Where does the compound síl-háws (tent) come from?

sail house

The only kind of sail house in Google Images (image credit: homebuilding.co.uk

Beyond etymology is linguistic archaeology™.

One of the themes I find rewarding to develop in this space is that we have to search for the sources of, not just words, but also structures, in Chinuk Wawa.

That’s why you’ve seen me writing about where “the Jargon” got things like…

  • its reduplication (like nánich-nanich ‘be looking all around’);
  • its intensifier hayas-;
  • and its metaphors.

It makes sense to extend this pursuit to the *compound words* in Chinook Jargon.

Presumably, in the “heat of the moment” that is new and intense contact between cultures, lots of stuff just plain gets made up on the fly, to meet urgent needs.

But it’s equally probable that folks in such situations are going to be using expressions modeled on how they speak their own mother tongue every day.

One Chinuk Wawa compound word that’s gotten caught in (pun intended; read on) my attention is síl-háws (literally ‘cloth-house’) meaning a ‘tent’.

When loaned into southwest Washington’s Upper Chehalis Salish language, CW síl-háws went on to also become the word for ‘balloon’ (surely the big hot-air kind) and ‘airplane’ (in the earliest days of flight, the wings were covered in fabric. Makes sense. Up, up, and away, that’s where this compound word went.

(Besides this frequent borrowing, also found in Lower Cowlitz Salish & Ichishkíin Yakama Sahaptin, words for ‘tent’ in local languages are made of purely native parts, although Quinault Salish’s limłn-úʔłxʷ, literally ‘cloth-house’, is a loan translation / calque on the CW.)

But where did ‘sail house’ come from, though?

The first known occurrence of it is in Fort Vancouver-area creolized Chinuk Wawa; the 1838 Demers dictionary, catechism, et al. has < sil hows > ‘tent’.

We also find this compound, in the same early creole setting, in Horatio Hale’s landmark “ethnographic” description of Jargon, made in 1841 and published in 1846. Hale gives < sēlhaus > on page 650 for ‘tent’.

From the mid-1840s we have it documented in (I believe) Makah country, a literal “sail house” is described by someone who used Jargon quite a lot with Indigenous people:


hancock 01

hancock 02

…we went about erecting a tent made of one of the sails of the brig to protect us from the weather…the first night in our sail house on shore passed off rather unpleasantly.

— from George Verne Blue, “Samuel Hancock’s Thirteen Years on the Northwest Coast” (MA thesis, University of California [i.e. Berkeley], 1923), pages 169-170

In the above quote, “sail house” sounds like a straightforward description of the improvised tent. Does it owe anything at all to Chinuk Wawa?

Well, my research into books and newspapers of the era results in no suggestion whatsoever that “sail house” was an established way to talk about tents in American or British English. So I do think we have here an unlabeled specimen of the Jargon.

Plus, here’s a quotation of a Skagit Salish leader on the relatively nearby Whidbey Island, Washington, which references the same time period, 1843 (keep in mind that this is translated from a French translation of the original Chinuk Wawa) :

cotton house

The 27th, the chief of the Skadjats declared to me that I ought not to be lodged in a cotton house (under a tent); “for this reason,” added he, “to-morrow thou must tell me in what place we shall construct thee an abode, and thou wilt see how powerful is the effect of my words when I speak to my people.”

— from a letter by Father J.B.Z. Bolduc in P.J. De Smet’s book “Oregon Missions and Travels over the Rocky Mountains” (New York: Edward Dunigan, 1847), page 63

This “cotton house” is not a translation from French, which calls a tent simply la tente. (Incidentally, that’s a word that wound up as a borrowing into a few Pacific Northwest languages, just not in Jargon.) I think instead Bolduc must absolutely have been translating Chinook Jargon’s síl-háws into his native French (as maison à coton? — also not an established phrase), which then was brought to us in English in the present form.

“Cotton house” for “tent” was rare in English; I know of an 1840 occurrence in shock-quotation marks.

“Cotton house” also meant a certain edifice on Southern plantations, where slaves processed that fiber.

But “cotton house” was not a common synonym for “tent” as far as I’ve found.

Nor does “sail house” seem to have been in common use in English, although I suspect from a shred of evidence in print that it was an obscure nautical term.

All in all, “sail house” appears to not come from any language, but instead to have been invented within Chinuk Wawa’s speech community.

Indirect evidence resides in examples of “sail house” being misunderstood by English-speaking non-Natives, which aren’t hard to find.

One comes from a citation, a century later, of John Swanton’s anthropological work in Haida Gwaii:

citing swanton

As an illustration of the variety of made objects that Northwest Coast myths might contain, the stories that Swanton collected at Skidegate are an excellent example. In this one collection, (a representative collection of what appeared to him to be the most important Haida myths known to his informants at the time), there are mentions, inter alia, of the following: … a < sail house >

— from Jonathan Meuli, “Shadow House: Interpretations of Northwest Coast Art” (London: Routledge, 2001), page 30

Meulie shows no comprehension of what a “sail house” is. To be clear, going back to check Swanton’s original 1905 publication, we see that he himself understood this term correctly, defining it in a footnote on page 315: “A little lodge or tent of canoe sails.”

Another misunderstood “sail house” shows up in a quotation from George Gibbs’s account of an 1851 killing in northwest California:

sail house gibbs

The ferry house consisted of a cloth house or large tent in front of a small clapboard building…Early in the morning the Indians cut open the < Sail house >

— from Frank H. Baumgardner III, “Yanks in the Redwoods: Carving out a Life in Northern California” (New York: Algora Publishing, 2010), page ???

Baumgardner, too, gives no sign of grasping that “sail house” is not English but Jargon.

To end on a light note, here’s an example of “sail house” hanging on in use locally, way up north. I present some Robert Service-influenced doggerel from an Alaskan newspaper page which also carries articles about how “Siwash dogs like mutton” and a celebration of (Chinuk Wawa speaker) Judge Wickersham at the local “Tillicum Club”. — All showing that Jargon was still a known quantity a few years post-Klondike-gold-rush in Eyak traditional territory, the farthest northwest end of CW’s usage zone:

on the trail

On The Trail.

Ho! for the trail; the Malamutes wail,
     The prospectors [sic] life so free,
O’er the moraine with the fleet dog train,
     And the “mush and haw and gee.’’

The leaders yelp, as he calls for help,
     To live the strenous [sic] life,
The joker’s lark and the huskies bark,
     And the joy and toil and strife.

The crunching sled, and the spruce-bough bed,
     And the fare that does not fail, 
To yield a zest to the welcome rest, 
     In the sail-house by the trail.

The fitful gleam of the frozen stream.
     And the snow-drift long and deep.
The mountain hare and the blizzard’s blare.
     And the winds that howl and weep.

The raven black on the beaten track,
     And the crow that wierdly [sic] caws,
The roar and crash, as the snow slides dash,
     To the canyon’s gaping jaws.

The dreary stop, on the glacier top,
     Where the whirlwind stays to rest,
To gather breath for the race to death,
     By mightier whirlwinds pressed.

The frozen nose and the aching toes,
     And glorious hopes ahead,
Riches untold, of copper and gold,
     And silver and tin and lead.

Over the snow from Valdez they go,
     With many a laugh and song.
Hardships they bear and dangers they dare,
     All buoyant and brave and strong.

There comes no dream of the nuggets [sic] gleam,
     To haunt their pillows by night,
Though well they know a million or so,
     Would help them to keep things right.
         A. M.[,] Valdez.

— from the Valdez (AK) Alaska Prospector of January 8, 1903, page 5, column 1

What do you think?
What have you learned??
What other Jargon compounds need to be researched???