Native metaphors for disabilities

Blind Halibut Fisherman 1969 Water colour by Pat McGuire

“Blind Halibut Fisherman”, Pat McGuire, 1969 (image source: Argillite And More)

I don’t know why this hit me, but I’ve recently realized that Chinuk Wawa’s words for physical handicaps show us yet more evidence of Indigenous metaphors…

…Specifically, I seem to once again be finding the influence of the Southwest Washington Salish (“Tsamosan”) languages in the Jargon.

That untold story just keeps expanding!

Here is the Kamloops-area text that ignited this spark for me:

From page 9 of Father Le Jeune’s shorthand “Chinook Book of Devotions“, left column —

= Tlus msaika kilapai kopa ShB, pi
= COMMAND you.folks return to John.the.Baptist, and 
‘= You folks need to go back to John the Baptist, and’ 

mamuk komtaks kopa iaka ikta msaika nanich
CAUSATIVE know to him what you.folks see
‘inform him what you’ve seen’ 

pi ikta msaika kolan: ukuk klaska mimlus=
and what you.folks hear: those they dead=
‘and what you’ve heard: those who were’ 

siahush, klaska nanich alta; ukuk
eyes, they see now; those 
blind can see now; those’ 

klaska kakshit lipii klaska kuli; ukuk
they hurt legs they travel; those 
‘who were crippled can move around; those’ 

klaska tlap masachi sik “liprosi”
they catch evil illness “leprosy” 
‘who had caught the awful disease of “leprosy” ‘

kopa klaska skin, klaska chako tlus;
on their skin, they become well; 
‘on their skin have healed;’ 

ukuk klaska ihpui kolan alta klaska tlus
those they closed ears now they well 
‘those who were deaf now can’ 

‘hear just fine…’

(These are some words of Jesus from Matthew 11, that is, one of the few Biblical passages translated into Chinook Jargon so far.)

It occurred to me that this is quite a listing of Jargon terminology in the semantic field of disability. Thank you Jesus 🙂

And then I thought, why in heck aren’t ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ and ‘crippled’ formed all in the same way? You see three different metaphors there, based on ‘dead’, ‘closed’, and ‘hurt/broken’.

If this terminology had formed within Chinuk Wawa, I’d probably expect it to be more economical, maybe just using ‘dead’ for all three conditions. The variety and richness of the metaphors here suddenly brought to mind my ongoing research in what’s turned out to be a rewarding field — Native metaphors. Because these are decidedly not typical European/Settler ways of expressing oneself.

So, did these Jargon terms “come from” the pidgin-creole’s Indigenous source languages? And if so, which ones?

As always, the two main broad Native sources for Chinuk Wawa are Chinookan and Salish language families of the lower Columbia River region. The following is somewhat simplified, believe it or not!

