‘Flag’ in Tsimshian & hidden Chinook Jargon (and English) (and Salish)


Nisga’a Tsimshian flag (image credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes you spot one odd-looking thread sticking out, pull on it, and find it was an important part of the cloth.The cloth in this instance is flags.

From whatever evidence I can find, flags appear to be a European innovation in the Pacific Northwest. So, when I find a word for ‘flag’ in an Indigenous language, I tend to take a second look, expecting a story to be behind it. 

This happened when I was reading through some published Tsimshian (northern British Columbia coast) material. I apologize in advance for my inability to distinguish among the “Tsimshian” languages. There, I found two spellings of the same expression:

  •  ‘flag (European)’: atloʹm (1) gyamuk (2)
    = sail (1) sun (2)
    (Franz Boas – “Vocabularies of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Languages”, 1892, page 197)
  • ‘flag’:  hahloam gyamg
    = hahloa ‘cloth’ + a suffix -m that I’m ignorant about + gyamg ‘month, sun, heat, to be hot, warm’

    (Sealaska Heritage Institute’s online “Dictionary of Shm’algyack“)

A similar compound in Tsimshian is hahloamboad ‘sailboat’ (‘cloth/sail + boat’), written as a single word. (‘Bót’ is a Chinuk Wawa word.) 

The Tsimshian expression for ‘flag’ was definitely inspired by Chinuk Wawa sánti-síl ‘Sunday (implicitly: any celebration)-cloth’. That phrase is not known at Grand Ronde, but is reported as < Sunday sail > in George C. Shaw’s 1909 dictionary and JK Gill’s dictionary, at least in the edition of that same year.

However, Tsimshian speakers couldn’t have taken ‘Sunday-cloth’ straight from Chinook Jargon. Instead, it’s clear they must’ve gotten it via a simultaneous understanding that it contains (originally) English words. That is, the Tsimshian ‘flag’ term…

  • separates the Jargon < Sun- > part (which you may know is also Jargon, where it means both ‘sun’ and ‘day’!!)
  • from the < -day > part, which isn’t a Jargon word (there, it only occurs in borrowed English day names)  

So it’s as if Tsimshian speakers of Chinuk Wawa understood ‘Sun[-]day’ as a redundant expression meaning ‘sun-sun’ or ‘day-day’. And then they made it more sensible, reducing it just to ‘day’!

My intuition is prodding me to think whether the above is another indicator of the known historical weakness of Chinook Jargon’s presence in Tsimshian territory…

…for instance, contrast this ‘Sunday sail’ stuff with Tsimshian’s own expression for ‘Sunday’: Ha’li Shgwaitg / Ha’li Shgwaitga Sha — from ha’li ‘upon’, shgwaitg ‘to rest’, sha ‘cloud, day’. In other words, a Protestant missionary-inspired phrase, ‘day on which to rest; day of rest’. (Maybe this Tsimshian expression inspired Alaskan Haida án sáanjuudaa sangáay, which has the same literal and actual meanings.) Not a borrowed Chinook word. 

So much for Tsimshian and flags. Scroll past this picture for “page 2”. 

sailing ship with flag.jpg

Artist’s conception of a sailing ship with flags on a Sunday (image credit: Wikipedia)

Now check this out, for a bonus tidbit:

George C. Shaw’s 1909 Chinook Jargon dictionary, and Edward Harper Thomas’s 1935 dictionary, give the similar but expanded phrase, < hyas Sunday sail > (‘big Sunday cloth’), for ‘flag’. 

But, I suggest that what < hyas Sunday sail > is based on is the early expression (known at least as far back as the influential 1853 Columbian newspaper vocabulary of lower Columbia Jargon), < hyass Sunday > (literally ‘big Sunday’) ‘Christmas; July 4th’.

Traces of ‘big Sunday’ survive as náw-santi, a loan-translation (calque) from Jargon into the Salish languages of that same region:

  • in Lower Chehalis = ‘big time, big gathering’
  • in Lower Cowlitz = ‘holiday, Christmas, July’
  • in Upper Chehalis = ‘Fourth of July, Independence Day’

For you Syntax 101 students, this means I’m suggesting a parse of the 3-word phrase for ‘flag’ as [[hyas Sunday] sail] ([cloth [of big occasions]]).

I’m arguing against a parse as *[hyas [Sunday sail]] ([big [flag]]).

Also, you should quit Syntax class and document endangered languages instead. 

Furthermore, I will bet you a pint of ooligan oil that < hyas Sunday sail > was the original, older expression. It makes more sense than — but would’ve been gradually reduced to — the newer < Sunday sail >. Repeated use tends to shorten spoken forms. 

As it turns out, the longer phrase’s existence in Chinuk Wawa is also reflected in a Salish loan-translation. (Lower) Cowlitz has such a word for ‘flag’, náw’-sán’ti-m’n (literally ‘big-Sunday-thing.for.doing’, the idea being ‘what’s used for making holidays/celebrations’).

Lower Cowlitz alternatively says just sán’ti-m’n (literally ‘Sunday-thing.for.doing’), the same word as in neighbouring Upper Chehalis Salish. And that’s a direct “calque” on the shorter Jargon expression, < Sunday sail >.

I have a speculation why those two languages use the ‘thing.for.doing’ suffix for ‘cloth’ in their ‘flag’ words. (Instead of the Jargon loan sil that they use elsewhere, as in Cowlitz’s síl-aličn ‘cloth bag’.) Maybe they used to have a native Salish word for European-style cloth, like their close relative Quinault has — which I understand as literally ‘cover-thing.for.doing’.

So maybe Cowlitz & Chehalis people held onto that conceptual pattern, mentally translating the Jargon’s < (hyas-)Sunday sail > as ‘(big-)Sunday-thing.for.doing’.

What do you think?
kata maika tomtom?