Wait, wait — I have ideas about “wait”!

“Possible maybe, definite might, most likely never!” — Hugo Largo, “Halfway Knowing

Historical linguists (I’m one of those) can expect to constantly qualify our claims with “maybe”, “possibly”, and “speculatively”…

…And today’s post is DEFINITELY that last one 🙂

Keeping it short — I’m thinking about the Chinuk Wawa verb atá ‘to wait; to wait for’, and I may be ready to talk about it.

wait until

(Image credit: Slickwords.com)

It’s one of the smallish set of non-noun CW words from French.

Like most “real”* verbs from that source, it comes from a frequently spoken command form. I don’t believe this generalization has been pointed out previously in the linguistic literature on Chinuk Wawa.


  • sháti ‘to sing’ from chantez! — ‘sing!’ (talking to multiple people)
  • kúri / kúli ‘to run; to travel’ from courez! — ‘run!’ (talking to multiple people)

(Maybe ‘sing!’ & [metaphorical?] ‘run!’ were frequent exclamations to your whole brigade while canoeing loads of furs. We sure do read endless descriptions of the voyageurs singing all day long to make their endless work more bearable…)

There’s also possibly:

  • másh ‘to throw; to leave’, which:
    • may be from marche! — ‘walk!’ (talking to one person), cf. Louisiana French marcher ‘to advance, go ahead’, e.g. Hourra! Marche! ‘Get going!’
    • but it may be from (la) marche ‘a distance to be covered…on water as on land…voyageurs habitually called any stretch…to be traveled a marche‘ (McDermott, “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French” 1941:99) [It’d be exceptional for a Chinuk Wawa noun to lack a French definite article, though!]

*By “real” verbs, I mean those that we have evidence of folks spontaneously using in conversation. a casual register Like the rest of the vocabulary in a pidgin-creole language like the Jargon, these came in by exposure to actual speech. “Real” French-CJ words are clearly from North American dialects such as Québec, Métis, the Mississippi Valley and so on.

*This contrasts with “fake” French-to-CW words, literary expressions based on formal-register standard French, which we don’t find traces of in Pacific Northwest daily life — among other things, they don’t get borrowed into local Indigenous languages. Such words are Christian obscurities that you wouldn’t understand without specialized knowledge, such as atole ‘to adore’ (to worship, to venerate) from adorer (note, that’s not a command!) and komeniotesa ‘the communion [community] of saints’ from communion des saints.

*All this talk of speech “registers” should remind us that the task of figuring out “where” words come from involves more than pairing up sounds & meanings — we have to consider the social circumstances each word was typically used in. A further example of that is the “intimate register”, which (as I’m writing today’s essay) is still in my list of further articles to write.

Back to atá. The best, most straightforward etymology of this is the informal French command attends! — ‘Wait!’ (Talking to just one person.) Our atá is precisely how we expect that word, pronounced [atã] with a nasal second vowel, to be said in CW.

A terrible etymology would be the slightly similar French command tiens bien! — ‘Hold on!’ We’ve indeed seen that expression, pronounced as < cha ban >, from a fur-trade era Dakelh (BC Dene) man. Not only are the phonetics mismatched, but the ‘hold on’ that’s meant here is the literal ‘keep hold of a physical object’.

Somewhere between these opposite poles of explanatory power lies a Michif (Métis French-Cree) expression that hasn’t been suggested as an influencing factor before: < zeusk atawn / zeuskatawn > ‘until’, from French jusqu’à temps (que)… ‘until (a/the) time that…’.

  • Am I the only person who sees a semantic similarity between ‘until’ and ‘wait’?
  • And the phonetic resemblance of Michif < atawn > ([atã], identical with French attends) with Jargon atá?
  • And a social connection, due to mixed-blood French-Cree(/Ojibwe) speakers having been a majority of fur-trade employees in the PNW?

I’m not claiming that the Michif expression is the source, or a main source, of Chinuk Jargon’s atá. But it’s worth considering it as maybe an influence here. Virtually 100% of the “real” French words in CJ have their closest match in Michif pronunciations, out of all known French varieties.

I’ll leave it there, and leave you with a bonus fact — in British Columbia and other northern dialects, atá is unknown. Instead, I find speakers there using wéyt. I’m sure you know the source of that verb, eh?!

Saprawn chimawkatayhtamihk ouma 🙂
(Michif: ‘I have to think this through.’)