French-Chinuk Wawa body parts are creole

baby teeth

Why are these litá but not < ots-ats-ach >(Image credit: Dr. Maggie Davis)

Most words of Canadian/Métis French that entered Chinuk Wawa carried the Definite Article (le/la/les) along with them…but not all. Why not all?

I’d like to devote a couple of posts here to that question. Today let’s look at human anatomy.

Certain parts of the body are expressed in the Jargon by non-French words, of course; so by definition these have no *le/la/les:

  • skín is obvious.
  • tutúsh ‘breasts’ is thought to trace back to Algonquian languages of eastern North America such as Cree, albeit probably via French-speaking Métis in the Pacific Northwest, in pretty much the same sense that it’s really English that gave the Jargon papús ‘baby’.
  • k’wətʰín ‘belly’ seems to be from either Salish or Chinookan, or both, which is how things often go on the lower Columbia River.
  • úpuch (or evocative spellings like “O’poots” that we’ve seen!) for ‘buttocks’ is considered to come from Chinookan languages, although a resemblance to Salish can be seen.
  • yáqsu ‘hair’ is Chinookan.

I want to mention that all such words can also refer to economically important organs and products:

  • skín ‘pelt; fur’,
  • tutúsh ‘udder; milk’,
  • k’wətʰín ‘belly (e.g. of a pig); paunch’,
  • úpuch ‘tail’ (some furs are more valuable when intact with tail);
  • yáqsu translates ‘fur’ including such items as ‘wool’.

You can add to that list the word for ‘vagina’ (Salish-sourced) and the one for ‘penis’ (Chinookan-sourced), because history amply documents the fact that sex was a commodity in the first several decades of contact between Natives and Newcomers.

Being of ongoing value in intercultural trade, all such words were resistant to being replaced by any new expressions — unlike what I’m about to discuss.

This all is to suggest that there are other body part words in Jargon that:

  • (A) weren’t iconically involved in commerce and
  • (B) are able to start with le/la/les, because they’re from Métis/Canadian French.

To that list of qualities, I propose adding the important point that

  • (C) these “other” anatomy words, which I’m about to list, reflect a certain intimacy.

I’d hope it’s already obvious that I don’t mean sexual intimacy; see my comments just above about the crass commercial qualities of vaginas and penises. Instead, my thought is that the le/la/les body parts in Chinuk Wawa are evidence of domestic life. When you’re raising your babies, you’re frequently referring to all kinds of parts of their bodies; when you’re at home, that’s when you’ll be trimming or shaving your beard; and so forth.

It just so happens that the grammar of French gives you the habit of referring to “your” (and “her” and “their”, etc.) bodily parts with le/la/les ‘the’. Unlike English and Chinuk Wawa, which say ‘my hand’ & nayka lima, for French it’s normal to say things like:

  • nous nous sommes serré la main ‘we shook (each other‘s) hands’
  • elle m’a giflé la joue ‘she slapped my cheek’

(I’ll reluctantly spare my readers a juicy digression about inalienability and “external possession” constructions.)

Plus, it’s my understanding that in a stereotypical situation of dealing with somebody who doesn’t speak your (French) language, and you’re pointing out the words for this and that thing, you’d use the Definite Articles too — here’s le nez, and here’s la main.

But I’m not saying Chinook Jargon lacked words for such body parts previous to the formation, circa 1811-1825 (with the establishment of Fort Astoria/Fort George and of Fort Vancouver), of mixed French Canadian-PNW Indigenous households.

On the contrary, look at this list and see that we know or can infer earlier anatomical vocabulary for these, coming from local Chinookan and Salish, and typical of the earliest years of CJ:

meaning               later C.W. from French      earlier C.W. from Indigenous language
‘head’                     latét (la tête)                       < thlam-ek-took > Gill 1909
‘hand; arm’           límá (les mains)                  < etispol-ettic > Gill 1909,
< tens-ho-mish > Gill 1909
‘throat’                   likú (le cou)                          ?
‘beard’                    lapárp (la barbe)                < cha-pootch-no > Stuart 1865
‘foot’                       lipʰyí (les pieds)                   < che-kok > Gill 1909,
< ta-lass > Gill 1909
‘tongue’                  laláng (la langue)                ? 
‘finger’                    letowá (les doigts)              < tel-ux-ach > Gill 1909
‘tooth’                     litá (les dents)                      < ots-ats-ach > Ross 1849
‘mouth’                   lapúsh (la bouche)             ?
‘nose’                       < le nez > (le nez)                < emeets > Gill 1909

The earliest occurrence of such words as latét, litá, and lapúsh that I find in a quick survey of the literature is 1847. Other items above, like likú and lapárp, don’t even show up until the creolized speech of the Grand Ronde community (formed in the mid-1850s) begins to be well documented.

The idea that I’m developing here is: French words began replacing earlier body-part terms, in a principled way, exactly when (and because) Canadian French speakers entered the domestic sphere in the lower Columbia River.

Be aware, in the earlier known stages of the Jargon’s existence, pre-domesticity, it wasn’t rare for there to be competing words for a single concept, sometimes coming from several different languages. So these French words could’ve been in circulation for some time alongside Salish and Chinookan ones in pidgin Chinuk Wawa…

(Note that essentially no CW anatomy words trace back to the very early influence of the “Nootka Jargon”, which was more strictly a trading language.)

…But the French vocabulary for anatomy that “won”, becoming standard in Chinuk Wawa, is by definition evidence of CW’s creolization, its transformation into a language that you spoke from babyhood through your entire life.

I will have some more to say along these lines soon. Stay tuned.

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