Alsea ‘knife’, ‘metal’, and missing links

le couteau

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Research on other Pacific Northwest languages quite often yields Chinuk Wawa treasure.

And I’m not just referring to the fact that the speakers in many cases used the pidgin-creole Jargon as their daily language, to the exclusion of their native languages.

In “Alsea Texts and Myths” [edited] by Leo J. Frachtenberg (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1920), a few pure-gold comments about these tribal-language narratives are interspersed.

(Including on page 243, about the above-mentioned shift to Chinuk Wawa at Siletz Reservation.)

For one thing, among the few then-remaining speakers of this fascinating central Oregon Coast “language isolate” (it has no known relatives) was a man called “U.S. Grant” (page 9). His death is actually the subject of one of the texts in this book (pages 218ff). As you’ll see in another article on this site soon, President Ulysses Simpson Grant was well-known in this region for his pre-Civil War service among settlers and Native people…and for speaking Chinook Jargon. I can’t help wondering if the two gentlemen ever crossed paths.

A point of linguistic fascination: in Text 12 “The Avenger”, page 156 contains a sentence in a foreign language — this is something you’ll often find in Pacific Northwest traditional stories. If I’m understanding the Introduction right, the anthropologist Livingston Farrand collected this tale in 1900 from U.S. Grant. Farrand comments that the sentence “Do you take your knives!” (i.e. a command) in lines 21-22 is in the unrelated Siuslaw language, but Frachtenberg astutely footnotes its last word kwitūʹ as “a corruption [i.e. variant] for the French couteau, KNIFE, borrowed through the medium of the Chinook Jargon.” This tends to confirm the otherwise hardly-known Jargon word < lécouteau > ‘knife’ reported by Father Lionnet from the lower Columbia River (1853)!

On page 267 is another Jargon find: Alsea’s word for ‘iron’ is reported as the oddly stressed tsk·ewiʹn, loaned via neighboring Tillamook Salish tsikawīn (Tillamook has no sound anymore) from Chinuk Wawa tcikamīn (as Frachtenberg spells it), that is, chíkʰəmin.

The tribes whose languages make appearances here are part of the history of the Jargon’s nativization (creolization) at Grand Ronde and elsewhere near the lower Columbia River. kwitūʹ in particular really looks like a missing link.

Cool stuff, eh?

What do you think?