If you’ve looked at a lot of Chinook Jargon vocabularies, you’ve seen the early CW < tilikum-mama > ‘father’…


First off, there’s some confusion over whether this was a CJ word.

< Tilikum-mama > is documented as Jargon by the following witnesses back in the early days: 

But notably, Gibbs 1863 [1850s data] cites Hale’s < til-i-kum-ma-ma /  tlkamama > in Chinookan, saying it’s “not in use in Jargon”. (Samuel V Johnson’s 1978 dissertation additionally cites a similar form from Franz Boas, but that’s definitely not Jargon but “old” Chinookan.) 

Ross 1849 [1820s-1830s data] relatedly reports simply < mamah > for ‘father’ in his “Chinook Vocabulary” — it’s not really clear whether he perceived it as Jargon or as tribal Chinookan, though his wordlist is clearly pidginized.

It’s important to note that Chinuk Wawa in the 1820s to circa 1840 gives every sign of rapid growth and change. As George Lang’s fine book “Making Wawa” shows, there was a trend particularly for Chinookan vocabulary to be taken into the young Jargon en masse, then getting simplified and/or replaced by non-Chinookan words.

This < mama > form looks bizarre to us now, as we’re used to pápá in the Jargon of the last 150+ years for ‘father’ — and mámá for ‘mother’! (Both came from Canadian/Métis French, papa & maman.) 

And why is < tilikum > in there? We know that as the famous Chinuk Wawa word for ‘people’, deriving from a Chinookan language.

So < tilikum-mama> would seem to be a compound in CW: ‘people-father’.

That observation is mighty interesting, as I’ve sure enough found some evidence, especially in southern-dialect CW, of inalienable possession being expressed in this same way — juxtaposing a Possessor word right before a Possessee word. An example springing to my mind is < Le Play House > ‘[Christian] mission [grounds]’ in Theodore Winthrop 1863, where the general rules of CW possession would have us saying lipʰrét yaka/łaska háws ‘priest his/their house’. 

And I have a preliminary sense that the Chinookan languages — unlike other Indigenous languages in the region — used such structures, perhaps especially with kin terms, e.g. Shoalwater-Clatsop ł-kánax̣ á-ki ‘the chief’s niece’ appears to be literally ‘Neuter-chief Female-niece’, without any of the usual possessive prefixes. (Yes, Neuter gender is often used in weird ways. Read on.) 

On either basis or both, we might read < tilikum-mama > as ‘(the) people(‘s) father’. Note, I haven’t noticed a trace of this compound within Chinookan, so I suspect it would have had to be formed within early-creolized CW.

Another reason to suppose < tilikum-mama > to have originated within straight CW (and not in Old Chinookan), would be if we imagine the pronunciation “mama” to be just an unremarkable variant of CW “papa“!

This isn’t crazy. There are many many instances of a fluidity among lower Columbia River-area pronunciations that involve the labial consonants [p, f, b, v, m, w]. An obvious one in CW is latáp – latáb – latám ‘table’. Another is híkchəm from English ‘handkerchief‘. 

What we’d have to do to support this view of early CW < mama > ‘father’ as a pronunciation of the French-Canadian derived papa is to show that < mama > differs from known Chinookan forms. 

Let’s look at some data from the Chinookan languages, then. I’ll start the farthest upriver from CW’s Astoria/Fort Vancouver homeland: 

  • Upper Chinookan consistently has the shortest root for ‘father’, -am/əm:
  • In Lower Chinookan, we should bear in mind that almost all of our information comes from a single speaker, Charles Q’lti (Cultee). It’s imaginable that he could have slightly mixed up the two closely related languages sometimes. And yet, the difference between them is striking and consistent:
    • Kathlamet ‘father’ is very much like Upper Chinookan, taking both the wí- ‘Honorable Male’ prefix and the short root am, with the exception of a longer form -mam(a), which perhaps significantly appears with Shoalwater-Clatsop-looking prefixes:
    • Only Shoalwater-Clatsop, traditionally spoken from the coast up to just about Fort Vancouver, routinely — nearly always — has the longest form -mama (as well as a unique preference for a different prefix, the neuter-gender ł-):
      • máma! ‘father!’ (vocative, i.e. how to address him) 
      • ł-kə́-mama ‘my father’
      • ł-mí-mama ‘your father’
      • ł-ká-mama ‘her father’
      • ł-iá-mama ‘his father’ (note also e.g. níkšt ł-Ø-á-mama…níkšt ł-Ø-á-naa ‘he had no father and no mother’, a usage without Possessor prefixes)
      • ł-txá-mama ‘our [dual] father’ / í-nt-am / í-ntx-am ‘our [dual] father’ (inclusive, i.e. the father of me and you)
      • ł-ntá-mama / í-nta-m ‘our two selves’ (excl.) father’ (i.e. the father of me and someone else, but not of you)
      • ł-štá-mama ‘their two selves’ father’ (i.e. 2 people’s father)

