On the source of tutúsh, or, help, I don’t understand Cree grammar!


(Image source: Wikipedia)

Tutúsh ‘to nurse/suck; breast(s)/nipple; milk’ in Chinook Jargon is broadly acknowledged to trace back to an Algonquian source, back East.

That is, to a source in the Algonquian language family, in a language such as the Cree or Ojibwe that were spoken by so many fur-trade wives and quite a number of the husbands.

(We can trace the ancestral forms of tutush all the way back to Proto-Algonquian *we[-]to·hš[-]ali ‘her breast, teat’ as noted by John Hewson. But that’s going too far back in time to be relevant to the Jargon, other than to show us that tutush seems to come from a reduplicated form of an old root.)

The Grand Ronde Tribes 2012 dictionary credits a personal communication from linguist Peter Bakker — respected for his in-depth work on the Michif language — as its authority for a Cree form toohtoos and an Ojibwe doodood, both translated as ‘breast’.

I trust that information, but typically for me, I want to do some checking of my own in case any clarifications or new info come up.

On the Algonquian source(s) of tutúsh

One thing I noticed in the truly awesome online Ojibwe People’s Dictionary out of Minnesota is that they don’t have an entry for doodood. The linguist in me supposes that’s some kind of abstract root form, never pronounced by itself in the actual language. One reason to think so is that it’s a body part (and a non-severable one at that, meaning you can’t painlessly lose it) — and human languages typically insist on pronouncing such nouns with possessive marker on them at all times. (Such forms are called “dependent stems” in Algonquianist linguistic tradition.) This helps explain why the Ojibwe forms I did find on a search for ‘breast’ are all affixed: in-doodoosh-im ‘my breast’, gi-doodoosh-im ‘your breast’, and o-doodoosh-im-an ‘her breast’.

The equally wonderful online Nehiyaw Masinahikan Online Cree Dictionary does have an entry for just plain tohtôs ‘breast, teat’, and tohtôs-im ‘a breast’, as well as the forms corresponding to the above prefixed and suffixed Ojibwe words.

I’m unclear about why we find the plain form in Cree (and about whether it exists in Ojibwe).

Is it a sort of baby-talk word, with the kinds of simplified morphology we often find in infant(-directed) speech? I don’t find it in the article and dissertation on East Cree baby talk that I looked at, although there’s a word juju /džudžu/ for ‘breastfeed; bottle’, and Cree does have some sound-symbolic alternations between /t/ and /ts/-type sounds…

Page 420 of HC Wolfart’s “Handbook of North American Indians” sketch of Cree grammar seems to indicate that the suffix -im seen here is |em|, forming “a special possessed theme” out of a noun stem. Based on comparison with the related Miami-Illinois language, I’d infer that it’s an Indefinite Possessor marker. (Historically related to mi- below???)

Âpihtawikosisân tells us more about the need for body parts to be grammatically possessed:

Body parts in Cree are not stand alone words. You don’t have an equivalent for just ‘hand’ or ‘face’. Not that you can actually use in a sentence like “Wash your hands”. Instead, Cree makes body parts dependent on whose body parts they are (yours, mine, his).

Take a look:

micihciy [hand] (MI-tsih-tsee)
mihkwâkan [face] (MIH-gwaa-gun)
These are the ‘floating’ words for body parts. Written or said like this, they have no context. They belong to no one, they are merely the idea of a hand or a face, existing only in the abstract. Then again, you couldn’t just shout “HAND!” and have anyone understand what you wanted in English either.

To give them context, you can assign them to someone. First of all, you have to zero on in the part of the word that means ‘hand’, or ‘face’.

micihciy loses the mi to become –cihciy.
The mi- was really just there as a place holder, to let you know where you have to put on the descriptive prefixes. Now you can add on possessive markers to show who that hand belongs to.

nicihciy [my hand]
kicihciy [your hand]
ocihciy [his/her hand]

The itwêwina online dictionary of Plains Cree gives as the singular form, tohtôs. Again, I don’t know why it’s un-possessed (un-affixed).

EastCree.org points out that “body parts and personal belongings take the prefix mi- to indicate that there is no specific possessor”, giving as an example the familiar (in Chinuk Wawa!) mi-taas ‘a sock’ (as mitás it means ‘leggings’ in CW).

Was tutúsh ever Canadian French?

A couple of references that I’ve found while researching this word’s origin make me wonder whether tutúsh was ever a (loan-)word in Canadian French. If so, that would only make it even more likely to come into Chinook Jargon, as CJ borrowed vastly more words via French than can be argued to have come straight from Algonquian.


Les Canadiens français de la région de la Gatineau, au voisinage des Algonquins, nomment les mamelons quitouche (un mot qui semble dériver de totush). Le terme, parfois, s’applique aux femmes de petite vertu.

‘French Canadians in the Gatineau region, near the Algonquins, call nipples quitouche (a word that seems to derive from totush). The term, sometimes, applies to women of small virtue.’

— from page 277 of David B. Quinn and Jacques Rousseau, “Les toponymes amérindiens du Canada chez les anciens voyageurs anglais, 1591-1602“, Cahiers de Géographie du Québec, 10(20):263-277 (1966).

Another published paper presents this same set of facts.

And when you think about Algonquian intersecting with French, you have to consider the Métis “mixed language”, Michif. The words given in Laverdure and Allard’s 1983 Turtle Mountain dictionary for ‘breast’, ‘nipple’, and ‘nurse, breastfeed’ are unrelated to what I’m discussing today. But for the noun ‘milk’, I find besides French-derived dilet (‘du lait’) and Algonquian-derived yeekinikay & yeekin, a recognizable toutoush-awpow / tootoosh awpoo. I also noticed ‘her breast spilled over her bra’, mahkitootooshimaenw.

One also wonders how Chinook Jargon tutúsh came to be so widely spelled < tatoosh >, with such a different first vowel. It’s just within the realm of imagination that the “A” spelling reflects an /ei/ sound, due to some French influence that occurred within the creole households of the Fort Vancouver-centred fur trade culture. I mean, French téton — also known to us in the name of a major western US mountain range — is ‘teat’. Did it influence local Jargon? Look: 

  • As early as Horatio Hale’s 1841 data from the lower Columbia River, we find < titush >and Granville Stuart’s 1865 book has < teetoosh >in his Grand Ronde-style Jargon.
  • George Gibbs and Theodore Winthrop independently have < tatoosh > in their 1863 publications of 1850s data.

As things stand, I’ve been unable to find further evidence beyond this admittedly skeletal argument. (Hey, milk makes strong bones, yeah?)

But as I say, other Chinuk Wawa words having ultimately Algonquian etymologies bear the traces of non-Algonquian, sometimes obviously French, usage. (Just as the “Nootka Jargon” words in CW clearly were brought in by English speakers.) Examples include:

  • lapʰusmu ‘saddle-blanket; sitting-blanket; bed’, 
  • and lapʰala ‘roast food on sticks; food roasted on sticks’ — both with an added French definite article;
  • < mikwen > ‘(horn) spoon’ — widespread in North American French, this word originally had (perhaps the mi- prefix, and definitely) a vowel “e” at the beginning in Algonquian, which I figure was liable to fall away once borrowed into French, due to confusion about boundaries between definite articles le/la/l’/les and the noun;
  • musmus ‘cow’ — originally mustus in Algonquian, this somehow turned into a reduplication.

I’ll leave the idea of “toutouche” as a Canadian French word in the realm of speculation for the time being.

But it’s been really interesting looking into the background of an old and important Chinook Jargon word that has relatives across northern North America.

What do you think?