‘Slave’ and a very early loan?


(Image credit: NPS.gov)

I’ve recently been looking into the words for ‘slave’ in Chinook Jargon……and I think that there’s even more there than you’d already expect with the terminology for a historical institution that no longer exists in the Pacific Northwest.

It has always struck me that we have at least two distinct synonyms for ‘slave’ in Jargon:

  • iláytix, from Lower Chinookan
  • mischimish, from Nuuchahnulth (and/or Makah)

There is more to figure out about the original literal meanings of those words, but I’m going to focus today on a previously undiscussed tiny detail within Chinuk Wawa.

Bishop Demers’ little book (1871; composed in the 1830’s) gives various spellings of the Nuuchahnulth-sourced (via the pidgin, Nootka Jargon) word:

  • < michimish > (page 14)
  • < mishtimish > (page 18)
  • < chemishtimish > (page 18)

Obviously those first two are about the same as the Grand Ronde form.

How about that third one, though? There’s an extra syllable < che > tacked on the beginning of it. That could just about be taken as the Lower Chinookan possessive prefix čə- ‘my’, therefore ‘my slave’.

And with the variation going on between …sht… [št] and …ch… [tš] in the middle of the word, I’m thinking the third form here shows still another possibility: reduplication.

Did at least some Chinookan and/or SW Washington Salish speakers reanalyze the Nootka Jargon word as something quite typical of their own languages?

Both of those local language groups make pretty extensive use of total repetition of a word’s root, including CVCVC shapes (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant-Vowel-Consonant).

Did they perceive this word for ‘slave’ as something like čimiš•čimiš? (CVCVCCVCVC)

If so, that seems to me like an example of “nativizing” a Nootka Jargon and/or Chinuk Wawa word, quite early. Early enough to give the word time to be integrated into the native grammar.

Most interesting.

You might almost imagine this word serving as some of the vanishingly rare linguistic evidence of pre-White contact between Chinookans and the rather distant Vancouver Island people.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear there were relationships between these two groups going way back.

Slave trading in particular strikes me as having occurred over quite long distances — which probably ensured you’d receive a slave who wasn’t your relative through the usual networks of “village exogamy”. (Marrying the neighbors.)

But we just don’t see tons of traces of those connections in the tribal languages. One of the few obviously old loanwords reflecting such a connection is the word for ‘box’ in SW WA Salish, which has an airtight etymology in Nuuchahnulth (and/or Makah).

There is plenty more to be investigated by applying the technique of linguistic archaeology to the concept of ‘slavery’ in the Pacific Northwest. For instance, at least one language seems to have traces of extending its word for ‘aunt’ as a word for ‘slave’. And many personal names that are documented are just the words for a certain place or tribe, often apparently turning out to be a person’s slave name.

Stay tuned for more linguistic archeology.

qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?