Units of measure & “perch”

la perche

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On the Columbia River in fur-trade times, North American French units of measure were about as standardized as you got.

The most commonly shared language among those who concerned themselves with European-style quantification was Canadian French.

So if you talked about money — which was not a common item so far out on the frontier — you likely spoke of sous, piastresand even picaillons (picayunes), a term that even entered Chinuk Wawa. Shillings were often mentioned by Francophones, too, which implies that back in the Canadas, that English word was normal in French.

And if you were concerned with determining how much land someone owned — which was only likely in the environs of HBC forts where Canadians had permanently settled, such as Colvile [sic], Walla Walla, Vancouver, Cowlitz, William, and Nisqually — you talked in terms of arpents, just shy of an acre each.

Distance might obviously be parceled out in numbers of days’s travel required, but people would also talk about lieues (leagues; 4km or 2.5 miles).

Another measure that became part of Chinuk Wawa was la perche. This is literally a ‘pole’, or better yet a ‘rod’ (5m or 16.5 feet), since that latter was a common English-language measure in that era.

George Gibbs’s influential and knowledgeable 1863 dictionary of CW gives < la-pehsh > as ‘a pole; the setting-pole of a boat or canoe‘. That is, the pole you use to push your craft upstream or through rough waters.

Interesting to my mind is how on page 56 George Shaw (1909) gives < pole > as a synonym for that item in Jargon. This suggests the possibility that < la-pehsh > indeed had more than one meaning in CW as in French, so that the English loanword helped to disambiguate.

After the bateaux had been loaded and prayers said on the shore, our missionaries before embarking shook hands with traveling companions they were leaving, alas, never to see again. This was the 14th of October; on the 15th they successfully shot the famous dalles des morts, which is three perches [rods] in with, and from rapid to rapid they got through, on the morning of the 16th, to the maison des lacs, 55 leagues from the encampment of the bateaux.

Of course there were other units of measure in the Jargon that did not come from French. You had the Indigenous traditional unit íłan(a) ‘a fathom, the length of your outstretched arms’.

And in BC Jargon at least, it was not uncommon to speak of the inch, fut, yard, and mail (mile); the pawnd and tons; and sints as well as the universal CW kwata (and tlun kwata ’75 cents’) & dala (& sitkom dala ‘half dollar’).

What do you think?