“la-let” = milk?


(Image credit: KeyWordSuggest.org)

A Métis girl who was there tells us a new word…

The Daughter of Angus MacDonald” by Christina MacDonald McKenzie Williams (born 1847) is a 1922 article in the Washington Historical Quarterly (13:107-117).

This is a source who ought to know plenty; her dad was chief factor of Fort Colvile; she knew Chief Kamiakin; Christina Lake nearby in British Columbia’s Kootenay district is named for her; and so on.

So I pay attention when Christina tells us,

I recall at old Hudson’s Bay Company Colville an Indian named
“La-let”. My uncle Archibald MacDonald in charge of the post
in the ’30’s had twin sons born whom his wife, Jane Klyne Mac-
Donald, was unable to nurse and they were nursed by an Indian
woman whose own child was raised on Cow’s milk. This was an
entirely new departure for the Indians and half breeds and the In-
dian youngster received the name of La-let. (page 111)

That’s recognizable from standard French le lait ‘milk’. But the standard (which is to say European) pronunciation is [ləlε], while the implication of Christina’s spelling is [lalεt]. I take it this is a more typically Canadian Métis pronunciation variant; compare Chinuk Wawa’s kapu from French capot(e). Do my readers have more to tell about that?

I thought this word was interesting to point out for an additional reason. Christina may be implying that it’s Chinuk Wawa. In that case, it would be a new discovery.

On the other hand, it’s precisely in Christina’s Plateau region of Washington and BC that we find lots of loanwords in the Native languages coming, not via Chinook Jargon as we know it, but recognizably from Métis French.

Which is a big reason why I’ve long inferred that the Jargon didn’t come into use in those regions — even though they were early brought into the fur trade system — until several decades after its first mention in the historical record, circa 1805 on the lower Columbia River. It’s useful to have a sense of “where and when”, instead of indiscrimately assuming Chinook Jargon was in use across the whole Pacific Northwest throughout frontier times. That mistaken assumption has been made often & perpetuated thoughtlessly. It robs us of a proper understanding of what was going on…