The squeaky wheel…

squeaky wheel

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Just in case this hasn’t already drawn attention to itself 🙂 

Everyone who learns a little bit of Chinuk Wawa soon picks up the word t’síkt’sik ‘a wagon; a vehicle’. People now use it to refer to their cars, and to wheels in general.

Every linguist agrees that it’s typical of the many old Chinookan sound-symbolic words. That’s an ancient part of those tribal languages’ grammars.

For Lower Chinookan, Franz Boas points out that this stuff is not just ancient, but alive. In his “Chinook: An Illustrative Sketch” (1910, page 628) he expounds on the continuing productive use of onomatopoeia, with apparently new sound-imitations being produced to refer to post-contact phenomena. His examples of this latter are tiʹntin ‘clock, watch, time’ and tsiʹktsik ‘wagon’.

So our Chinuk Wawa word comes from the ‘squeak-squeak’ of 1800s wagon wheels, even though I’ve never found it in the Jargon referring to that sound.

Nonetheless, there’s some really nice evidence to back up what Boas claims for the original motivating force behind t’síkt’sik.

Neighboring, unrelated languages in southwest Washington preserve this word together with the Native metaphorical association between the sound and the thing that makes it.

  • Next door in Lower Chehalis Salish, at least one speaker, on two separate occasions, volunteered that c̓íkc̓ik ‘wagon; car’ has the connotations in that language ‘anything running on wheels & making screeching noise’ and ‘squeak’.
  • For Cowlitz Salish, M. Dale Kinkade’s dictionary lists a root /c̓ík- that occurs both in a verb ‘squeak’ and a noun c̓íkc̓ik ‘wagon’.
  • I don’t know whether the following pair of words in yet another unrelated language family preserve the Native metaphor, or just coincidentally resemble it. Ichishkíin (Yakama Sahaptin) has the noun t’síkt’sik ‘wagon’ and the verb t’síik- ‘scream’. That looks like a close match!
  • In yet another family, Quileute (Chimakuan) has partially similar-sounding forms including t̓sidí·ʔikwal ‘squeak, car or mouse squeaking’ — a compelling semantic association, in light of today’s discussion. I’m not very familiar with Quileute morphology, though, so I can’t say a lot more.

Did the Salish and Sahaptin people borrow t’síkt’sik quite early from Chinuk Wawa? With the rapid depopulation of the Chinookan people in the 19th century, speakers of those tribal languages became rare, and the influence of their languages and metaphors on Chinuk Wawa weakened.

Or could there have been an old, areally shared sound-symbolism t’sík ‘squeak’? Yes. We find onomatopoeic words having very similar forms all across the Pacific Northwest’s languages — although they’re usually the words for bird species and so on. And that “k” sound causes problems for such an idea, because “k” is rare in Salish, where it changed long ago to a “ch” sound as in English “cheese”.

I tend to agree with Boas’s reasoning, that t’síkt’sik is a pretty new word in Lower Chinookan, so the unrelated tribal languages that preserve its association with a certain sound probably got it during the early days of the Jargon.

What do you think? Have I greased the wheels of your mental machinery?