Saibashi, sasquatch, Toisan, BC

For several years, I’ve been wanting to write more about saibashi…

Saibashi is reported as “A Chinook Jargon Loanword in Canadian Japanese”.

That was a short 1969 article in a scholarly journal by Ian Hancock, where the idea was that Chinuk Wawa sawash ‘Indian’ got taken into BC Japanese.

On the old Chinook Jargon internet listserv, I laid out some doubts I had about that story. These boil down to asking “why not saiwashi?”

Because Japanese has no problem with “w” sounds.

And because saibashi appears to have an older and more standard meaning of very large (over a foot long, maybe half a meter) bamboo chopsticks used in cooking —

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Saibashi (image credit: Japanese-Kitchen.net)

— which is a fact that leads me to a huge stretch of speculation:

Could saibashi be a loan-translation from, or a pun on, Chinook Jargon stik-sawash / stik-injən ‘stick Indian(s) ~ wild Indians ~ sasquatch’?

(I have to leave that up in the air. I’d need more evidence to back up the missing links in such an idea.)

Well anyway, just this year, I’m thankful to have been told family memories from a BC Toisan Chinese Canadian that inspire a refined view of saibashi.  Here are some notes I took:

[saywášìʔ] (Karin Lee, personal communication, April 22, 2019) — her uncles used to call her and her brother this; the kids never knew what it meant; she grew up in the Nanaimo, BC, area; the family’s history in the province goes back to Barkerville during the Cariboo gold rush

This is clearly “siwash” — the typical pronunciation of sawash when loaned into local English — but pronounced Chinese-style.

Given the new information that sawash was also loaned into the speech of Chinese people in Canada, I’m now thinking we’re looking at a multi-stage process:

(You could add yet another stage at the very beginning of this process, because of course the Chinook Jargon word came from Canadian/Métis French sauvage ‘Indian; wild’. But that’s not directly relevant to puzzling out the sticky saibashi puzzle.)

  • Let’s start with the known Chinuk Wawa word sáwásh ‘Indian, Indigenous person’.
  • This got loaned into Pacific Northwest English, where it then took on the distinctive pronunciation /sáywash/.
    (Because, as I’ve previously observed, frontier-era English had a definite tendency to alternate between stressed long /ɑ:/ such as you see in the second syllable of Jargon sáwásh, and /ay/.) 
  • Subsequently, /sáywash/ came into Chinese Pidgin English as spoken in at least BC; following CPE phonological rules, its “coda” consonant got pronounced with a following /i/ vowel, thus /saywashi/.
  • That word became part of English as spoken by BC Chinese Canadians. Perhaps at this stage, too, the word came into BC Japanese.

Going into some detail on that last point…

Did BC’s majority Whites use /saywashi/ in speaking with Chinese and Japanese Canadians?

I’ve continually pointed out that West Coast people typically used any and all “pidgin-sounding” words they knew when the attempted communication involved a non-English speaker.

Chinese Pidgin English was exceptionally well-known among Whites, who probably understood and spoke it pretty well, since the overlap between its vocabulary and that of English is high.

Might Whites have tried talking CPE indiscriminately with all East Asian immigrants?

I say Whites because at least one source I consulted says Japanese British Columbians in Steveston rarely needed to communicate (in English) with non-Japanese, and relied on competent interpreters on such occasions. Which implies that Japanese Canadians might not be known for talking pidgin.

Last note — we still haven’t explained the “B” sound in saibashi ‘Indians’. Your thoughts are solicited.

What do you think?

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