How papa and mama, and one aunt, are creole Chinuk Wawa

father mother aunt

(Image credit: ebay)

New news: words from French (and maybe also English) for your relatives match Chinuk Wawa’s pattern of turning Indian “vocative” kin terms into common nouns.

“Vocative” is just the technical word for how you address somebody — getting their attention, calling them ‘grandma’/’cousin’/etc. instead of their name, and so on.

The majority of Chinook Jargon’s kinship terms trace back to the specialized kinship words used *only* for addressing your relatives in Native languages.

In Lower Chinookan, special vocative kin-term stem forms exist. Those lack the noun prefixes that are otherwise rigidly required by the grammar of that language, and they’re often totally different-sounding from their non-vocative synonyms:


  • áts ‘sister’ … I haven’t found a non-vocative equivalent for this one
  • áw ‘brother’ (originally ‘younger brother’ and perhaps also ‘younger sister’ to judge by Franz Boas’s “Illustrative Sketch” of the language) … compare i-wux ‘(a/the) younger brother’
  • tʰát ‘uncle’ (a word shared with S.W. Washington Salish) … compare i-tata ‘(a/the) mother’s brother’
  • also shíksh ‘friend’ (even though it seems to be a borrowed word from a Sahaptian language) … compare i-shíksh ‘(a/the) friend’
  • and various now-obsolete terms:
    • kápxu* ‘older brother’ (originally also ‘elder sister’) … compare i-xk’un ‘(an/the) elder brother’
    • máma ‘father’ [sic] … compare ł-mama ‘(a/the) father’
    • náʔa ‘mother’ … compare ~ ł-aʔa ‘(a/the) mother’

I suspect the following two obsolete Jargon kin words violate the pattern for a good reason. Could it be due to traditional taboos on directly talking to your sibling-in-law of the opposite gender? Consulting Verne Ray’s “Lower Chinook Ethnographic Notes” briefly as I type this, I haven’t noticed relevant observations, but maybe one of my readers can direct me to relevant ethnographic documents…?

    • yátʰum ‘sister-in-law’ … I haven’t found this word in Lower Chinookan but it appears to be i-a-tum ~‘his sister-in-law’
      (Interestingly, that root looks rather like Proto-Salish *tum-aʔ ‘mother; aunt’ to me, so it could be one of the many old loans into Chinookan from S.W. Washington Salish, although the modern neighbour language Lower Chehalis’s word túm ‘navel, bellybutton’ is from Proto-Interior Salish (per Aert Kuipers’ dictionary) *tawm’. There’s a different Lower Chinookan root for ‘wife’s sister’, by the way, so maybe -tum is specifically ‘husband’s sister’.)
    • iqʰix ‘brother-in-law’ … I haven’t found this yet either, but it seems to be i-qix ~ ‘(a/the) brother-in-law’ (perhaps of a woman)

With the Salish-sourced kin terms in Jargon, it’s less obvious that vocatives provided these words. If anything, you could argue that the following words’ lack of a final -aʔ (the ancient Salish vocative / ‘affective’ suffix) makes them look like exceptions to the rule I’m speaking of. However, the overt and implicit information we have from speakers of these Salish languages does indicate that these next 4 words are terms of address, as well as of reference:

FROM S.W. Washington SALISH:

  • chích ‘grandmother’
  • chúp ‘grandfather’
  • kʰwáł ‘aunt’
  • kʰwiʔím ‘grandchild’

What I’m now going to point out for the first time in the research literature on Chinuk Wawa is that the next set of kinship terms, unlike the huge majority of CW nouns from French, never show up in the Jargon at any point in its history with the expected Definite Article le / la / les on them. That is, the following are not referential forms in French … but they are forms you’d use to address your parent or their sibling:


  • pápá ‘father’
  • mámá ‘mother’
  • tánt ‘aunt’ (given in Shaw’s 1909 dictionary)
  • note that < onkil > ‘uncle’ is also known, at least in Kamloops Chinuk Wawa, and it could equally have come from French oncle or from English
  • [editing to add: see my note about lamiyáy at the end]

In fact, a case might be made that the parallelism with Lower Chinookan here is quite good, when it comes to the parental terms. A specialized root form papa / mama is used in place of the neutral referential stems père / mère, which I believe are words you wouldn’t use to talk to your parents. You could further argue that the Jargon forms’ lack of a definite article constitutes a second feature creating a distinct stem form.

Let’s be clear, I’m not claiming that papa / mama in Chinook Jargon are only due to Indigenous influence. But I am suggesting that these two words, like the Lower Chinookan ones that they replaced in CJ, perfectly fit into the pattern where vocative kin terms became the only words for your relatives.

Does the rise of mama / papa imply that Chinuk Wawa-speaking folks were suddenly, for a change, being raised in households with a French-speaking parent?

Hmm, that description matches everything that research has been discovering about the early “creolization” of the Jargon. Mixed marriages, mostly of French-speaking Canadian men + their Indigenous wives, led to entire communities whose babies grew up speaking Jargon. (Not just Fort Vancouver but also French Prairie, probably Frenchtown/Walla Walla, and maybe the Cowlitz-Nisqually region.) This first wave of “native-speaker” Chinuk Wawa is what I often call the ‘early-creolized’ CW. Concomitantly, the amount of French vocabulary in Jargon was growing fast.

Is there any better explanation for papa / mama displacing existing synonyms? By extension, it could explain how the old Native words for ‘aunt’ & ‘uncle’ were only partially replaced. The latter designate very close relatives who played important roles in your upbringing in Native communities, but are probably less frequently spoken terms than those for your parents.

And wouldn’t this notion also help explain the early disappearance of ‘sister-in-law’ and ‘brother-in-law’ words from the Jargon? (Not a big loss. You can still express those concepts in the language, by saying ‘spouse’s sibling’.)

Putting this in a little different, and more provocative, way — papa and mama (and tant and < onkil >?) are words of specifically creole Chinuk Wawa.

I can testify that linguists who try to prove that a language is a creole nearly always focus on just grammar. Here I’m introducing the idea that we can point to features of the lexicon, both individual words and patterns among them, to also support a claim of “creole-ness”.

In that light, perhaps it’ll be useful to examine the other parts of Chinuk Wawa’s vocabulary where, quite early in the language’s history, French words replaced Indigenous ones. There may or may not be numerous examples, but one area where that definitely seems to have happened is in words for body parts. Let’s put some thought into that…

[Added note: I can’t help wondering about Chinuk Wawa lamiyáy ‘old woman’, from French la vieille, literally ‘the old [feminine] one’. An elderly man is úl-mán, from English, and ‘old’ people in general are úl. I’ve found that 19th-century French-Canadian men were known for calling their wives ma vieille ‘my old one’. Could lamiyáy have possibly made its way into the Jargon via those men talking about their (majority Indigenous) wives? The definite article la at the beginning indicates a term of reference, not address, e.g. in the book just linked to, the example sentence has instead ma ‘my’: “Vite, ma vieille, prépare-toi à sortir” (‘Hurry up, my old lady, get ready to leave’).] 

What do you think?