Mixed-breed ‘cat’?

More tricky treats for your October:

Coyote Cat

(Image credit: The Daily Coyote)

A single strange word in somebody’s old field notebook doesn’t have to have much significance. Sometimes a mistake is a mistake is a mistake.

But what if this oddity in Franz Boas “Chinook: An Illustrative Sketch” (1910:641-642) means something?

As in:

alapus 1

alapus 2

Whoa, clipping different-sized selections has goofy results. Let me adjust my glasses.

If this <a-lap!uʹs> ‘cat’ isn’t a mistake (and there’s essentially no reason to suspect it to be), I think this little treat could be a tiny clue to the tricky tangled webs we weave with language…

In the snippet above, actually written by Boas’s student Edward Sapir about the upriver Kiksht (Wishram-Wasco) Chinookan language, this word’s prefix <a-> and ejective <p!> (p̓) are signs of Diminutive meaning.

This implies that the Chinuk Wawa source that Sapir (a sharp customer himself) claims for the word is not simply our familiar pus ‘cat’, but a version that evidently carries a French definite article la. That’s news.

There are plenty of C.W. words with those articles on them, but we haven’t seen this one before, and it’s unexpected because we don’t think of pus as French. Kind of reminds me of Kamloops C.W. lasli ‘sleigh’, or Garrison Keillor’s imagined Métis guides exclaiming “C’est la wiki wanki, laddies!

I believe there’s even more going on with this Kiksht ‘cat’.

It’s almost as if Chinookans had a feeling (or a running joke, why not) that animal names ought to sound a certain way.

One example of that tendency is how several of ’em end in -xwa:

  • ‘rabbit’ is -skipxwa in Lower Chinook
  • ‘black bear’ is -sqintxwa in Kathlamet
  • ‘raven’ is -kwalixwa in Lower Chinook

Another example is that several animal names, er, sound like Coyote:

  • alap!us ‘cat’ in Kiksht
  • Lower Chinookan <t!āʼlapas> ‘coyote’ page 588 (this gave Chinuk Wawa its t’alapas)
  • Kathlamet <qāʼlapas> ‘rat’ page 588
  • and even in neighboring Salish languages, there’s a word for ‘mink’ that’s like t̓əlápəš-uʔ, ‘little coyote’ (borrowing the Chinookan word)!

I would be amazed if ‘coyote’ had not influenced the form of today’s ‘cat’ word.

There’s many an interesting story when Coyote is involved…

[Edited 11/04/2017 to add: Kiksht Chinookan’s neighbouring and unrelated language Ichishkíin/Yakama Sahaptin has these words for ‘cat’: ap̓úus and ɨp̓úus. Surely no coincidence.]