Another brick in the SENĆOŦEN ‘shithouse’

brick house

(Image source: FamilyHaikus)

There’s a word in SENĆOŦEN (Saanich) Salish of Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, that seems as if it ought to be inspired by Chinuk Wawa…
In that language the word for ‘toilet, washroom (that’s bathroom in America), outhouse’ is EMETÁU¸TW̱, phonemically ʔəmətéw’txʷ.

That word breaks down into 2 meaningful parts; I’ll show you the meanings assigned to each in Timothy Montler’s superb dictionary (2018, U. of Washington Press): 

  • the root EMET (ʔəmət) to sit, assume a sitting position, sit up, sit down’
  • the suffix –ÁU¸TW̱ (-éw’txʷ) ‘house’

Here’s where I start telling you the rest of the story…

As with all things Salish, I’m going to start at the end 🙂

The ‘house’ suffix, which occurs in pretty much all Salish languages, parallels the uses of Chinuk Wawa háws, in that it can also indicate a non-dwelling structure, and even some limited interior portion of that structure. So –ÁU¸TW̱ (-éw’txʷ) gets used for any walled construction devoted to a particular purpose. That’s why you find it in the word for ‘washroom’. And it’s possible that the broad semantics of this Salish suffix are due to Chinuk Wawa influence.

You could logically suppose that CW was influenced by the tribal languages in turning the originally English word ‘house’ into something more multi-purpose. Without going too far into that question, though, I’ll bring to your attention the fact that even before contact with Pacific Northwest First Nations, English itself already had plenty of parallel expressions, like ‘root house’, ‘icehouse‘, ‘cookhouse‘, and so forth. 

This SENĆOŦEN noun, like most of its vocabulary for Settler concepts, must’ve come about in the days before interior plumbing, so it would’ve meant ‘outhouse’ at first. When indoors toilets came along, though, there was no need for a different word; unlike English, which had to shift from words like ‘outhouse’ to its current big variety of terms (a sign of a recent linguistic shift, by the way) such as ‘toilet, bathroom, washroom’.

But it’s kind of noteworthy that SENĆOŦEN doesn’t use a word meaning ‘outside-house’ for a washroom. Many, or most, other PNW languages do that, including Chinuk Wawa with its łáx̣ani-háws. A map of languages in this region having a native word that “loan-translates” (calques) ‘outside-house’ would pretty nicely duplicate a map of where CW has historically been spoken.

Why, then, does SENĆOŦEN instead call it a ‘sit-house’? Here’s a clue to what I’m thinking: have you ever heard Indigenous speakers (be they Métis, tribal, what have you) who sometimes say “s” for a “sh” sound, or vice versa? In the words of the author of “Sheila Sits” [šic?], I have a modest proposal… 

It comes down to this. I’ve shown that the English-derived words felt by English-speaking Settlers to be indecent were routinely left out of “Chinook Jargon” dictionaries during the frontier period. I’ve also shown that such earthy expressions nonetheless were a real part of CW’s lexicon. 

In specific, shít was a good ol’ Jargon word; I’ve found it in enough contemporary sources to prove this (typically recorded by French- and Italian-speakers, who had no problem with it).

And we can pretty safely infer that *shít-háws* was one of the Jargon expressions for where you go to poo.

  • Shithouse‘ was certainly in use already before the PNW frontier era, in English.
  • For examples of other possible borrowings of *shít-háws* on Vancouver Island:
    • I know of one language spoken near Saanich, ʔiiḥatisʔatḥ (Ehattishaht) nuučaan’uł, that calls the bathroom šu-ʔuɬ, literally ‘defecating-house’, and at least 3 other varieties of nuučaan’uł use that same word for ‘toilet’. 
    • There’s also the similar metaphor in Kwak’wala ‘toilet’, am’ága-ts’i, literally ‘excrete-container(?)’.
      (Note: there are few readily available, easily usable references on the Northern Wakashan languages. I’m inferring the meaning of -ts’i from similar words such as ‘coffin’, ‘baking pan’, and ‘bathtub’. This suffix generally does not appear, though, to connote a ‘house’ or ‘room’.)

Here’s where I’m going (so to speak) with this, um, stuff:

I suspect that SENĆOŦEN’s literal ‘sit-house’ may be a relic of a late-frontier or early post-frontier time when those Salish speakers had come to have significant exposure to English — along with their preexisting knowledge of CW — and either…

  1. etymologized our presumed Jargon *shít-háws* as a pronunciation of a phrase *sit-house* that they figured might well be good English, or…
  2. had some fun & made a pun between *shít-háws* and *sit-house*; I’ve written up a study showing that puns are a pervasive kind of humour in Coast Salish languages and cultures, or…
  3. both (1) and (2).

kata maika tumtum?
What do you think?