Linguistic archaeology: half-dimes, Chinuk Wawa, and covert evidence

half dime

(Image credit: Littleton Coin Company)

In Klallam Salish (north end of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, opposite Canada’s Vancouver Island), the word ɬčəx̣-mít means ‘nickel’.

This is literally ‘half dime’; ɬčəx̣ is straight native Klallam for ‘half’.

mit is familiar to us in Chinook Jargon as a variant form of the US English loanword bit ‘dime’.

Who the heck says ‘half-dime’?

Nobody does, now. It sounds kooky, now.

But ‘half-dime‘ was a US coin denomination struck till circa 1870, at which point nickels took over.

Those names made perfect sense at the time; the dime (formerly “disme”) was a silver coin, and so was the half-dime…but as Wikipedia reports, “powerful nickel interests” influenced the transition to a basemetal version.

Remember that small-denomination coins were a rarity for a long time on the PNW frontier, viz. many people’s reminiscences of the difficulty of making change. For a contemporary account I refer you to an 1883 Seattle newspaper’s comments on the current effects of that scarcity: while the dollar coins were shiny, the poor overused small change looked worn-out!

All of this is to tell you that Chinuk Wawa, which was (sorry) very much in currency in western Washington up to say 1900, included the now hardly noticed expression sitkum mit (sitkum bit). Jim Holton’s highly readable biography of the language includes it. George Coombs Shaw noted it in his 1909 dictionary.

And even without documentary evidence of this phrase within the Jargon, we could confidently infer that that’s how it came into Klallam Salish. The mit element is a dead giveaway. Besides that, other money names in Pacific NW indigenous languages demonstrably trace to Chinuk Wawa:

  • That’s how almost every language picked up the coin names tala ‘dollar; money’…
  • …as well as sitkum tala half-dollar [as it was named in English at the time]; fifty cents’…
  • …along with kwata or tubits ‘quarter’.
  • Many coastal languages have the the conventionalized expression ɬun kwata or ɬun tubits ’75 cents’, literally ‘three quarters’ or ‘three two bits’!
  • Not uncommon either is the word sents (notice the form of it) for a penny.
  • We’ve even seen how Lushootseed Salish preserves a very old name picayune for what we now think of as a ‘nickel’ (5 cents).

It’s astounding what kinds of accurate historical details are preserved in the Indigenous languages, once you do a (sorry) bit of linguistic archaeology!