“alms” and Salish help


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So there’s this word < elamí > ‘alms’ (charity, baksheesh, largesse) in Francis-Norbert Blanchet’s Chinook Jargon dictionary.

(I’m looking at the 5th edition of it.)

(Here and throughout this essay, angled brackets < > distinguish informally written forms of words from actual pronunciations, which are unbracketed.)

I have mentioned this word in previous posts, (here) and (here).

Isn’t that plenty enough for one single word?

No, no it isn’t.

This word has been gnawing at my brain for a while. Where did it come from? Spoiler alert: it’s not from English “alms”.

It’s notable that I haven’t found < elamí >  in the 1871 dictionary and catechism that Blanchet played a part in with Modeste Demers and Louis-Napoleon St Onge.

There, the closest resemblance is with their < elaɧan > ‘help’. (I’m using ɧ for their “broken-legged H”.) This is a fine match of meanings — other editions of Blanchet, and other Jargon dictionaries, give synonyms for ‘alms’ as < elahan, elann >, which are the usual words for ‘help’.

The only corroborating reference I’m finding for a ‘help’-type Jargon word with an in it is from the same region, around the lower Columbia River, in Father Lionnet’s 1853 vocabulary, which consistently uses < elaham >.

Based on the analysis I’ve previously done, I’ve traced the n-final versions of the word to Lower Chehalis Salish, where it looks to come from a command yəláʔən ‘help her/him/it!’ I’ve figured that the spellings seen above reflect French-speakers’ perception and reflection of Native pronunciation:

  • < e > at the beginning = French < é > = Native y(ə) which we know to alternate pretty fluidly with i/e in Salish.
  • < h > or < ɧ > are French-speakers’ attempts to reflect that glottal catch ʔ. (So is the double of < elann >.)

The fun twist is that < ɧ > almost always signals a sound that modern linguists might write as or χ or x̣, which is like the < ch > in Scottish “loch” and German “Bach”. I’ve never found a matching Salish word with such a sound in it, so I’m forced to imagine that Blanchet/Demers/St Onge intended a plain old < h > in this word.

As for the < (a)m > on the end of < elaham >, it could believably represent the “Middle-voice, Perfective-aspect” suffix -m of these languages. This is quite nice if true, because we don’t otherwise seem to have a documented Middle form of this verb, but in Lower Chehalis for example, we would expect exactly this shape. (yəláʔəm should mean ‘help out!’) So this may be one of the many instances where Chinuk Wawa helps us reconstruct the other Indigenous languages!

Still looking at southwest Washington Salish languages, we find something else that’s relevant. Just one language, Upper Chehalis, has as its related verb root the “m-” final yalə́m-, said to specifically mean ‘hire’. So that’s a nice correspondence with our Jargon < elamí > ‘alms’. I don’t have a good explanation for the í on the end, however. No forms, certainly not the Imperative (command) suffixes in the local Salish languages, match this in any sensible way.

Which raises the possibility that a reason for < elamí > being such an exceedingly rare bird in the Jargon is, it was a typo. A mistake for < elann >, for instance.

What do you think about that?

Let me wrap up by sharing a wonderful little related fact with you. In the Cowlitz and Upper Chehalis languages, the generic word for ‘help’ (as opposed to ‘hire’ seen above) is tál̓ič(n). This is transparently from an old southwest Washington root tál̓ ‘accompany’, also used in forming the ‘teens’ numerals. Speaking of teens, that root still means ‘accompany’ in Lower Chehalis, which uses it in a delightful word for ‘chaperone’ that literally means ‘be accompanied by a heron’. (Picture, if you will, that bystander idling on one leg, bored stiff and/or waiting to pounce on any fishy activity!) With the suffix -ič(n), the Cowlitz and Upper Chehalis ‘help’ originally meant something like ‘back-accompany, go along to help pack things on one’s back’.

And why do I mention that fun but seemingly useless mite of trivia?

Because it shows you that our Chinuk Wawa word for general ‘help’ — pronounced yéʔlan nowadays at Grand Ronde — did not come from Cowlitz Salish or Upper Chehalis Salish. (Nor Quinault Salish, whose cognate word starts with a “j” sound.)

Once again, as so very often, we see Lower Chehalis Salish, the “other” language of Shoalwater Bay besides Chinookan, playing a really important role in the early formation of the Jargon.

That’s a story I’m happy to help tell at last.

qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm kʰapa úkuk?