ná ‘here, take this’ is from Vancouver Island

take this

(Image source: Broken Joysticks)

Maybe it’s a worldwide tendency, like how words for ‘mother’ often have “M” in them…but Chinuk Wawa’s interjection ná ‘here; take this’ etc. is an Aboriginal word from the Vancouver Island, Canada, area.

File this with the many other new etymologies my readers have seen published on this website over the past 7 years.

I don’t know that any serious etymology has ever been proposed for ná before.  George Gibbs’s 1863 dictionary just says it’s “common to several languages” and points out the “sign of the vocative” as in Yakama (Ichishkíin Sahaptian) nah tehn ‘O man’, though I haven’t yet succeeded in locating a match for either part of that expression in the modern Yakama tribal dictionary. Pandosy’s Yakama grammar and dictionary of 1862 — perhaps Gibbs’s authority — agrees in declaring that the “exclamation” na before a noun effectively makes a vocative (pages 11-12).

Edward Harper Thomas’s widely available 1935 compendium labels it (S) for “general Salishan tongues”, with no explanation.

But I strongly suspect that any Yakama or Salishan parallel for Chinook Jargon’s ná that was known to these Northwest USA authors was post-contact, and more probably came into those languages from CJ. So I don’t see much explanation of the word’s origin yet.

Thanks go to Dr. Peter Jacobs of the University of Victoria Linguistics Department for today’s realization.

I myself had been on a (so smart it was dumb) wrong track. I was wondering if one of the Indo-European languages in the early Chinook Jargon world had a comparable word for the < nah > that we find in a number of old sources on the pidgin. I do know of Central European languages including Hungarian, German, and Slovenian that have an identical interjection ná. So why not French, which was present early in CJ’s life? (Because I’m a native speaker of English, which has no such word that I know of, I’m not bothering with my language.)

When I asked that latter question in the Facebook Chinook Jargon community, none of the 500 or so members had heard such an interjection in French.

But Peter Jacobs pointed out that, in two of his heritage languages, he knows the relevant words “na in Sḵwx̱u7mesh and da in Kwak’wala”.  Sure enough, the dictionaries I have of both languages indicate that these, like their Chinook Jargon doppelganger, mean essentially, “here, take this”.

This is what lit a bulb over my cranium. Both of these are Vancouver Island-area languages, Kwak’wala being in the northern branch of the Wakashan family, and Sḵwx̱u7mesh (“Squamish”) in the central coast branch of the Salish family. Neither of them has been shown to have played a role in the origin of Chinuk Wawa. But…

What if a single very similar word had long been in general use around The Island? This thought gains support from the existence of such a word in several languages of tribes that aboriginally carried on close relationships with V.I. tribes. Sechelt Salish (close to Sḵwx̱u7mesh) has a word na, and Nuxalk (“Bella Coola”, a little to the northward on the coast) also has a na. Interestingly, Klallam Salish (right across the Straits of Juan de Fuca from V.I., in Washington state) has what’s analyzed as a prefix, na- ‘hey’, that’s “prefixed to a statement or command to get someone’s attention”.

The negative evidence is important, too, and we do not find a na-type interjection in tribal languages less closely associated with The Island. I found none in Lushootseed Salish or Quileute Chimakuan, where, yes, I looked for a *da too, because these languages lost most of their nasal sounds. In the old homeland of Chinuk Wawa, Shoalwater Lower Chinookan has similar-sounding but quite different-meaning interjections, such as (in my phonologization) na ‘pity’ and ni ‘disapproval’; neither do I find relevant matches in southwest Washington Salish.

Better yet, it appears as if, aside from our comments on its use, na actually means something in one language of the area: Nuuchahnulth. John Stonham’s dictionary of Nuuchahnulth (i.e. the tribal language that NJ was created from) has the exclamations nee ‘say! (sg.)’ and nii ‘see, look!’ (The ee vowel variant is, as I recall from a little time with a nuučaan̓uɬ speaker at the University of Victoria a decade ago, unusual and expressive. Compare the interjection ƛ̓eekuu ‘thanks!’ and the hypocoristic, i.e. nickname, ƛ̓eeḥʔis for ƛ̓iḥaaʔa ‘Red-on-Rocks [a place name]’.) Example sentences show that both are used to draw someone’s attention either to a physical object or to information.

So I propose that nee and nii can in turn be related to the Nuuchahnulth root naʔa ‘hear; feel or perceive’, maybe as sort of babytalk versions of it. In historical linguistics, when you can show plausible form, function and meaning aligning, this “provides motive”, as the cops say.

I further suggest that we can make a small inference from these facts. I suggest an etymology for ná in another Vancouver Island-area language: the “Nootka Jargon” pidgin from that region.

My understanding is that that special Nuuchanulth (NCN) ee vowel in nee is pronounced [æ], like the “a” in English “hat”. The English speakers who encountered it in native NCN speech would have imitated it in their NJ interactions with those folks. But a syllable-final [æ] is weird in English, so it would’ve been written down as < nah >, just as is found from the earliest Chinook Jargon documents. (Similarly, we now say the sound of a baby’s cry in English as [wæ], but spell it as <wah>, which in turn leads some folks to read it aloud as [wa].) This would lead to later users of those old salts’ NJ word lists (and we know that Whites swapped such information back & forth) often mutating the pronunciation. (We know that this happened a lot, too, which is why so many of the NJ words in Chinook Jargon are drastically different from NCN.) Thus a pronunciation [na] would emerge — which is just what we find in Chinook Jargon!

NJ was in circulation from roughly V.I. northward along BC’s coast, in the days of the sea-otter fur trade (1770s-1830s). And it was brought south circa 1800 and contributed many of the core words of Chinook Jargon.

What do you think? Have we figured out the source of yet another Chinuk Wawa word?

I believe I’ll be writing a surprising sequel to today’s article. Stay tuned.