Entwisted Tongues: Indigenous & European metaphors for ‘language’ in Chinuk Wawa


Which one is the Indigenous tongue? (Image source: Twitter)

A Facebook discussion started by well-known linguist Geoffrey Nunberg the other day got me thinking…

Geoff, who you may’ve heard on NPR’s “Fresh Air” and such, was asking fellow linguists if the use of the word “tongue” in referring to an Indigenous language has negative connotations. I’ll be clear, that’s not going to be the subject of today’s article, and anyways, I wasn’t able to answer his original question 🙂


But what Geoff set me to pondering was why ‘tongue’ is a metaphor in Chinuk Wawa for ‘language’, as it is in European languages. You know, in those, even the word “language” comes from Latin for ‘tongue’; etc. etc.

My only comment to Geoff was that the Salish languages that are traditionally spoken across a wide swatch of the Pacific Northwest seem to make words for ‘language’ out of their roots for ‘speak’ and ‘mouth’ — not ‘tongue’.

(You could call this ‘tongue-root retraction’, if you were an intense linguistics nerd like me.) 🙂

In the context of Chinook Jargon’s history, you could add that the Lower Chinookan word for ‘language’ is also based on a root for ‘speak’ –paláw, e.g. Shoalwater-Clatsop tgax̣i-paláwəl ‘their language’ (Boas 1894:217).

So let’s have a look into why Jargon works kind of differently from that.

One of two words I can think of for ‘language’ in Chinuk Wawa is, well, wáwa. This is both a verb ‘to speak’ and a noun denoting ‘a speech; a conversation; a language’. Right there you’ve got a solid parallel with Salish and Chinookan, eh?

But now consider the other ‘language’ word, which assuredly entered CW later than the Nootka Jargon/Lower Chinookan-contributed wáwa. Among the scant few Chinook Jargon words having the “eng” sound is the one meaning ‘tongue’: laláng, from French la langue ‘the tongue (bodily organ); the language’. It rhymes with “song” in our Pacific NW dialect of English.

That’s quite an interesting little fact in itself, because we’d expect the usual Jargon denasalization of French vowels to happen, turning this into something like *lalág, or (because “G” is rare in the PNW languages) lalák. Oh, guess what! The second pronunciation is actually documented by Father Demers waaay back in the day; the late 1830s in fact.

The fact that we also have (from almost as early, in Horatio Hale’s 1841 data) the pronunciation laláng rhyming with “song”, though, shows almost for sure an influence from English. Because, hardly any Indigenous PNW languages have the “eng” sound — and in the mix that formed early Chinuk Wawa, only English had it. The case seems closed, on that tangential point.

I’ll only add that we have an intermediate “missing link” form in Granville Stuart’s Oregon-related “Montana As It Is” (1865), < la lunk >. That form still shows a nasal vowel but it also changes the last consonant to “K” … which as far as I know just plain shows colloquial Canadian/Métis pronunciation habits.

(Speaking in tangents, sáng ‘song’ and síng ‘sing’ are two more eng-sound words in Jargon, by the way. Kamloops also had tong for…guess what?)

That’s more than enough about pronunciation details for 99% of my readers 🙂

Now back to the metaphor at hand, or as it were, on the tip of our tongue.

Canadian/Métis French contributed a bateau-load of anatomical terminology to the young Chinuk Wawa, which then mapped many of those words onto a PNW Indigenous way of distinguishing parts of the body. You’re probably familiar with such examples as lima ‘hand; arm’ (French les mains ‘the hands’), liku ‘neck; throat’ (le cou ‘the neck’), and lipʰyi ‘foot; toe’ (les pieds ‘the feet’).

Our lalak/lalang was incorporated with that corporal corpus. (Sorry.) That’s to say, it originally just meant ‘tongue’ as far as we can see from the Jargon historical record. I haven’t yet found any super-early use of it that I can prove carries the extended meaning of ‘language’. The first such may be Hale as mentioned — otherwise George Gibbs (1863, from 1850s data).

This is where I remind my readers that research funding is badly needed for something I’ve long advocated: the compilation of all known Chinook Jargon data into a single large dictionary. We have discovered enormous amounts of additional CJ documentation since the previous attempts at such a universal reference (Edward Harper Thomas 1935, and Samuel V. Johnson 1978). A Grand Encyclopedia of Chinuk Wawa would help us resolve countless questions about this language’s development through time and geographical space. Including the story of lalang/lalak. Fund me & I’ll do it!

What we can conclude already, though, is that when it comes to words for ‘language’, the Jargon is blessed with companion metaphors from Indigenous and European languages.

Now that’s “Entwisted Tongues” for you!

What do you think?
Kata msaika tomtom?