Otters

Getting right to today’s idea, the fur trade and otters were way less important in the Pacific NW by the 1890s era of the Kamloops Wawa newspaper.

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So the old Chinuk Wawa words for “otter” (ilaka “sea otter”, ninamuks “land otter”, and the highly intriguing Nootka Jargon loan quatluck “sea otter”) were obsolescent in this later, inland setting.

But: some Native folks were still making a living off of furs, and Father Le Jeune served their interests by running Chinook ads for fur buyers.  (See this one from the Hudson Bay Company and this one from MacMillan & Co. of Minneapolis.)  There you find quite a number of words for furbearing creatures.

He also inserted news items relating to the skin trade.  The third and fourth lines in the clipping below — a listing of how many furs annually are sent to London for sale — show us a newly discovered, new, local Jargon word for “otter”, lahac (i.e. lahats):

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     …<1 550> solt chok lahac
…1,550 sea otters

<6 500> lahac….
6,500 [land] otters

KW #141 (June 1896), page 131

Sure enough, if we check in the dictionary of the Thompson Salish language, nłeʔkepmxcín, spoken near Kamloops, we find that “Canadian river otter Lontra canadensis” is lhéc̓.  The presence of an /l/ sound there gives some pause, because most instances of historic *l changed quite some time ago to /y/ in this language.  One possible interpretation of this detail is that we’re looking at a word loaned from another Salish language into Thompson.  Maybe supporting this, the dictionary is awful tentative about assigning meanings to the parts of the word: a root /lh/ perhaps meaning “otter” and a lexical suffix /ec’/ that might mean “fur”.

Jan van Eijk’s Lillooet Salish (St’át’imcets) dictionary has the extremely similar lehác̓ for “otter”.  Nearly identically, this glossary of Secwepemctsín gives ləhɛ́c̓.

The word shown in the out-of-print Okanagan-Colville Salish dictionary (downloadable here), however, is the unrelated-looking ltkʷu.

So it looks like the Kamloops Chinuk Wawa word, and the Thompson word, could originate from either Secwepemctsin (most likely, as that’s the tribal language of a majority of Le Jeune’s readers) or, more distant from Kamloops, from  St’at’imcets.

You’ll also find a few references in the BC southern interior to otir, a recent English loan, in Kamloops Wawa as well as JB Good’s little 1880 glossary.  The word most prominently appears in the place name, Otir Krik “Otter Creek”.

You “otter” know how changing communicative needs led to historical shifts in the Chinook Jargon lexicon!

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