You there! With the Salish name!

There is a Chinuk Wawa word nixwa that people have translated in a confusing variety of ways.

PRINT Hey ; You; !

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To list the earliest ones:

  • ‘let’ (1847, Joel Palmer)
  • ‘how is it’ (1853, The Columbian; 1857, James Swan)
  • ‘hither; come; bring hither; here’ (1863, George Gibbs)
  • ‘here to me’ (1863, Theodore Winthrop)
  • ‘listen’ (1865, Granville Stuart)

Ask a Linguist™! This kind of slipperiness in meaning can be a clue that you’re dealing with a “function word”. That’d be a word that the grammar uses to refine the main meanings that are carried in verbs and nouns and such, which is why it’s hard to paraphrase it.

In my understanding of nixwa, this function word in Chinook Jargon makes exhortations — urging someone to act. As opposed to a command, y’see. It’s maybe a bit politer.

It’s like the difference between “jump!” (and you ask “how high”) and “go ahead and jump(and you say “right on, man”) 🙂

I notice a habit in my own speech of using nixwa to form commands beyond the usual “you” ones. That is, outside of the second person. So I sometimes throw this word in to express “let’s…” or “let ’em…/they ought to…”

Back to the difficulty of defining this one weird word: Father Le Jeune of Kamloops makes note of it in his 1924 “Chinook Rudiments” book, as niwa. He says it means ‘let me see’, which isn’t so different from what you saw above.

But he also defines it as ‘you there’. Ho-hum, just another off-the-wall translation, right?

Nope. There is a story there. And you know me by now — it involves Salish. I’m not making this up!

Le Jeune knew this word only from written dictionaries and it was not in currency at Kamloops. He says it’s a word used only in other districts. So how did he come up with a unique new meaning for it?

It just so happens that the Salish languages around Kamloops, which Le Jeune could communicate in (and he published books in them), have a word that he would write like nawa / nawi. Which is the pronoun for ‘you’. (Singular.) It seems he took the Jargon word as some foreign Salish equivalent to this.


But what’s cool is (new discovery here), he was at least right about the Salish thing. I’ll lay out what Le Jeune has inspired me to think about this word.

The Grand Ronde dictionary gives an etymology for nixwa that points to a Chinookan particle. I agree.


Well, Chinookan may have borrowed that particle from Salish.

In Salish, though, this would not have been a particle. It was a fully inflected verb.

I draw your attention to Upper Chehalis Salish, spoken very close to (but not directly neighboring) the unrelated Lower Chinookan: U.C. néʔšaʔ means ‘come here!’ Now I’m going to bullet-point some linguistic details, so you can see which part of today’s article to skip over 🙂

  • Dale Kinkade’s truly fine dictionary tells us that this is made of:
    • a root níš ‘here’,
    • with a glottal stop put into the middle (plus a vowel change) making a Diminutive form of it,
    • plus -aʔ which is the Satsop dialect’s Imperative form.
    • Incidentally, Satsop is the group that was considered linguistically Upper Chehalis, but “politically” Lower Chehalis…read on.
  • There is another command usage listed in the long níš entry: a Tenino dialect word  ‘work this, anus!’ (Yup. I bet a dime that’s a clunky translation via Chinuk Wawa.) That’s really two words.
    • corresponds in a known way with níš, because the older sound /x/ mutated into /xʸ/ (our ); the Tenino dialect stopped right about there, and the rest of modern Upper Chehalis changed it further to /š/.
    • and <-la> is the usual Upper Chehalis Imperative suffix -laʔ.
    • The
      part is a noun ‘anus, backside’ (pə́q).
  • I would draw your attention to a separate entry in the Upper Chehalis dictionary, the root néʔ whose meaning is given as ‘here! well!’  (From the usage examples that Kinkade gives, I don’t see why he has exclamation points there.) In principle there’s no reason why this and níš would be unrelated.
    • níš ‘here’ can be broken down, I suggest, into
      • ní (a variant of néʔ ‘here’)
      • plus the frequent suffix –š (also found in the neighboring relative Cowlitz) ‘Indirective’ (‘Applicative’ nowadays for Salish scholars — meaning basically ‘doing something for someone else’).
      • So ní-š = ‘(bring) here for somebody’.
    • néʔ is always followed by /x̣/:
      • Kinkade calls –x̣ a rare suffix of undetermined meaning. Hmm.
      • What if néʔ-x̣ is just a fossilized trace of the *ní-x (the asterisk means “the ancestral form”) that gave us ní-š? 
        • I’ve seen a little bit of /x/~/x̣/ variation in the language.
        • And it’s pretty common in our world’s languages for at least a trace of an older/rarer sound to hang on in “pointing” words like ‘here’. Compare the rare “voiced th” sound in the English pointing words there, then, this, that, they.
        • So there’s effectively a whole bunch of ní-š = ‘(bring) here for somebody’ in Upper Chehalis Salish.

What does this have to do with Chinuk Wawa’s nixwa, since Upper Chehalis’s  néʔšaʔ sounds awful different from it?

Here is the rest of the story.

The next Salish language over is the closely related Lower Chehalis, and it does directly neighbor Lower Chinookan. So if we could establish a Lower Chehalis word of the right shape, it would be believable that that word could’ve been borrowed by Chinookan.

It just so happens that Lower Chehalis’s cognate ( = related form) of Upper Chehalis –š is a sufffix -xʷ that I understand as a “Causative of Motion”.

Now, our research on L.C. hasn’t come close yet to processing all the great data that thankfully exists. So, we have not yet found a word comparable to U.C.  néʔ(š), ní(š), etc. But if there once was a Lower Chehalis equivalent to what I was discussing above, our current knowledge of L.C. makes us expect that it would be níxʷ. And the command form of it would be níxʷaʔ, presumably meaning ‘(bring) it here for (me)!’

And because function words have a tendency to “erode”, losing some of their sounds, due to very frequent use, I can easily suppose a pronunciation like nixwa comes naturally out of that.

See a resemblance with Chinuk Wawa now?

And L.C.’s níxʷaʔ could have been borrowed into neighboring Lower Chinookan, either directly, or via Chinuk Wawa. Which can easily explain the presence of this particle in Chinookan.

What do you think?

A good part of my research lately has gone into showing how really widespread Lower Chehalis Salish influence was on the formation of Chinuk Wawa. Some of that influence has been noticed from early times, when Gibbs and them would point out that a word came from “Chehalis”. (Which almost always was intended to mean Lower Chehalis.)

As today’s post shows and as I’ve been writing in ICSNL/Salish Conference papers, there’s much, much more to that story. I feel it’s important to acknowledge all of the Indigenous contributions to Chinook Jargon.

It seems particularly impressive to me to learn that Salish contributed function words to CJ — this implies a really close and important role in the formation of the pidgin. I have a parallel idea about another Jargon function word, and I’ll write about it here soon.

nixwa kwansəm nayka munk pus chaku-kəmtəks wəx̣t hayu ukuk ɬəw̓ál̓məš tənəs-wawa kʰapa chinuk-wawa! (May I keep up the effort to learn lots more of these Lower Chehalis words in Jargon!)