Coast Salish “thread” etc. as BC Chinook Wawa

I was kindly provided a copy of a Chinook Wawa manuscript.  It’s a vocabulary that was written in approximately the 1880s, by a storekeeper-slash-lay preacher in the area of Bella Bella/Waglisla, a fair ways up the BC coast.

threadbritish columbia

The word for “thread” in it looked familiar to me from somewhere…“whale um”.

I couldn’t track it down in the Grand Ronde dictionary, which is often the most informative source for the words that are in it.  (The more common CJ words for thread are “klepite” which I believe is quite old-school; “lefil” from French; and “tlet” from English.)

So I turned to Samuel V. Johnson’s 1978 dissertation on old CJ documents.  One of his many indexes pointed out the source I was not quite remembering:

John B. Good’s little 1880 Thompson Salish/Chinook Jargon phrasebook “A Vocabulary and Outlines of Grammar of the Nitlakapamuk or Thompson Tongue…“, an important interior BC Jargon source.  Good has the word as wālum.

This word for thread “whale um” looks quite Salish to me, and I wanted to know if it was just a local Thompson Salish word–which would imply that it entered CJ in gold-rush times, say 1858 onward–or if it was from some other source.  The reason for my curiosity is that few of the post-gold rush Salish words in Jargon became known anywhere other than the Interior.

Dictionaries of various individual Salish languages failed to show me a relevant form.  But Aert Kuipers’ 2003 Salish Etymological Dictionary specifies a reconstructed root *x̣ʷíl̓m “rope, string, twine, thread” as proto-Central-Salish (shared with Lillooet Salish, which seems to have borrowed lots from the coast).

Bingo!  Not an interior Salish word.  And an exact match for “whale um”–that x̣ʷ symbol is pronounced like “hw” in some English speakers’ “whale”, “which” etc., and the “i  would sound like “ay” in most of Coast Salish.

The Robinson word list doesn’t have any other odd Salish words in it.  Neither have I spotted any Heiltsuk (Bella Bella, North Wakashan) words in it, nor Tsimshian etc. ones there.  But this ms. does appear to be a “short list”–just the most actually useful words used by (heard by?) Robinson on the north coast.  This “thread” must have been something he actually heard people say.

But why did they use this word?  Why not some version of the widely known CJ “lope” (‘rope’)?

I think the answer lies in the unique history of Jargon in British Columbia.  Sure, the gold rushes were the main stimulus for CJ to come into wide use in (what was to become) the province.  But even before that, the pidgin was brought northward into King George territory.  And it was priests coming from Puget Sound who did it.

The Oblate missionaries, who famously (among us chickens) started out around early Fort Vancouver in the 1820s and 30s, expanded their work north toward Fort Nisqually (est. 1833, rebuilt 1843) in Lushootseed speakers’ territory, and Cowlitz Farm (est. 1837).  They later established their base of operations on Puget Sound proper, in the Tulalip reservation (est. 1855) area.  (Missionary school there est. 1857.)

While these priests were good at learning and using new languages, it’s clear that they relied quite a bit on Chinook Jargon.  We have plenty of records showing that they preached in it, explained their Catholic Ladder teaching tool (invented 1839 at Cowlitz Prairie) with it, and rapidly disseminated hymns in it.  (The latter almost certainly before the Natives learning those hymns could even understand them.)  Besides their creating this “Sahale Stick”, one sign, I suspect, of the priests’ sensitivity to Chinook Jargon’s shortcomings AND of their learning of local languages was their adoption of more suitable words for difficult Christian concepts from Salish.

It was in this general Puget Sound area–on the American side of the eventual border–that several important technical terms were adopted into Jargon.  Some that I can rattle off by heart now include [in Kamloops Wawa spellings, for a reason I’ll explain]:

  • “haha” (holy)
  • “milalam” (confession)
  • “siisim” (to tell/report on)
  • “styuil” (pray/prayer)
  • “piyusim” (sign of the cross/to cross yourself)
  • “sili” (soul)
  • “ili” (to live)

All of these words wound up being used in the Kamloops area of the BC interior, a few decades later.  Why so?

Priests again, of course.  Chinook Jargon had a renaissance up there in the Interior after the gold rush peak, when the Oblates, whose base had moved north to Victoria upon the British-American border settlement of the mid-1840s, expanded their missions further, to the interior.  They sent out new young priests who spent a lot of energy and time on the linguistically diverse Aboriginal populations there, finding again that Chinook Jargon was hugely useful for a missionary who otherwise would need to learn multiple Native languages in order to communicate with all the tribes in his assigned district.

Those younger Oblate priests, such as JMR Le Jeune and JM Le Jacq, learned their Jargon in the 1870s and onward from superiors already experienced, guess what, in work at Puget Sound in the 1840s, 50s etc.  Along with all the standard Chinook Wawa that they picked up came the full complement of Coast Salish religious loan words, as listed above.

So far, so good.  It only remains to point out that “thread” is a different animal from “confession” and “soul”!  As to that, I can only infer that someone got tired of confusion over various kinds of “lope”.  Whatever the precise motivation for borrowing this non-spiritual Coast Salish word, there’s a pretty clear case that one of the significant stages in Jargon’s evolution (not noted in any of the previous literature) involved a stop at Puget Sound to beef up the vocabulary.

The Salish words added in at that stage made their way to BC, where they became distinctly Canadian Jargon.  I’ve certainly seen them in actual use only on the BC side, for example both in Kamloops Wawa and in Aboriginal people’s writing.  This occurrence fits a larger pattern, an early and strong (but later I think studiously ignored) American influence on the formation of BC.

They’re not the only distinctly British Columbian Chinook Wawa words.  Others that continued research has shown me were widespread include words for “crazy”, “be located/exist”, and “sleep”.  I’ll have to follow that, um, thread in another post…