Beyond loan *words*: Tlingit phrases, metaphors, & calques from (BC) Chinuk Wawa

dictionary of tlingit

(Image credit: Sealaska Heritage)

The freely available Sealaska Heritage Foundation dictionary of Tlingit is a goldmine.

The repertory of Chinuk Wawa loan words in Tlingit was already pretty well established.

But I’d like to take a moment to bring in a linguistic archaeology approach that’s been productive for me with other languages.

With a sufficiently keen eye, you can go beyond spotting individual borrowed “words” (roots), and find bigger yet often more elusive units, like compounds and metaphors — and patterns of cultural contact.

Here’s a sampling of some items I’ve found in Tlingit that suggest speakers of that language had even more exposure to the Jargon than we might’ve realized…

  • ‘midnight’ taat sitgawsáani (‘night’s noon’) shows how Chinuk Wawa sítkum-sán (‘mid-day’) ‘noon’ has been integrated into Tlingit.
  • ‘lunch’: the usual word seems to be wóow, but I also notice a sentence “GangukGxi has du sitgawsáan atxaayí áwé” = ‘The fish heads cooked around the fire [i.e. the gangukGxi] are their lunch.’ This raises the possibility of a loan-translation; compare BC Chinook Jargon (Kamloops spelling) sitkom-son-makmak (‘mid-day-meal’) ‘lunch’.
  • ‘steam engine, train’ s(h)téen káa (‘steam car’), exactly matching BC Chinuk Wawa’s stim-kar ‘railroad car; train’. 

  • ‘tent’ s’ísaa hít (‘cloth/sailcloth house’) is a loan translation of Chinuk Wawa’s common expression síl-háws ‘tent’; compare Tlingit ‘sailboat’ s’ísaa yaakw (‘cloth/sailcloth boat’), which may be a use of loan-translated CW síl to a further calque on English sailboat.
  • ‘candle’ toow s’eenáa (‘tallow/hard.fat light’) looks like a calque on the Jargon’s klís-páya (‘grease -fire’) ‘candle’
  • ‘petroleum, oil’ t’ooch’ eexí (‘charcoal/black oil’) may be calqued directly from English coal oil, i.e. kerosene, but note that BC Chinuk Wawa also said kol oil 
  • ‘one hundred’ tléix’ hándit (‘one hundred’) is an obvious calque on English, but also note that BC Chinuk Wawa had wan/iht ‘one’ and handrid ‘hundred’
  • ‘policeman; policewoman’ wáachwaan (‘watch man’) is solidly a borrowing of BC Chinuk Wawa’s wach man, a term for an Indigenous village policeman
  • ‘American’ Waashdan Kwáan (‘Washington/Boston person or people from that place’); the Waashdan part seems to be a Tlingit blending of CW bástən ‘American’ with English and CW Washington, a word in frequent use in Native dealings with the US government; all together, this looks like a loan translation of CW bástən-tílixam ‘Americans’
  • ‘eyeglasses’ wakdáanaa (‘eye dollar/silver/coin/money) of course contains borrowed CW dala ‘money/dollar/metal’, but more to the point, it’s a calque on a phrase documented in CW as far back as George Gibbs’ 1850s dála-siyáxus (‘dollar-eyes’)
  • ‘cow’s milk’ wasóos l’aayí (‘cow’s milk’) exactly parallels CW músmus-tutúsh, and wasóos is a straight borrowing of CW músmus ‘cow’
  • ‘cable’ Gayéis’ tíx’ (‘iron/tin rope’) appears to be calqued on CW chíkʰəmin-lúp (‘metal rope’) ‘chain, wire; necklace’
  • various expressions with s’aatí, such as aan s’aatí (‘town boss/master’) ‘mayor’, which parallels CW táwn-táyí (‘town-chief’) ‘mayor’
  • various expressions with yádi, such as dóosh yádi (‘cat’s child’) ‘kitten’ (compare CW tənəs-píshpish (‘little cat’) ‘kitten’ noted by Gibbs), gawdáan yádi (‘horse’s child’) ‘colt’ (compare CW tənəs-kʰíyutən (‘little-horse’) ‘foal’ also noted by Gibbs)
  • expressions with daakahídi, such as hoon daakahídi (~’selling house’) ‘store’ (I admit I don’t know what the daaka part means; hidi is ‘its house’); compare CW mákuk-háws (‘sell house’) ‘store’
  • maybe relevant is ‘moccasins’ at xáshdi téel (at is approximately ‘thing’ (?); I don’t know what xáshdi means; téel is shoe(s)’); I wonder if the Tlingit phrase is a loan translation of CW skín-shúsh (‘skin shoes’)

The majority of the above are surefire new additions to our knowledge of Chinook Jargon influence on Tlingit.

By moving beyond the word-by-word approach that’s been traditional in examining language contact in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve discovered a much more nuanced and vibrant picture of the historical interactions between cultures.

One new realization, for instance, is that Tlingits overtly borrowed relatively few words of the Jargon. But Tlingits’ acquaintance with it nevertheless shows through in the numerous Jargon phrases that we can show they translated into their native language.

Another new observation is that the Chinuk Wawa influence on Tlingit bears a distinctly British Columbian hallmark. While this can’t possibly surprise us, we haven’t previously known enough about distinct traits of the various CW dialects to be able to demonstrate it.

What do you think?

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