Mystery: tal’-is


(Image credit:*

talʹ-is ‘dear (beloved)’ is a word that caught my attention in JK Gill’s 1909 dictionary of Chinook Jargon. Because it’s completely mysterious.

Gill was a Portland, Oregon stationer with an acute business eye. Well into my Spokane, Washington childhood, you could walk into a nearby JK Gill shop to buy your envelopes, staplers, and fountain pens, as you could all across the Pacific Northwestern states, because his commercial empire had been well cultivated.

Another aspect of Mr Gill’s acuity was his adding a lot of words to his much-reissued Jargon dictionary (Worldcat shows me at least eighteen numbered editions of it), so that customers were sure to get more for their money than they would from anyone else’s dictionaries. His 1909 edition, as Samuel V Johnson helpfully highlighted in his 1978 dissertation, is a real treasure in this way.

However, Gill has this word talʹ-is even back in 1884, before all his newer editions & additions. He seems to have been mighty confident that this was good Jargon.

Why doesn’t anyone else show us this word? Where did it come from?

It’s not Chinookan that I can see; Franz Boas’s [Lower] Chinook Texts gives us forms that I’d put into Americanist phonemes as qə́stamx̣ and icəstámx̣a translated as ‘my dear’… No match there.

As usual, the next obvious word-donor candidates are the southwest Washington Salish languages. We have usable dictionaries of 3 of them, and I’m putting together one of the fourth language, so it’s easy enough to go checking for ‘dear’ or ‘term of endearment’. Nothing much turns up in Quinault or Cowlitz, and just one word in Uppper Chehalis that’s kind of inappropriate on a family website like this one 🙂

In ɬəw̓ál̓məš a.k.a. Lower Chehalis, though — as seems to be usual — now that’s where we find a compelling match or two for an obscure JK Gill word. I have exactly three thoughts if you’d like to know them:

  1. Maybe compare part of Lower Chehalis ƛ̓úk̓ʷ t ʔál̓əs ‘God’! This is a weirdie of an idea. Let me explain why.=> ƛ̓úk̓ʷ means ‘above; high’.
    => t is sometimes thought of as an indefinite article, but what it does is connect an adjective such as ‘above; high’ with a following noun that’s modified by it.
    => ʔál̓əs means ‘chief’.So the Lower Chehalis expression is parallel to Chinuk Wawa’s sáx̣ali táyi ‘God’, literally ‘high-up chief’.

    I can imagine a Lower Chehalis speaker explaining ƛ̓úk̓ʷ t ʔál̓əs to a non-Native, via Chinook Jargon, that ƛ̓úk̓ʷ “is the part that means ‘sáx̣ali‘ “. By that reasoning, t ʔál̓əs “is the part that means ‘táyi’ “.

    => Now, I find indications within Lower Chehalis that ʔál̓əs ‘chief’ has emotional overtones; the grammar treats this word the same as it does words for your (other) close relatives.
    => And (just watch me spin this yarn) the nearby sister language Quinault has just about the same word, ʔál̓–but it means ‘father’ there.
    => And just possibly, the element –əs on the Lower Chehalis word amounts to an affectionate suffix, because the language has other such forms, e.g. -aʔ.

    No Salish speaker would ever say t ʔál̓əs by itself. That little demands a preceding adjective. But the hypothetical non-Salish conversationalist in my scenario wouldn’t know that, and could easily have asked, “Well, what does this talʹ-is mean?” Perhaps that would lead to kindly efforts by the Lower Chehalis speaker to find a suitable translation for that noun phrase, resulting in an understanding like ‘dear father’. Perhaps, perhaps; t’ɬúnas-ɬáksta kə́mtəks?/who knows?

  2. In Lower Chehalis I do find a word təčíl with a meaning given as ‘term of endearment’. (I have no etymological explanation of it yet.) That’s a great match in meaning, but not very close in sound, to talʹ-is. I’m not sold on this second idea.
  3. Lastly, Lower Chehalis has an expression that one speaker translated as “my dear little one (referring to a woman)”, qələ́š ɬəc xʷúkʷ . The last two words there, which we can promptly ignore, mean basically ‘the female little one’. What you need to know is that the first word qələ́š is a common SW WA Salish expression. It’s translated as ‘poor; sympathize’ by most speakers, and their use of it makes clear that it’s less about affection than about pity and sympathy. That mismatch of meaning, plus the poor matchup of sounds with talʹ-is, leads me to reject this third explanation of that word. (Incidentally there’s another Chinuk Wawa parallel there, because CW’s ɬax̣áwyam / ɬax̣áyam seems to have developed from a Lower Chinookan expression for ‘pitiful’, presumably as a conventionally metaphorical request for sympathy, to be our usual greeting.)

Put it all together and you can see that all I have is a tentative “long reach” of an idea where talʹ-is came from.

It’s not even necessarily from Lower Chehalis Salish, despite my sense that that is the most probable source language. What’s wanted is to look at even more of the Native languages from the old heartland of the Jargon, such as K’alapuyan, Sahaptin, Dene, Tillamook Salish…

What I’m convinced of is that talʹ-is is a genuine word of Chinuk Wawa. Time after time, I find that JK Gill’s obscure additions to his dictionary really can be traced to the languages around the Lower Columbia River, and they often wind up being corroborated as local Jargon usage once we research previously neglected old sources.

*I can’t tell you how tickled I was to find a “dearly beloved” sugar skull for today’s Day of the Dead article! 😛