An alternate etymology for ‘fence’?
It’s been generally agreed that the Chinook Jargon word q’əláx̣(ən) ‘fence’ comes from Salish, but what if there’s more to the story?
The historical linguist Aert H. Kuipers’s 2002 “Salish Etymological Dictionary” reconstructs *q’ə́lx̣, *q’lax̣ ’round; fence, stockage, corral’ all the way back to ancient Proto-Salish. He suggests relating it to Proto-Salish *q’ə́l ‘to spin, curl, wind/tie around’, which is indeed plausible.
Likewise, the Grand Ronde Tribes’ 2012 dictionary of Chinuk Wawa takes care to note all the local southwest Washington Salish languages that natively have forms of q’əláx̣(ən).
So it was an eye-opener when I was re-reading one of anthropological linguist Dell H. Hymes’ papers (“A Pattern of Verbal Irony in Chinookan“, 1985) and realized that he suggests instead a Chinookan-language etymology for ‘fence’…
Here’s a clipping of the pertinent discussion; it’s of a Kiksht (Wishram) Upper Chinookan story:
I’m less expert in Chinookan linguistics than Hymes, who wrote a dissertation and many publications about those languages.
But I’m not seeing an argument to back up his casual claim that ” ‘fence’ is presumably -q’a-lax̣ in origin”.
So I’m not confident in his idea that Chinookan ‘fence’ shares a root with Chinookan ‘to keep secret’ (i.e. to verbally conceal).
I’d hope to find more evidence for that connection.
In fact, I’m inclined to see Hymes’ example -q’a-lal as more probably related to Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa’s k’aʔ ‘shut up!’, which is known to come from a Chinookan particle.
For now I remain persuaded that Jargon q’əláx̣(ən) ‘fence’ is Salish in origin, and that it spread into Chinookan via Chinuk Wawa, as so many other Jargon words did.
At the same time, I stand with Hymes, and with Skagit elder Vi taqʷšəblu Hilbert, in finding it important to be able to see the humor in traditional Indigenous stories. There’s quite a lot of it, and it’s there for a reason. Thus my own small contributions on puns in Salish.
Dell’s perceived pun between ‘deceive’, ‘keep secret’, and ‘fence’ in Kiksht has something going for it, as the words really do sound quite similar. It may have made listeners chuckle; in some cases, we even (gasp) have anthropologists’ field notes mentioning such reactions to these stories.