Explaining “tahmanous”


(Image credit: oztix)

Saying “tah tah” to one etymology…


Tah. A spirit or supernatural thing or person. See tamahnawus.

— in [John Kaye] “Gill’s Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon” 1909:71

This “tah” is Northwest Sahaptin (Yakama) táax ‘medicine power, spirit guide power’, in the definition given by Beavert and Hargus in their fine dictionary. Several historical references to it are discussed by Robert Boyd on page 116 of his book “People of the Dalles: The Indians of Wascopam Mission“.

Although I’ve never found this word actually used in Chinuk Wawa, it might’ve been, at least in Yakama country. Just as you would’ve talked about < wocus > roots in Warm Springs, Oregon, or < haha milalam > ‘make confession’ in Kamloops.

The big reason for my mentioning “tah” here is that it’s one of the etymologies that have been suggested or implied for the definitely Chinuk Wawa word cross-referenced above, the hard-to-define-in-English < tamahnawus >, i.e. t’əmánəwas ~ ‘spirit power’ in the Grand Ronde Tribes’ dictionary spelling.

Only Gill seems to connect the two. And I’m pretty sure they’re unrelated.

The other etymology I’ve seen offered, which is based on really serious scholarship, is in the Grand Ronde dictionary, pointing to an areally shared word: i-t̓amánwaš ‘spirit creature’ in Chinookan, and tamánwash ‘religious power, spiritual power’ in Sahaptin. This connection is legitimate. But I’m of the opinion that a third explanation lies beneath it.

I suggest that Chinook Jargon t’əmánəwas traces to Salish, and most likely Southwest Washington Salish. (Such as Lower Chehalis, the language that I keep finding as the link between Chinookan and Chinuk Wawa.) I’ll write this idea up as a research paper, but for today I can boil it down as:

  • root t’əm ‘to suck’
  • suffix –ánəwas ‘(at the) stomach, belly, insides’

This would exactly describe one of the most common forms of shamanic curing found across the region’s cultures. For example, John Ross’s ethnography of the Spokan Indians discusses this technique among medicine men.

This has to be a fairly old word, I think. As a presumable loan into Chinookan and Sahaptin, its varying sounds /t’ ~ t/ and its broadened meaning (from one kind of curing to spirit power in general) suggest some degree of nativization there. It even looks to have become a root in Sahaptin that’s used to form various other words for spiritual practices.

What do you think?