Salish as an intercultural lingo…before Chinuk Wawa?

I have an idea building in my mind that Coast Salish provided an intercultural lingo, maybe before “contact” with the (drifted ashore/dead/floating houses/other hypotheses) white people…and definitely soon after.

P.Coll 120, P25 Girls with dog

Girls with Salish wool dog

(Photo credit: SFU Museum.)

This is separate from the semi-well-known fact that Salish provided a decent percentage of the commonly recognized Chinuk Wawa vocabulary.

In today’s rather skeletal post, I’m just going to narrowly share a few bullet points about Salish words that are found far afield, indicating cultural exchange. More about my reasoning in future posts, all right?

  • Salish qax̣ ‘dog’ / qax̣-aʔ ‘doggie’, was an extremely valuable possession. This wool-bearing breed was one of the few such in the world, a rare treasure; as I note in a paper I’ve been writing, there’s a case to be made that Salish grammar (believe it or not) treats their dogs as extremely valued possessions. If dogs were so sought-after, it should not be a surprise then that we find this word for dog in unrelated languages pretty far away. Patty Whereat (read her blog. read her blog.) has done awesome work on her peopleʹs languages around Coos Bay, Oregon, showing that this word made its way there.
  • Salish c̓ič̓-ɬ(n)ʔ ‘gun’ (‘shooting-tool’), was obviously a hot ticket. Remember Lewis & Clark’s journals, where the local fella’s reaction to their shooting ducks is the Jargon sentiment “ɬush məskit, wik kəmtəks məskit”? (“Nice gun, don’t know [that] gun.”) This Salish word I believe comes from Shoalwater Bay, but it’s found up north in the unrelated Quileute language, and down south in two other unrelated languages, Alsea and Siuslaw on the Oregon coast.
  • Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie, spoken just inland from the mouth of the Columbia River on both sides, was an Athabaskan language–therefore related both to Navajo and to most Alaskan languages–but it got a ton of words for material culture from Salish. In a glance at a 1924 paper by Boas and Goddard I recognize that same ‘gun’ word I just mentioned…plus words that in Salish I spell stiqiw ‘horse’, ɬət̓iʔ ‘eating utensil’, quite possibly caqstqtn ‘kettle’…

None of this should really be a big surprise. Quileute’s word for a valuable long-distance travel canoe, approximately ʔaʔlotq, got borrowed into all of the Salish languages of southwest Washington because it was a trade item. In various locales, words for traditionally traded commodities including ‘eulachon grease’, ‘(Indian) potato’, ‘halibut’ and more got shared. Traditionally “grease trails”, trading routes, interlaced the whole region and beyond.

But what really strikes me is how many Coast Salish words I find getting used interculturally, really early, for cultural items introduced by the whites.

It’s quite something to think what this implies about the role of Salish speakers at the moment of “contact”…