Suggesting a Salish source for təná


dennis the menace halloween

Dennis the təná, drawn by a Washingtonian (image source: Old Fashioned Halloween)

Each year, I try to do a post or two on a Halloween theme; I guess today we’re dealing with the “trick” part of “trick or treat!”One of most mysterious things in the Chinook Jargon neighborhood is also one of the smallest…

…Here I’m thinking about the Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa word təná, ‘someone who is a bother or a nuisance; a “pest” ‘. You know the type.

Like so many other Jargon etymologies that have previously been obscure, for this word I’m suggesting that new knowledge of local southwest Washington Salish languages may be the missing clue.
My essential idea here is that təná developed locally from the (originally Nootka Jargon, i.e. Canadian) word tənás ‘child’.
Now get ready to have a lot of raw data obnoxiously thrown in your face.
Let’s start in the north, therefore closest to “Nootka” (Nuučaan’uł) land: Quinault Salish has a small pattern of words that refer to badly behaved people, ending in a suffix -á. I’ve been noticing it out of the corner of my eye for years. Here are two of them:
  • ~kan’ ‘thief’ (I would expect something like q’an’á based on comparison with other Salish languages’ words for ‘steal’ … the way words are written in the existing Quinault dictionary sometimes needs to be handled with care)
  • x̣aʔ ‘stingy’ (seemingly based on a root for ‘want’)
To my eyes, this -á would seem to connote something like ‘annoying habit’.
Moving inland to the east, the dictionary of Upper Chehalis Salish presents a root
  • ʔun– ‘ask for’
Normal, average, vanilla roots in these languages end in a consonant, not a vowel. So could this one really be ‘have an annoying habit of asking for’ stuff? I can definitely tell you the languages of the whole region, not just the Salish ones, share the trait of having a verb for ‘mooching, begging, looking pitiful on purpose’…

Zigzagging to the southwest coast of Washington, the Lower Chehalis Salish language that I’ve so frequently implicated as the likely source of Chinuk Wawa items has two variants on one root ‘steal’, giving words for ‘thief’:

  • ʔíkʷt-aʔ (Irene Shale, late 20th century)
  • ʔíkʷtəq-aʔ (John Scouler’s 1841 paper)
Here are a couple more words, just slightly more complex; Benny Charlie of Taholah told Charles Snow these in 1967:
  • pastənł ‘white man friend (not present)’
  • xʷəntəmł ‘white man friend (present)’
We understand that the English meanings that people have connected with the Indian words can sometimes be a slippery thing. It’s obvious that these are both based on known words for white people — pastən from Chinuk Wawa, and xʷəntəm is Salish for ‘Drifters’. (Best word ever.) So does –ł mean ‘friend’?
Um, then, does pastən mean ‘white man not present’ & xʷəntəm ‘white man present’?
No way.
Try this different view on for size — it’s a 2-parter:
1. ł is actually á(ʔ) ‘annoying habit’ + ł ‘Intensifier; real, really’. (Fun parallelism to this: Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawaʹs insult formula, dret {stigmatized noun} mayka ‘you’re a real dog/penis/K’alapuya!’
2. I’m guessing Benny was from a generation born around 1900, when most SW Washington people knew Chinuk Wawa. What if Benny meant that any white guy who you’re acquainted with is going to understand he’s being talked about, if you say pastənł  ‘White jerk’ while he’s in the room? Whereas Whites wouldn’t know Salish xʷəntəm from talking local Chinuk Wawa, so you can get away with calling them xʷəntəmł ‘Drifter jerk’ right in front of them.
Now, to refine our understanding of things, observe that Lower Chehalis also has a word for ‘stinging nettle; black hornet; yellowjacket’, which is 
  • łəxʷím̓ł
This is based on the verb root ‘to sting’, but it’s formed in a weird way. We’d expect the root to look something more like a stressed *łə́xʷ than this łəxʷí, which may be using the Lower Chehalis trick of turning ə́ into for emotional emphasis. And the verb suffix is normally unstressed -m̓əł, like in x̣íləm̓əł ‘work’. Both the root & the suffix(es) look like they’re carrying extra stress for emotional effect. (Notice that this word is written with two stresses by linguist John P. Harrington.) The intended feeling of łəxʷím̓ł might be more like ‘the damn things sting’!
So, a linguist would ask … everyone else can skip this paragraph…, is – actually an infix in this language, slotting inside of other suffixes? Lower Chehalis does do such operations, for instance with one of its noun plural markers. 
But what about təná?
Early in the history of Chinuk Wawa, when Whites were bringing new Nootka Jargon words to the lower Columbia River, speakers of Lower Chehalis Salish could conceivably have interpreted the Drifters’s pronunciation [tənás] ‘child’ as an attempt at saying *[tən-á-ł], sounding (to them) intended as ‘really an annoying tən‘. (“What does tən mean?” would be the implicit question for these folks; I can only speculate that they, as bilinguals in their home villages, might connect it with Lower Chinookan tən/tan ‘what; thing’, thus ‘really an annoying thing’.) Either pronunciation would’ve been brand-new to the locals in say the first quarter of the 1800s, so both would be reasonable.
Lower Chehalis speakers could at will drop the optional  intensifier from tən-á-ł, resulting in our tən.
At mid-century, Lower Chinookan / Lower Chehalis bilinguals wound up at the early Grand Ronde Reservation, where Chinuk Wawa (already creolized in the Fort Vancouver-centered community) was the main community language. They would’ve introduced this and the many other locally used Salish words into that mix.

I’ll keep on looking for evidence for & against these ideas. Here are 3 further possibilities to think about: 
I ain’t saying I’m right about all this, I’m just saying I’m … Dave-áł 🙂

What do you think?