  •  BLIND: Chinuk Wawa hílu-siyáxus (‘no-eyes’) (Grand Ronde, and going back at least as early as George Gibbs’s 1863 dictionary based on 1850s data; here’s a link to an old man using this expression); compare:
    • INDO-EUROPEAN: single-morpheme words are used, not metaphorical constructions:
      • English blind
      • French aveugle
    • CHINOOKAN: some of the following words may have to do with (Lower Chinookan) -pun ‘dark; night’, thus a different metaphor; but I don’t see a connection with (L.C.) -kəl ‘to see’ or (L.C.) sxust ‘eyes; face’ or (L.C.) -məqt ‘dead’
      • Lower Chinookan ičíʔiyáxútá qáu łíyałám ‘my.eye “qau” its.pupil.became.opaque’ (the multiple stress marks are due to this expression having been sung, not spoken) (Franz Boas “Chinook Texts” 1894:125); “qau” is one of the sort of “sound effects” words in the language, Boas’s so-called “attribute complements”
      • Kathlamet Chinookan ałáp̓unə́nkau ‘a blind one (woman)’ (Boas “Kathlamet Texts” 1891:90)
      • Clackamas adap̓unə́nkau ‘(they are) blind (from weeping)’ (Melville Jacobs “Clackamas Chinookan Texts” 1958-1959:405); effectively the same word as in Kathlamet
      • Cowlitz ʔac-√t̓áp̓=s ‘blind’ (State.Of.Being-√closed/shut=eyes, thus ‘her eyes are shut’)
      • Quinault t̓áp=al ‘blind’ (√closed/shut=?eyes) (suffix appears to have gotten simplified through time from something like =als to =al) (Fun fact: there is a Quinault-language Braille alphabet)
      • Upper Chehalis √táy-s-√x̣-mł ‘blind’ (√negative/without-Noun-√see-Perfective.Middle.Voice; thus ‘without sight’)
      • Lower Chehalis: we don’t yet know a word for this
  • DEAF: Chinuk Wawa:
    • hílu-q’wəlán (Grand Ronde) (‘no-ears’; goes back at least as far as Lionnet 1853)
    • íx̣puy-q’wəlán (Gibbs 1863 respelled in Grand Ronde form) (‘shut-ears’); compare these two expressions with:
    • INDO-EUROPEAN: again, single-morpheme words are used, not metaphorical constructions:
      • English deaf
      • French sourd
    • CHINOOKAN: I only found a Clackamas term, idyáƛ’ux̣yakš ‘he was (then almost) deaf’ (Jacobs 1958-1959:554); I don’t see a connection between this and (Lower Chinookan) -uča ‘ear’ or -čəmaq ‘hear’, nor with any bits that mean ‘no, none’ such (L.C.) níkšt
      • Upper Chehalis ʔac-√tə́q=ls ‘deaf in both ears’ [actually a mistranslation for ‘blind’?] (State.Of.Being-√shut=eyes)
      • Cowlitz taq=án̓ ‘deaf’ (√shut=ears)
      • Quinault
        • t̓əp=íl̓an ‘deaf’ (√closed/shut=ears)
        • xʷə́n̓=an̓ ‘deaf’ (√crippled=ears)
      • Lower Chehalis: we don’t yet know a word for this

To my mind, the trend here is of the local Salish languages providing uncanny matches for the Chinuk Wawa metaphors, while none of the other Native or Newcomer languages comes close.

On the one hand it’s fair to suppose that these Salish speakers borrowed these expressions from the Jargon, fairly recently.

On the other, these SW WA Salish languages (especially Lower Chehalis) regularly turn out to have demonstrably contributed words to early Chinuk Wawa. Why shouldn’t they have contributed Native ideas, too, as I keep arguing?

Now, Salish languages far beyond SW WA share this “template” of making words for ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ with a native root for ‘none’ or ‘closed’ + an affix for ‘eyes’ or for ‘ears’; in fact it’s likely an ancient Proto-Salish expression, given its occurrence for example in the distant Interior Salish languages Colville-Okanagan and Spokane. (There, the root’s meaning is no longer known to speakers.)

It’s quite interesting that even the most nearby non-SW-WA Salish languages use a similar but a bit different metaphor. An instance is Tillamook nəš-√tkʷ=áys ‘blind; one eye is out’ (said to be analyzable as …√disabled=eyes). And Klallam has q̓ʷ-√q̓ʷiy=án̓-iy-ŋ ‘deaf’ (…die=ear…). (Montler’s 2012 dictionary analyzes that word as containing a root for ‘deaf’ but I argue that it’s transparently a form of √q̓’ʷúy ‘die’ instead.)

Further research on this area of Indigenous metaphors for disability that may have been passed into Chinook Jargon should examine concepts like the following, to the extent that we can find data in the Native languages and the Jargon:


I’ve found less data in the languages for these concepts (even when I look under the older-fashioned, now often offensive, synonyms). But I can leave you with this sentence from the Chinook Book of Devotions throughout the Year, page 16, telling the moment in the “Nativity of John the Baptist” when JB’s father Zachary’s angelically inflicted muteness abates:

Iawa chako halak Sakari iaka lapush,
then become open Zachary his mouth,
‘Then Zachary’s mouth was opened,’

pi iaka lalan.g tlus wiht, pi iaka
and his tongue good again, and he
‘and his tongue worked again, and he’

wawa mirsi kopa ST.
say thanks to God.
‘thanked God.’