Whites & whales?

white whale

(Image credit: CNN Money)

Now sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of whites, whales, and ships…

My eyes work well enough to notice squintum for ‘white man’ in the 1909 edition of J.K. Gill’s Chinook Jargon dictionary out of Portland (Oregon).

This is visibly similar to the Victoria (BC)-area quinetum in the doggerel Byron I posted the other day.

It’s definitely Salish, this squintum. Salish loves to make nouns by slapping an s- onto the beginning of words. Quinetum => squintum. You see?

And it’s probably from SW WA, since nearly all Salish words in JKG’s dictionary come from somewhere near PDX.

And it’s more likely Lower Chehalis than any other language.

  • Cowlitz and Upper Chehalis have ‘white man’ as a related but distinct-sounding xʷə́ltm.
  • Quinault has the s-less xʷə́ntm, which Upper Chehalis shares as a variant form. (Which then sounds like a pun on ‘weak’ in that language!)
  • But multiple Lower Chehalis speakers tell us a word sxʷə́ntm for ‘white person’.


Add today’s word to the now extremely long list of Lower Chehalis items in Chinuk Wawa — far more than have previously been recognized.

I’m guessing that the southwest Washington people and the Straits of Juan de Fuca people (of the general Victoria region) separately created their ‘white person’ words, even though they share an etymology. Read on.

Squintum and quinetum both are formed with a cognate (related) root that goes back to Proto-Coast-Salish, and suffixes that go back to Proto-Salish.  Both words literally mean ‘drifted ashore’. So you’d pretty much call them “the same word”, wouldn’t you?

But here’s one more fact:

Native people along a goodly stretch of the Pacific Northwest coast, speaking many different languages, all share a tradition of referring to white people as drifters:

  1. My Kwak’wala teacher told us that their word for my kind, mamaɬa, means something like ‘floating/drifting houses’.
  2. The Nuuchahnulth mamaɬn̓i is said to mean ‘dwelling on the sea’, even, amusingly enough, when onshore; there’s a word for ‘white people’s village’ based on this form.
  3. Quileutes say hó·kʷat̓ ‘person living in drifting house’.

Which is just to say, our two Salish loanwords for ‘white folks’ in the Jargon are most easily explained as coming from a single Native metaphor (you know those are a pet concept in my research).

Instead of needing to have been

  • (A) inherited from Proto-Coast-Salish prehistory (a nonsense idea), or
  • (B) somehow transported from one end of Coast Salish land to the other (and we know of no special ties between Straits and SW WA Salish people, whereas we’d expect their neighboring unrelated Quileute and Nuuchahnulth to supply a word for the new arrivals),

squintum/quinetum was innovated separately — and separately loaned into different Chinuk Wawa dialects.

One last element in this kettle of fish: compare, won’t you, the Lower Chinookan -x(ʷ)ən(í) ‘to drift’ (Boas 1910:664) with our Salish root xʷə́n/xʷə́l ‘to drift’. I haven’t found references to white folks drifting in Lower Chinookan, despite this resemblance.

But you know what was always said to ‘drift’? Whales. My understanding of the cultures in this southern part of the Washington Coast suggests that they mainly got whales by finding dead ones while beachcombing, rather than hunting them like the Quileutes and Makahs. (Think of the deadly currents off the mouth of the Columbia River; would you want to canoe those?) Certainly in the Lower Chehalis Salish language, the word for ‘whale’, syələ́x̣ʷ, appears to literally (and metaphorically) be ‘found thing’.

What’s this digression got to do with anything?

Well, Chinookan has a well-known and fairly free sound alternation between k(ʷ) & x(ʷ). Chinookan also famously shifts between n & l quite a bit. Again without squinting more than a squintum must, these facts have me seeing a similarity between Lower Chinookan –x(ʷ)ən(í) ‘drift’ and Chinuk Wawa íkuli ‘whale’. (From Lower Chinookan í-kuli, where í- is the Masculine/Large Noun marker).

Could our Jargon word for ‘whale’ have its etymology in another local Native metaphor, ‘the one that drifted ashore/was found (on shore)’?

This idea has not been suggested before. What do you think?

Maybe whales & white folks have more in common than we thought…