Chinook Jargon month names…did they come from somewhere?


In the Chinook Jargon Word of the Day group on Facebook, the inquiring mind of Colin Bruce put forth Father Le Jeune’s little-known 1924 list of Chinook Jargon month names…

Here it is, as transcribed by Colin along with Le Jeune’s literal translations:

Sitkom-kol-elehi-moon (Mid-winter moon)

Chinook-moon (Chinook moon)

Ayoo-win-moon (Windy moon)

Chi-tepso-moon (New grass moon)

Spakram-moon (Flowery moon)

Olali-moon (Berry moon)

Samon-moon (Salmon moon)

Delet-wam-moon (Hot weather moon)

Samon-mash-tanas-moon (Spawning moon)

Mash-tepso-moon (Falling leaves moon)

Kol-win-moon (Cold wind moon)

Kikwile-haws-moon (Winter house moon)

Ayoo-sno-moon (Deep snow moon)

My first response was that these might be calques — direct translations — of the local Salish month names in the Secwepemctsín language.

The references to what looks like a traditional ‘seasonal round‘ of subsistence activities, and the Salish loan spakram ‘flower’, are what sent my mind in the direction of the local languages.

Let’s check that, starting again with what might be the midwinter month:

January Pellkwet̓mín … compare the stem kwt’-em ‘to dig wild potatoes; to dig root’ and James Teit’s circa 1900 gloss of this word as ‘sun turns’ (Aert Kuipers’ 1974 The Shuswap Language, page 217).

February — not found.

March Pup [Esket / Alkali Lake dialect] … perhaps cf. root pew / puʔ ‘to swell’ K 143; maybe in reference to plant buds?

March Pelltkélayiten … meaning unclear K155.

April Pell-tsk̓úlecwten … cf. stem tsk’-ulecw ‘early daylight’ (literally ‘bright-land’) K172; see also July below.

May — not found.

June — not found.

July pell-tpéntsk … K152 glosses this as ‘April’ & tentatively links it to the root pen ‘to find’ K138.

August pellt̓éxel̓cten … cf. stem c-t’ex-lc ‘to go upwards, upstream’ K166; presumably with reference to salmon spawning.

September Pellc. wéw̓lemten … cf. stem wewl-em ‘to fish’ K264.

October Pesllwélsten  … cf. stems llwel-st-en ‘fall, autumn’ and llwel-en-s ‘to leave sb. all alone, [Deadman’s Creek dialect:] ‘take off and discard (clothing)’; perhaps refers to falling leaves?

November — not found.

December Pell-tetéq̓em … cf. stem teq’-em ‘to cross’ (a river, a lake, etc.); perhaps in reference to the season when bodies of water froze over?

— from the Secwepemc Portal at First Voices

I don’t know about you, but I admit I have a hard time matching these two lists up in much more than a random way.

Maybe we have the wrong Salish language.  Nłeʔkepmcín / Thompson was also spoken nearby, so let’s check the dictionary (Thompson & Thompson 1996):

January: n-qápc=xə́n … root refers to ~Chinook wind

February: c̓əł-nwéłn  tək  máʕ=xe-tn … first word ~ ‘it gets cold’, the rest means ‘moon’

March: s-nuʔ-néw̓t  tək  máʕ=xe-tn … ‘windy moon’

April: n-p̓íx=qs-m  tək  máʕ=xe-tn … ‘budding month’

May: yíq̓-m  tək  máʕ=xe-tn … ‘planting month’

June: s-q̓ʷy=éłq  tək  máʕ=xe-tn … ‘ripe-berries month’

July: n-k̓éx-mn  tək  máʕ=xe-tn … ‘drying-rack month’
s-pénck … ‘summer’

August: s-ciʔqʷ=éytxʷ  tək  máʕ=xe-tn … ‘leaves-turning-red month’
xʷák̓ʷ=ym̓xʷ ‘end of August’, literally ‘frosty ground’

September: s-ʔúy=us-m  tək  máʕ=xe-tn … ‘harvesting month’

October: s-xʷák̓ʷ(-t)  tək  máʕ=xe-tn … ‘frosty month’

November: not found

December: not found

There are more and better matches there for the Chinook Jargon month names.  But with lots of differences, and gaps in our knowledge.

So, back to the drawing board.

Was Le Jeune ‘talking flowery’ in Chinook?  I have real doubts.  The reason I’ve spent years preaching against such uses of this language is that the hundreds of pages of Jargon preserved for us to read (and most of it written by him) is consistently light on metaphors.

Hm, what else?

Did an Indigenous person or people tell him the ‘Indian names’ of the months?  Maybe in Chinook, maybe in Salish, maybe in both?  Maybe once, maybe many times over the years since Le Jeune arrived in BC in 1879?  Maybe in more than one area, coming from more than one Salish-language background?  Maybe prompted by one of the BAE / Bureau of American Ethnology language surveys that researchers such as Le Jeune’s pal James Teit used in their work?

In whatever version, that’s a real possibility.  And I think it’s the likeliest one. What Colin Bruce noticed today was quite likely a genuinely used list of Jargon moon names, one that hasn’t received notice from scholars.

As a final token of its authenticity, notice that there are 13 moons in the CJ listing, suggesting that they are old & reflect Indigenous practices, not the post-contact acculturated calendar.  (Just as the earliest Chinook writing out of Kamloops refers to days of the week in an older style e.g. kwinam son ‘Friday’ [literally ‘fifth day’], then goes whole hog for Fraidi, Satyurdi, Sondi etc.)

In fact, the month names that were in actual constant use by Kamloops-region Jargon writers are the 12 borrowed from English: Shanwari, Fibrwari, March etc.