Hidden discoveries: Extinct animals & creole-pidgin ethnozoology (Part 1)


sháyum (image credit: Wikipedia)

There are precious nuggets of previously unknown Chinuk Wawa, reported on the spot in the 1850s, to be panned from the torrent of raw information in an old railroad survey.

One strong theme running through it is that animals not native to the local area, many of them never seen alive by speakers of the language, nonetheless have standard names in lower Columbia River-region early-creolized Chinook Jargon.

I’m fascinated that it’s George Gibbs who’s reporting these “new old” words!

His later (1863) published lexicon of the Jargon is a highly reliable reference source, and yet, true to the times, he slimmed it down to a mere skeletal description. It merely tells us that word (lexeme) X most frequently has meaning Y — the old fallacy that Chinuk Wawa is merely a collection of isolated words.

As you’ll learn here, those words were combined in evocative ways, hitherto unnoticed by us later generations, by the people who used Jargon every day of their lives.

The information source I’m referring to is of mid-1850s vintage, from early and renowned Chinook Jargon scholar George Gibbs and naturalist Dr. George Suckley, in the “Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad“, volume 12, book 2 (Washington, DC: Thomas H. Ford, 1860).

I’m going to show you one species a day until you’ve seen all of these “new old” Jargon terms.

In a descriptive list of species found in the surveyed area, pages 119-120 tell of the grizzly bear, noting:

“I have never heard of them on the Coast range between the Willamette and the sea. Neither are the found to the north of the Columbia, though the Chinooks have a separate name for them, (esiamb), and say that they have seen them.”

That’s always an interesting point to realize in connection with Chinuk Wawa, which has its word sháyum for this bear taken from that Chinookan term.

In this connection, I suspect the vaguely translated word < c’ay’im > ‘two-legged animal design on baskets’ in the Upper Chehalis Salish dictionary is actually an earlier-style linguists’ writing of sháyum — and that the native speaker was unable to clearly define it because grizzlies aren’t native to that territory.

More “new old” words to come in the next few posts here…

What have you learned?
What do you think?