Honey, a latecomer in the Northwest

As a linguist I sometimes remind myself: It’s not just new words that grow out of cultural contacts. Trade goods, too, can be potent motivators for different groups of people to communicate with each other, which is itself a big reason why they wind up borrowing new words.

‘Honey’ is a neat example, for our Pacific Northwest region.

There are no native PNW honey bees, as far as I’ve discovered. They’re an agricultural innovation out here, as is their honey, when it’s not just another item introduced in historical trade contexts.

And Native people’s contact with newcomers brought molasses before honey made the scene, from all evidence.

Loanwords for ‘molasses’ are widespread in the Indigenous languages. Chinook Jargon has it, from an early date: (la)məlás, whose source in French is a clue that it pre-dates widespread white settlement. (Read on.) I see this as early as Joel Palmer‘s 1847 Chinuk Wawa vocabulary.

molasses face

molasses face!

(Image credit: HolisticSaffron.com)

I’m a big fan of the Spokan Salish endearment lamnús‘molasses-face’.

That’s a blend of lamnás ‘molasses’ (probably not from Jargon, which had relatively little impact on Spokan, but from Canadian fur trade workers’ French la mélasse) + a native suffix -ús ‘face’.

When it comes to thinking about traces of early PNW cultural contact, I always like to dig around in the languages of the little region where Chinook Jargon was born, down at the end of the Columbia River. There, no words for it are known of in three of the Salish languages (Lower Chehalis, Cowlitz, and Quinault), nor in Lower Chinookan!

But in Upper Chehalis Salish, where the Jargon loan məlás gets used to mean ‘syrup’, ‘honey’ is expressed by either of two compounds with the native word for ‘bee’:

  • q̓ə́ɬ t cíks (my transcription of it) is ‘sweet from bees’
  • cíčsməlàs is a compound, ‘bee syrup’

The second one of those represents yet another of the contributions I’ve been trying to make to Chinuk Wawa studies, a Native metaphor preserved in Jargon. The Grand Ronde Tribes’ 2012 dictionary points it out in 1940s information from Emma Luscier of Bay Center, Washington, who heard folks refer to ántʰiyeɬ yaka məlásis ‘bee’s syrup’ for ‘honey’ (page 285).

Emma’s word for ‘bee’ there is interesting, because she was a Lower Chehalis Salish speaker, and ántʰiyeɬ is native to K’alapuya, waaay over across the Columbia River from her southwest Washington home. (There it means ‘yellowjacket, wasp’.) And as the Grand Ronde dictionary is so excellent at noticing, the word also got loaned into Clackamas Upper Chinookan. All of this, as I interpret it, is evidence that ántʰiyeɬ was pretty widespread as a Jargon word for ‘bee’.

Less of a big deal, but worth saying, is that Emma’s məlásis comes from English, not French. It could plausibly be a reinterpretation of məlás, or a new borrowing into Jargon, either being due to the documented strong local presence of English. But it’s actually an old, if less widely used, item in Jargon: Demers and Blanchet have it in 1871 (meaning they learned it about 30 years earlier) meaning ‘molasses’. Emma’s glossing of məlásis as ‘syrup’ is great stuff, anyways, matching as it does the Upper Chehalis Salish use of the Jargon word.

The same Native metaphor is reflected in Father St Onge’s dictionary manuscript that I’m working on as lemush-shuka, literally ‘fly-sugar’!

Variation in expressive strategies is among the joys of Chinuk Wawa, and St Onge adds two synonyms for ‘honey’: tsi (literally ‘sweet’), and honē, a more recent loan from English that matches Kamloops CJ honi.

mason bee nests

mason bee nests, Spokane, WA

(Image credit: me)

It also says something that local words for ‘honeybee’ look like they’re borrowed. Like Cowlitz and Lower Chehalis, Upper Chehalis has a native word cíčs / cíks for the indigenous non-honey bees. (It so happens that this is distinct from the ancient Proto-Salish word, *mə̣c̓əp / *mə̣c̓-up(-aʔ).) But ‘honeybee’ as spelled in the latter dictionary has a little something extra; it’s given as past n tsiks. Recognize Chinook Jargon pastən / Boston there? This is literally the ‘whiteman bee’. The Grand Ronde CJ dictionary points out that the K’alapuyan languages, too, refer to the ‘whiteman’s ántʰiyeɬ ‘.

The fourth Salish sister language of the area, Quinault, may or may not share that native word for bees, but there is a term I notice several times in their dictionary, miyo ‘bee’.  That sure looks a lot like a Diminutive noun; the ending -o / -uʔ in these languages means ‘little, small’. If so, can this be a borrowing of English ‘bee’ — bee-o, ‘little bee’ — to label the foreign insect?

(Explaining one part of my reasoning: ms and bs can often be interchangeable in Northwest Coast languages, including Chinook Jargon. Recall that we have latáb / latám for ‘table’ from French ‘la table’, and bit / mit for ‘dime’ from English ‘bit’! So bee / mee doesn’t seem like a crazy stretch.)

This sweet little essay has kept me busy for a while. I’m off for a breakfast of Honey Nut Cheerios 🙂