New light on rainy weather


(Image credit: Daily Mail)

“Perhaps it was onomatopoetic, inspired by the sound of drops hitting the top of an overturned canoe.”

— Knute Berger, page 168 of “Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice” (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2009)

That’s a fact, Jack — and a speculation, um, Ignatius.

I’m not real sure we have evidence to back up the “raindrops on a canoe” theory for the etymology of snas, but of course Mr. Berger is being poetic about nature, like a good Cascadian.

But indeed, the subject of the quote above, the origin of Chinook Jargon’s word for rain snás, or < snass > in old-fashioned publications, has long and widely been acknowledged as one of the mysteries of the Jargon.

Here I get to color the day’s essay with a soupçon more of poetry, from a long bilingual piece that I hope you’ll read the entirety of:

Yaka yiem halo kliminawhit,
This is a true story
Waum illahie klip sun, kopa Byrne Oakut,
On a late summer evening on Byrne Road
kimta tenas wahm snass chako,
after a gentle summer rain,
Spose hyack colley konmokst chikchik, Ford pe Chevrolet…
in a race between a Ford and Chevrolet…

— Terry Glavin, “Rain Language”

The 2012 Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa dictionary leaves the etymology of snas as “obscure”, which silence I’ll tell you is really saying something, because Henry, Tony, and crew are absolutely superb at tracking down relevant clues behind Jargon words.

George Gibbs’ truly authoritative 1863 dictionary observes of < snass >, “The word is neither Chinook nor Chihalis, and is perhaps manufactured.” (A comment that’s blatantly plagiarized by George Coombs Shaw in his 1909 dictionary.) And this guy Gibbs commanded a decent familiarity with several regional Native languages.

The 1935 combination-of-several-preceding-dictionaries by Edward Harper Thomas pretty much follows in the same line, putting a parenthesized (J) for unique-to-Jargon next to the word < snass > with the note, “A made word.”

Other Chinuk Wawa sources, like Walter Shelley “El Comancho” (I like your style, dude!) Phillips, don’t even try figuring out the source of snas.

You can see that Jargon dictionary makers were a bit “lisi”* in the etymology department. They were more concerned with making a dollar; Exhibit A is the dozens upon dozens of barely-edited editions of their little booklets.

That’s why Chinuk Wawa scholars have often reached the erroneous conclusion that this language is well-documented in published work. Noooo! What’s been put out is 10% of the recorded Jargon, rehashed endlessly. The remaining, and more interesting and varied, 90% of known Chinook Jargon remains unpublished, until folks like your humble servant get it processed and presented.

(Insert plea for funding.)

For several years now, I myself have found it easy to imagine snas as a word from a Salish language. It’s shaped exactly right for that. #1 stereotype of Salish words: they start with “s”. And the “nas” part looks plenty like some version of an extremely ancient root in those languages, if you compare it with Proto-Salish *nụ/ạs ‘marrow, fat, oil; wet’.

The trouble with that is, no existing Salish language has a word for ‘rain’ that resembles snas! In the southwestish Washington-state languages that might have contributed such a word to Chinuk Wawa, Lower Chehalis has stúl̓s (which John Kaye Gill gives as Chinuk Wawa in his 1909 dictionary edition), Upper Chehalis x̣asíl̓, Quinault c̓ajaq, Lushootsed qə́lb… Yikes! Have I been building castles out of cumulus clouds?

I think the new clue that we’ve been needing for the snas puzzle is to be found in a word list of Nuuchahnulth, or Nootka Jargon, or both, that I referenced yesterday. Page 190 has < Peshackness > ‘Foull [sic] weather’, with the crucial footnote: “apparently p̓icaqʻ ‘nas ‘bad weather’ “.

Aha! That burning sensation is a lightbulb atop my scalp.

We already know p̓icaqʻ ‘bad’.

My copy of Stonham’s Nuuchahnulth dictionary (hayu masi to George Lang) contains an entry n̓aas ‘daylight; day’. And my copy of “Our World — Our Ways: T’aat’aaqsapa Cultural Dictionary” (hayu masi to Jay Powell) helpfully narrows that word down to the c̓išaaʔatḥ (Tseshaht) and muwač̓atḥ (Mowachaht-Muchalaht) dialects.

So < Peshackness > is literally ‘bad daylight’.

Squint (am I the only one whose eyes are more strained by our Pacific Northwest Coastal fogs than our sunshine?) and you can just make out how a tribal Nuuchahnulth word for ‘daylight’ might’ve gotten transformed by the miracle of pidginization into a Nootka Jargon expression for general ‘weather’ and then specifically ‘rain’.

You see, the tribal Nuuchahnulth expression for ‘bad weather’ is totally different from ‘bad daylight’. Stonham gives wiiqsii ‘bad weather, stormy wind’ (T’aat’aaqsapa specifies this as diitiidʔaaʔtx̣/Ditidaht/Nitnat dialect for ‘windy’), based on the root wiiq ‘angry; unpleasant, rough (of weather)’ and the suffix -sii ‘wind’.

How interesting! < Peshackness > is a literal translation into two separate words, a la the syntax of English or a pidgin language, from the single complex Nuuchahnulth word wiiqsii.

Once you grant that native ‘daylight’ became pidgin ‘weather’, both mean exactly the same thing, since Nuuchahnulth p̓išaq = ‘bad, wicked, harmful, evil’ according to Stonham.

Since the prototypical ‘weather’, not just in the Pacific Northwest but in my native language English, is active rather than sunny and lisi*, I’m going to claim it’s intuitively sensible for the Nootka Jargon pidgin’s ‘weather’ to have come to be used as ‘rain’.

This is all well and good, but we haven’t yet connected < ness > to snas in any overt way. To be frank with you, I know of no prefix s- in Nuuchahnulth, which instead prefers suffixes in a big way. I hereby acknowledge that s- is a problem in this regard. But I claim it’s quite a minor one.

Because — George Gibbs and his imitators to the rescue — I fully agree that some Chinuk Wawa words are portmanteaux. “Portmanteaux” in this case is a big word that means “place to store your clothing”, or, in the conventionalized metaphor that I’m using because I’m the “Hey, look at that Indigenous metaphor” guy, words that blend bits of two or more other words. For instance, in English, “smoke” + “fog” resulted in “smog”. In Chinuk Wawa, təmwata ‘waterfall’ (Chinookan + English) and ɬuchmən ‘woman’ (Nuuchahnulth/Nootka Jargon + English) are portmanteau words.

Somewhere along the line, < ness >, which turns out not to be Salish, did still receive a foreign (Salish) noun-making prefix s-. The earliest published occurrence of Chinuk Wawa snas ‘rain’ that I’m finding is 1847 in Joel Palmer’s vocabulary. This can be effectively antedated by reference to Demers & Blanchet’s 1871 (but created circa 1838) lexicon. I suspect we will find an earlier reference with a little more pulling of books off shelves.

The 1830s date already gets us back pretty early in the explicitly known history of the Jargon. And in those formative days, as I never tire of arguing, the hitherto unresearched Salish influence on Chinuk Wawa, primarily from the Lower Chehalis language that was spoken in the same villages where Chinookan was used, was forceful. It could’ve been second nature for Lower Chehalis speakers to indigenize Nootka Jargon < ness >, all in a day’s work of pidginization.

Summary: I claim Chinuk Wawa snas ‘rain’ is indeed a Nuuchahnulth-plus-Salish manufactured word (point to Geo. Gibbs).

* ‘lazy’