Big water vs. salt water: Native metaphors

big water ocean water

I couldn’t resist this irrelevant image (Image credit: KnowYourMeme)

More Indigenous cultural metaphors preserved in Chinuk Wawa’s ‘river’?

Sure, in true pidgin fashion, you can just generically say tsə́qw (literally ‘water’) for ‘river/ocean/water/stream/lake’ etc. But I’m contemplating the more specific common phrase háyásh tsə́qw or hyas chuck, literally ‘big water’, for ‘river’ in old CJ dictionaries (as opposed to sál(t)-tsə́qw ‘ocean, sea’).

I think this latter one might originally have meant the Columbia River, and been yet another metaphor drawn from the local Indigenous languages into Jargon.

So let’s start out by examining its history in the Jargon.

The Grand Ronde Tribes’ 2012 dictionary surprisingly shows us just tənəs-tsə́qw, literally ‘little-water’, for ‘creek’ (which indirectly supports my claims about ‘big water’) — and sál(t)-tsə́qw for ‘ocean, sea’. It may be an accidental gap in the gathering of data that leaves háyásh tsə́qw out of this dictionary, but I’m inferring that if the phrase were heard at G.R., it’d be assumed to mean the Columbia, wikna?

Horatio Hale (1846) gives this phrase háyásh tsə́qw a meaning ‘sea’ — and he was working out of Fort Vancouver, so which river connects with the sea around there? Another indirect connection perhaps.

Granville Stuart (1865), who I’ve shown (link) was strongly influenced by early Grand Ronde-style Chinuk Wawa, translates the same phrase as ‘river’. (His typesetter spells it hig’ass chuck.) Helpfully, Stuart specifies that ‘sea’ is hy’-ass salt chuck, ‘big salt water’.

John Booth Good (1880), up in southern interior British Columbia where via the gold rushes they inherited lower Columbia Chinook Jargon, tells us hyas chuck for ‘river’.

And now how about a look at some of the source languages of Chinuk Wawa. Skimming over French and English, neither of which normally uses an expression like ‘big water’ for ‘river’, we can check whether Native languages do so.

We find these words —

    • Upper Chehalis qá·ʔ ‘river’ (lit. ‘water’); náw=ɬkʷu ‘river’ (literally ‘big=water’)
    • Lower Chehalis nə́w̓=məłč ‘Columbia River’ (lit. ‘big=water’ or possibly nə́w̓=məł=č ‘big=round=water’ i.e. ‘big=bay’ and referring to Baker Bay which was part-Lower Chehalis territory on the Columbia; note potential influence from Chinookan neighbors’ -mał, below)
    • Cowlitz náw=ɬkʷu ‘river’ (lit. ‘big=water’)
    • Quinault qál ‘river’ (lit. ‘water’); compare naw qál and náw=ču, both ‘big river’ (lit. ‘big water’)
  • CHINOOKAN: a root approximately -čuq means ‘water’ but I do not find it involved in ‘river’ expressions
    • Shoalwater Lower Chinookan -mał ‘bay, sea, river’ (choice of feminine versus masculine gender prefixes possibly could signify ‘smaller’ versus ‘larger’, but Masc. ímał = ‘bay’ and Fem. wímał = ‘river’ in Cultee’s “Chinook Texts”
    • Kathlamet ímał ‘river’
    • Clackamas wímał ‘river’
    • Kiksht wímał ‘river’

I want to make note here that when you dig deep into these languages, especially by examining connected sentences in whole stories, you find that most references to ‘river’ are not nouns. Instead you’ll see numerous verbs and adjectives referring to directions of river travel — paralleling Chinuk Wawa’s patterns of vocabulary, mostly borrowed from Chinookan, for the same concepts.

My take on the above mass of data boils down to this: the distribution of metaphorical usage of words for ‘water’ and ‘big water’ is highly similar between the Jargon and the old tribal languages.

The closest such parallel that’s provable is specifically with SW Washington Salish, a connection that keeps coming to light as we investigate the history of “Chinook” Jargon in greater depth!

qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm? What do you think?