1853: Source of the idea that saplél is French

secretly french

(Image credit: IFDB)

A myth is both busted and partly confirmed today. 

For more than a century, it’s been realized that Chinuk Wawa’s word saplél for ‘wheat; flour; bread’ is of Native parentage. It seems to have come originally from Sahaptian languages such as Nez Perce, Walla Walla, etc.

That hasn’t stopped numerous scholars from speculating that it’s secretly French!

Brent Galloway presented a somewhat elaborate justification of that view. Jan van Eijk found it plausible. Peter Bakker and Robert Papen considered it, but were more skeptical.

The following from Shaw’s 1909 Chinook Jargon dictionary gets things right; the Jargon word is likely from a Sahaptian language of the Columbia Plateau, and it’s not from French la farine ‘flour’:

la farine shaw.PNG

What’s funny is that we can be even more sure that this analysis is right, because it’s plagiarized from the highly experienced and sharp-minded George Gibbs, whose landmark 1863 dictionary has this entry:

la farine gibbs.PNG

Who is Gibbs throwing gentlemanly shade on?

As George must have known, the la farine idea was in play on the lower Columbia River in the heyday of early-creolized Chinuk Wawa.

Horatio Hale was in the Fort Vancouver region in 1841, and his 1846 published documentation of the CW spoken there speculates, quite tentatively, on a French source for this word:

hale sapelil

I’d guess that Hale is the person whose logic Gibbs is critiquing. But look here:

An early (1848-1852) Catholic missionary among the Chinook Indians, Father Joseph Lionnet, put together a fine little French-to-Jargon dictionary that was published (1853) by the Smithsonian Institution. Lionnet’s relevant entry runs as follows:

la farine lionnet

That is, he translates French farine ‘flour’ into Chinook Jargon as both < lafarine > and < tlimentlimen tsapélill >. The second expression means essentially ‘smashed-up wheat’ (t’łə́mən-t’łəmən saplél). Note that Lionnet, and the Smithsonian folks,

The first variant, < la farine >, is unique to Lionnet out of all Jargon documents we have. He’s the only authority to testify that it’s a Jargon word.

It possibly reflects French Canadian fur trade employees’ known influence on lower Columbia CJ. That ethnic group definitely contributed a large amount of vocabulary to the early-creolized variety of the Jargon.

  • They may have perceived the Jargon saplél as a typically Indigenous sort of pronunciation of the word for ‘flour’ — keep in mind, these were men who typically married local Native women and must have been well-acquainted with second-language-learner French.
  • The French Canadians may themselves have said < lafarine >, at least some of the time, in Jargon.


What if both Gibbs and Lionnet are right? It’s possible that saplél, aside from its demonstrable Indigenous-language etymology, was really understood by many early Jargon speakers as a French word.

As the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary of Chinuk Wawa notes, saplél has also been reanalyzed by speakers as another French word, sablé ‘shortbread; biscuits’.

While that dictionary doesn’t mention the la farine idea, all of this taken together might indicate a persistent folk notion that saplél “is” an indigenized French word.

Parallel occurrences are known in the history of Chinuk Wawa.

  • For instance, CW siyápuł ‘hat’, of Indigenous etymology, has sometimes been reinterpreted as French chapeau.
  • An equivalent case is how pioneer English speakers reanalyzed CW hə́m-úpuch (‘stink-butt’) ‘skunk’ as hump puss.

This stuff really happens…language change is unpredictable!

What do you think?