Púlakʰli, the “dark-time”


Some deeper background for you on a well-known basic word of Chinook Jargon.

Púlakʰli “night-time; dark”.

In the old sources, it’s typically spelled polaklie.

Because this pidgin was a typical pidgin in having no standard written form, some of those who both possessed any literacy and were conversant in CJ wrote it as the nearest-matching English word…politely!

(If you need another example of that because “two makes a pattern”, there was also a spelling kee-equally for kíkwəli “below”.)

Today’s news has to do with the source of púlakʰli.

Everyone knows it’s from Chinook, meaning one or more of the several old Chinookan tribal languages spoken along the Columbia River to its Pacific outlet.

The Grand Ronde tribal dictionary — surely you have a copy of the best book ever published on the Jargon? — documents its etymology as:

From a Chinookan noun (and/or particle): ł-pulakə́l-max̣ < ʟpōlakᴇ′lᴇmax > ‘nights’ (a noun; KT 85.17); but Boas and Curtis also record uninflected pulakli ‘dark’ (CT 29.8, Chinook [Curtis]), which by Hymes’ criteria would make the word also a particle.  Cf ú-pul (Boas 603), wá-pul (CCT 19) ‘night’.

That’s good research right there.

What I’m offering today is an unexpected find that takes us slightly deeper into the story.

While I was digging into a separate question, I noticed that the Lower Chinookan word for “winter” is given in George Gibbs’ “Alphabetical Vocabulary of the Chinook Language” (1863:20) as chá-ka-luk-kle and tsá-ha-luk-le.

And both of those struck me as resembling púlakʰli an awful lot, on the back end.  Is this -luk-kle a suffix that these words have in common?

Doing some further checking, it turns out that Franz Boas’ “Chinook, an Ilustrative Sketch” (1910) identifies Lower Chinookan as having a root that he spells pol, pul or pon “night, darkness” (p.602).  So yes, we can separate that bit out from púlakʰli, leaving a suffix –akʰli, or maybe (by analogy with -luk-le) -lakʰli.

Does this mean we’re going to find a Chinookan root that looks like chá-ka or tsá-ha and has some meaning of its own?  In the event, yes.  Boas has (p.643) a root tcîc, i.e. čə́š, “cold”.  

So now let’s put this all together: if tsá-ha-luk-le in the original Chinookan is tcîc plus -luk-le, literally something like “cold-time” I reckon…

…Then púlakʰli is púl-(l)akʰli, literally something like “dark-time”.

I feel this is a reasonably solid case for a deeper etymology of Chinook Jargon’s word for “night”.

I will try to track down more instances of the supposed suffix that I’m identifying.  I don’t find it in Chinookan “summer”, cha-ko-ye / tsa-ko’-ye (Gibbs 1863:19), although that may be built on the root ckͧ “hot” (Boas 1910:594).  Nor does “autumn”, klut-tálkh-he / tsá-batlkh (Gibbs 1863:[9]), seem a parallel.  I suspect Gibbs’ entry for “spring”, chá-e-pai / tsa-e-pai, refers to a water source, and it doesn’t have the suffix we’re looking for either.

I’d also like to determine whether this -(l)akʰli is actually — in true Chinookan style — a sequence of two or more suffixes, with the last one being maybe related to Chinook Jargon líli “a long time”.

And I’ll take this discussion further, in a direction that those of you who are fluent in Jargon might guess, in another post on this site.