A Salish etymology for ‘aphrodisiac’


Mortuary evidence of Coast Salish shamanism? (image credit: Canadian Journal of Archaeology)

A word you might like to know in Chinuk Wawa is płə́x̣ ‘medicine, aphrodisiac’.

There’s also a historically related CW word, úpłəx̣ ‘liniment’, which might be numbered among the nouns in ‘Etymologies or Oops‘ and its sequel.

Both can be thought of as well established in the Jargon. A further variant, < iptlach > ‘medicine’, is given in JK Gill’s 1909 CW dictionary, which labels it “O.C.” (for “old Chinook”) as it does many relatively obscure words (not just from Chinookan but from Salish et al.).

And both are shown, in an extensive and reliable etymology note to płə́x̣ in the 2012 dictionary from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, to have a Chinookan etymology. There, a root -płəx̣ denotes medicines both traditional and modern.

That 2012 dictionary also takes note of the existence of a noun płə́x̣ in Upper Chehalis Salish, one of the Southwest Washington Salish languages that I often show had a formative influence on CW. The CTGR dictionary reasonably infers that that’s a borrowing from Chinookan (because it seems to strip off the u- or i- prefix), or else from the Jargon.

But get a dose of this…

Aert Kuipers’s “Salish Etymological Dictionary” of 2002 reconstructs a Proto-Salish root *pəlax̣ ‘to put a spell on’. In other words, we know that this word is truly ancient in Salish.

(Yes, it has a “plain L”, and yes, in the modern Salish languages, plain L sometimes has changed into “slurpy L” /ł/.)

True, we can reconstruct it to Proto-Chinookan as well, because it occurs across that language family, but it’s very thought-provoking to now consider that this word has been in use across the Northwest for many centuries.

(Various estimates have been made about how long ago Proto-Salish was spoken, and none are to be taken at face value, so I’ll just throw in my informal estimate of 2000 years ago or more.)

Kuipers also glosses PS *pəlax̣ with an separate meaning, ‘tell’, but I think that’s sort of mistaken.

He lists as a reflex (i.e. a modern development) of the ancient root the Nłeʔkepmxcín (Thompson Salish) verb píləx̣-m ‘tell, inform, bring news’. That’s rather unexpected. Firstly, because PS *l normally becomes Thompson /y/! So this form with a plain voiced “L”, I suspect, is historically related to, and maybe borrowed from, neighbouring Secwepemctsin (Shuswap Salish) lə́x̣ ‘to explain, to inform’, etc.

Secondly, I don’t know if Salish spells were cast by speaking. Kuipers suggests an analogy with Germanic languages, where Gothic spill means ‘tale’ and English ‘spell’ means a magic verbal formula. But I’ve mostly read about Salish sorcery being enacted via objects and actions, rather than by incantations.

(The stem píləx̣ seems to be historically a compound. That pi- at the start of it, I’m thinking, is a reduced form of peyeʔ which means ‘one’ [also ‘other’, as occurs throughout Salish and Chinook Jargon]. The same type of compound is found in quite a number of Thompson words. The 1996 dictionary of that language makes at least 2 distinct headwords of this shape that I believe are explainable in this way, many indicating haphazard/reckless behavior. So píləx̣ would be literally like ‘to recklessly tell one thing; to haphazardly tell another [a new] thing’. )

At any rate, all other reflexes of PS *pəlax̣ pointed out by Kuipers (i.e. in Lushootseed, Upper Chehalis, and Colville-Okanagan, but I also find płax̣ in Spokane) are solidly in the range of sorcery-related meanings, and they all have the voiceless “slurpy ł”.

The point being: by comparing among the modern languages’ forms of it, this word actually should be reconstructed to Proto-Salish times as *pəłax̣, with slurpy L — 

— which is an extremely good match for our Chinuk Wawa word!

What do you think?