New discovery: ‘horn spoon’ in Salish < Jargon < French < Indian

horn spoons

(Image source: Peabody Museum)

Father Louis-Napoléon St. Onge’s big 1892 manuscript dictionary of Chinuk Wawa from the lower Columbia River region has a word that has nagged at my brain for a long time…

“Spoon (horn or wooden): mikwen“.

(Edited to add: an interesting detail is that this word did not come into Jargon with the usual French definite article attachment.)

That’s a Native-type object, so I’ve spent years keeping an eye and an ear open for a Salish or Chinookan source for this previously undocumented Jargon word. (We did already know a widespread word spún for the European-style utensil.)

Cowlitz Salish, a neighbour of old Fort Vancouver, contributes an interesting clue tending to confirm mikwen as a Chinook Jargon word in the lower Columbia area. Cz has a word that’s written < mə́x̣kn > in its 2004 dictionary. This looks mighty Salish and it means ‘horn; antlers’, and…’spoon’! Antler and horn were prime spoon-making materials, traditionally. But this < mə́x̣kn > does not necessarily seem like an old word: the only other language where we definitely know this word is neighboring Upper Chehalis Salish, so we can’t reconstruct it to any long-ago “Proto-“stage.

Obviously, the Cz word < mə́x̣kn >, if it were a borrowed version of mikwen, would be strangely mutated to sound more Salish. That would be bizarre, and I don’t believe it’s what happened.

Also kind of bizarrely, the Cz/Up Ch word closely resembles an actual old Coast Salish word mə́xkan̓- ‘head-louse’! I have no solid explanation of that, but my readers will recall that puns on ‘louse’ are definitely a feature of Coast Salish culture.

Not nearly as odd, I think, is the resemblance between this local Salish word and Chinookan words of similar shape that refer to serving implements for food and drink. Let’s recognize two background facts:

  • (1) Franz Boas, who is our ultimate source for the spelling < mə́x̣kn >, typically used this symbol < x̣ > for a fronter, velar fricative /x/ more like the “ch” in German “ich” than the /x̣/ you may be familiar with in Chinuk Wawa.
  • (2) Cowlitz Salish has a lot of interchangeability between that /x/ and the hushing sound of /š/.

With those facts in mind, consider the resemblance of Cz < mə́x̣kn > to the following:

  • Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan i-šʔu (equivalent to -šqu, by regular sound laws in the language) ‘horn spoon’ (Boas “Sketch” 1910:601)
  • Chinuk Wawa úskan ‘cup, dipper, can, dish’, known to be from Lower Chinookan ú-šgan ‘basket, cup, bucket’; I further suspect that word of carrying the borrowed -(t)n(‘) ‘Instrument’ suffix of unrelated Lower Chehalis Salish, and therefore of being built on a root –šg shared with the above and following words
  • The Kiksht Upper Chinookan place name < Wasco >, wa-sq’ú cup; horn bowl

The biggest difference between the Chinookan and Salish words in question, to my mind, is that the latter starts with an extra m-. Well, it just so happens that all the way back to Proto-Salish many centuries ago, m- is what you find at the start of words for body parts. Antlers are a body part.

Did local Salish borrow < mə́x̣kn > from local Chinookan?

Is Cz < mə́x̣kn >, in its sense ‘spoon’, a crypto-borrowing of the similar-sounding local Chinuk Wawa mikwen?

In any case, mikwen is assuredly not *from* a local language of the Northwest.

Instead, by chance, I found out that it’s yet another French loan into Jargon. From McDermott’s 1941 “Dictionary of Mississippi Valley French” (page 103-104):

micouene, micouenne, mikouen, Ind[ian word], n[oun] f[eminine] A spoon made of wood or horn…other spellings: micoine, micouaine, micouanne

A separate entry notes that [la] micoine is a metaphorical “Louisiana name for the shoveler duck” (page 103).

And a micoinée is defined on the same page as “a spoonful”.

Besides Mississippi Valley French, you’ll find this old Indian-to-French loan in Michif (mixed French-Cree language). It’s spelled as mikwawn (to be pronounced [mikwan]) in the Allard & Laverdure dictionary.

That < awn >, and the Mississippi Valley French spellings in < -enne >, < -en >, and < -anne >, indicate a “long A” sound in the second syllable, whereas St. Onge’s < -en > and the MVF < -ene > and < -aine > suggest a “short EH” sound there. Perhaps we’re seeing here traces of the variation between [wè] and [wa] in North American French dialects such as Quebec’s.

The precise Indigenous language that this ‘horn/bone spoon’ word (in anthropological documents, sometimes called a ‘bowl’ — see those Chinookan words above!) comes from isn’t mentioned. I’d probably look first to the eastern Algonquian or Iroquoian languages, knowing a little about the history of European-Native contact. The scholarly book “Louisiana Place Names of Indian Origin“, page 110, tells us it’s from “Algonquian” (if that’s meant literally, it may mean the language of the Ottawa, Canada region) < emikwan > or < mickouan > ‘(large) spoon’.

Anyone here have the specialized knowledge to give us a more refined etymology?

Anyhow, since this was a typical North American French word with strong connections to Native culture, it’s a natural to have been contributed to Chinuk Wawa by Canadian Métis fur-trade workers!

Qu’est-ce que vous pensez de ça?
What do you think?

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