with “Sh-” in Northwest English–for similar phonological reasons:

  • Chehalis (which some folks actually further ‘metathesize’ into “Sahálish”!)
  • Chemainus
  • Champoeg (“Shampóoey”)
  • Chelan (“Shəlán”)
  • Sacheen (“Sashéen”)

What do you think?  What have you experienced?

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