Do white people stink?
This one’s not strictly Chinook Jargon — but read on for a fun tie-in.
(Image from Stages Theatre Company.)
Our venerable colleague, the late Dutch linguist Aert Kuipers, created a wonderful research help when he published the Salish Etymological Dictionary. It’s such a treasure when you’re puzzling through the prehistory of the languages, meaning pretty much up to the year 1800.
For Proto-Interior Salish, or in other words the ancestral form of one of the two big branches of Salish, Kuipers includes some surprising items. Here, “surprising” is a big word that means “a linguist will spoil your fun by telling you they’re impossible” 🙂 (Thank you, Lemony Snicket.) How ancient and “Proto” do you suppose these examples are?
- *s-wəlm-in̓k ‘gun’
- *s-wyap-mx/xʷ ‘white person’
- *ɬkap ‘pot, kettle, bucket’
The first two of these are built from native Salish parts, but the things they refer to have only existed in this world for a little over two centuries.
That last one might be a Canadian French loan; anyone know a candidate source? It’s oldish, since the Spokane, Kalispel, and Coeur d’Alene forms have undergone those languages’ historical shift of *k to č. (I’ve previously estimated the time of that shift as early to mid 1800’s, but I don’t have proof for you at this moment.)
The point being, some of the “Proto-Interior Salish” words are pretty recent, whether they’re loans or native.
Which leads us to:
- *samaʔ (poss. *s-hamaʔ) ‘ “aliens” (mythical or real)’
And that is a funny translation to put on it, because in all the Indian languages that have it, this word refers to ‘white people’, especially ‘French [Canadian] people’. My understanding is it’s even loaned from Salish into Chinuk Wawa of southern interior BC. (I think this is told in Edith Beeson’s book “Dunlevey: From the diaries of Alex P. McInnes“.)
Whether or not we should understand it as originally a term for the mixed French-native ‘Métis’ people, I can’t prove, but historically just about all francophones in our region met that description. The ones that weren’t tended to be the few white priests.
What I suggest we can prove, beyond any sensible skepticism, is that samaʔ literally means ‘the stinky ones’!
- s- in Salish makes nouns, so you can translate it something like ‘the one that…’, ‘the ones who…’
- the root of the word, as Kuipers himself hints, is likely to be either sam or ham — and I think we may connect that with Proto-Salish (that is, way older than Proto-Interior Salish) *sum̓ ‘to smell, sniff’, and with similar-shaped forms for smelling in the Northwest like Chinookan həm…which gave us the Chinook Jargon word for ‘smell(y), stink’.
- the –aʔ that ends the word is a little affectionate ending that we find on tons of Salish words, especially ones for your kin and for small things.
Put it all together, and I’m claiming the Salish folks in the early times of contact were calling non-Indians ‘the stinkies’!
It wouldn’t be the first time. An oldish Japanese label for Western foreigners is bata-kusai, ‘butter-stinkers’. And I’ve encountered Chinuk Wawa’s həm-bastən ‘lower-class white people; white trash’ (literally ‘stinking whiteman’) in my time 🙂