When I take all of this information in, I can suppose that Chinookan ‘father’ was originally the short -am shape, throughout this entire language family.

And this had a coincidental, if slight, similarity with CW papa (when pronounced as mama), as well as with the semantically related CW mama ‘mother’. Our Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan authority Charles Cultee, who also spoke lots of Chinuk Wawa, might well have grown up, or wound up, feeling that his Chinookan language normally used a root form –mama for ‘father’! 

We also have to recognize specifically that ‘my father’ in Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan, ł-kə́-mama, would’ve been pronounced by non-Indigenous speakers very much like “tlkamama“, i.e. essentially “tilikum-mama” (see also below). This wouldn’t be the first fully inflected Chinookan word to have been taken into the Jargon, as we see from míłayt ‘sit; be there’ (which is a 2nd-person Chinookan verb), yáksu ‘hair’ (which is Chinookan for ‘his hair’), etc.

Trying to balance out all of these thoughts, I’m proposing that the older CW < tilikum-mama > ‘father’ was indeed Jargon, and that it has both Chinookan and French antecedents! 

I think there’s a little bit more evidence to back this idea up, in the Lower Chinookan (not CW) documentation of Gibbs 1863. Those earlier forms for ‘father’ are more varied than the later ones from Cultee (i.e. Boas). They’re less inclined to use the –mama root form, and more reliant on the shorter, demonstrably Chinookan -ab (a pronunciation variant of -am):

  • < ti-tum má-ma > ‘my father’ 
    (side note: the < ti-tum > part looks un-Chinookan and almost exactly like Lower Chehalis Salish for ‘my [inalienably possessed]’! Lower Chinookans as a rule also spoke Salish.)
  • < bái-kutl me-mán > ‘thy father’, i.e. ~ máika ł-mi-mám(?), an emphatic/contrastive ‘YOUR father’ 
    (side note: if the “n” is not a mistake, the root here exactly matches local Salish, e.g. mán ‘father! (address form)’ in Lower Cowlitz.)
  • < yak kai-yáb > ‘his father’, i.e. ~ yáka i-yá-am, ‘HIS father’
  • <ni-sái-ka tl’chá-ma-ma‘our father’, i.e. ~ nsáika ł-lx̣á-mama(?), ‘OUR (excl.) father (not yours)’
  • < mi-sái-ka klim-sá-ma-ma‘your father’, i.e. ~ msáika ł-msá-mama ‘YOU FOLKS’ father’
  • < klás-ka it-hláb > ‘their father’, i.e. ~ łáska i-t-ł-áb(?) (we would expect something like ł-t-áb in order to have a grammatical Chinookan word!) ‘THEIR father’

My main point in citing these from Gibbs’s Chinookan is to show that Shoalwater-Clatsop’s forms for ‘father’ used to be more like the rest of the Chinookan languages, but by the time of Cultee had mutated in favour of the -mama root form — which is more similar to Jargon.

A further benefit, though, of examining this set of words: we see that the presumable ~ ł-lx̣á-mama (?) ‘our father (not yours)’ is another candidate etymology for < tilikum-mama >. Non-Indigenous folks would pronounce this something like “tlilkum mama”, quite similar to the 1st person singular possessed form.

And both ‘my father’ and ‘our father (not yours)’ would be Chinookan forms fairly often heard by outsiders. Certainly both would be valid responses to the kind of questions we stereotypically imagine folks asking in pidgin-language contact scenes, with a newcomer pointing and asking ‘what/who is that?’

Today’s article took a great deal of research and time, and I’m sure I still haven’t totally resolved this issue, so:

What do you think?