And why do we say “cold” in CJ for “year”?


A lot is known about Chinook Jargon’s words — but what about its ideas?

Lists of words were the traditional way of documenting this pidgin.  Dozens of vocabularies of CJ got written down, and analyzed, starting from pretty early days.

As a consequence, we have lots of eyewitness testimony about how this Jargon word came from Native language X, and this one is from European language Y, and so on.

But a separate result of that focus on what is in this language is negative: We haven’t had much explanation of why it’s so.

Sometimes what’s missing is an awareness of why a word got loaned from a certain language into Jargon.  An example of this would be if we asked (like I did the other day) about the history behind Lushootseed Salish seemingly having supplied the CJ expression “cold land” for “winter”.

Another kind of why question that we can ask is, why is such-and-such an expression the metaphor we use in this pidgin to express a certain idea?  Because, don’t be fooled by the word “pidgin”, there are plenty of metaphorical expressions in CJ.  I can instantly think of a lot of picturesque stuff:

  • makmak, literally “to eat”, metaphorically “to envy”
  • musum, literally “to sleep”, metaphorically “to have sex”
  • iktas tomtom, literally “things-heart”, metaphorically “greedy”
  • til mamuk, literally “heavy work”, metaphorically “mayhem, violence”

As you already understand, today I want to look at why CJ uses the metaphor kol (kʰúl at Grand Ronde), literally “cold”, metaphorically meaning a “year”.

We can start by recognizing that kol has more meanings than this.  It also means “winter”, which is so intuitive to grasp that we might not even pause to call it a metaphor.  And this meaning of the word is a key to solving today’s little puzzle.

Because when you go looking to the Native languages for the inspiration of a historical development from “cold” > “winter” > “year”, comparable to a Plains winter count, the clues pop right up.

As in old Chinookan (see my previous couple of posts), in the Tsamosan Salish languages from the CJ “homeland” of southwest Washington, “winter” is expressed with the local words that literally mean “cold”.  I’ll show them here, with the literal meanings in quotes:

  • Cowlitz (Kinkade 2004 dictionary):
    • pən-ƛ̓íx “time of cold”
    • qi  ƛ̓íš-ils “when it gets cold”
    • pən-túluc(n) “time of chunks of ice”
  • Upper Chehalis (Kinkade 1991 dictionary):
    • pən-ƛ̓íš “time of cold”
  • Quinault (Modrow 1971 dictionary):
    • pán-pamás “time of cold”

(Lower Chehalis, Harrington reel 17, has pə́n-sútəč “time of winter” using the ancient Salish root that specifically denotes this season.)

In connection with the above, note that there’s no Chinook Jargon word for “time” until rather late, the 1890s, when it borrowed taim from English.  And for whatever reason, even though it’s possible we don’t find a pattern of CJ speakers saying “when it’s cold” for “winter”.

Now compare this with how at least two of the Tsamosan languages are known to say “year”:

  • Cowlitz: s-ƛ̓íx “a cold (thing)”
  • Upper Chehalis: s-ƛ̓íš “a cold (thing)”

(The other two have only been documented as using expressions of “turning” — 

  • Quinault: jəl-ə́m̓, jəl-m̓-ə́l̓as
  • Lower Chehalis: s-yəl-əm-íləs, Boas 1890 reeliciting Eells 1880,

— although this absolutely doesn’t mean they didn’t share the “cold” metaphor for “year”!)  

You can see how these data from local languages where the Jargon was born are comparable with CJ’s one-word expression kol for both “winter” and “year”.

Summarizing the above along with my preceding post, it looks a lot like we get our Jargon metaphors of winter as “cold” and “cold earth” from Salish languages.

I believe this semantic source hasn’t been explicitly documented in the literature on Chinook Jargon before.

And that’s interesting, because it’s one thing for us to list how many words came from each contributing language (as has been done many times) — and quite another to figure out how many ideas came from each language.  In both cases, Salish has previously been underdocumented.

So we’re gradually revising our picture of how this Jargon came to be created!


Bonus note:  It’s not culturally appropriate in the Native languages to tally the age of just anything by elapsed winters.  In Lower Chehalis, I see the speakers counting kids’ age in terms of summers!  And in older Lower Chehalis, there’s a whole separate set of numerals with the Salish classifier suffix -ánəxʷ “year”.