máłini, máłx̣wəli: etymological speculations

One of my readers asked the other day about the origin of a couple of Chinuk Wawa words for directions relating to a body of water…

driftwood chinook

Driftwood at Middle Village Camp, Chinook, WA (image credit: TripAdvisor.com)

I happened to have at some new etymological speculations about these, so here I’ll talk about them.

Both of these words are known to have Chinookan-language etymologies. And both have tended to become confused with each other in the history of Chinuk Wawa.

Our first word is


‘on this side; towards water’; the 1800s documentation translates it as ‘towards land, towards shore’: the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary reports that anthropological linguist Dell Hymes analyzed the Chinookan source of this as (in Kathlamet Lower Chinookan) máł-ni ‘body.of.water-LOCATIVE/DIRECTIVE’.

I would emphasize that máł refers in Chinookan to a ‘body of water’, so it’s used in the word for the Columbia River; there’s a separate root for the substance ‘water’, which is reflected in CW tsəqw / chəqw ‘water’. This influences my understanding of the following word…


‘away, over away; placed elsewhere; on the other side’; 1800s documentation says ‘toward the shore, inshore, shoreward, to the interior, keep in shore, in the wood(s), at large, in the river’. The 2012 dictionary points us to a Lower Chinookan particle of this shape, meaning ‘inland, ashore, landward’. (Make of this what you will: it’s also translated as ‘at the side of the house‘ in the 1894 “Chinook Texts” of Q’lti.)

The form  of this word puts me in mind of Chinookan máł ‘body of water’ again + x̣wəl / x̣wən ‘drift (ashore)’ (a root shared with the SW Washington Salish languages such as Lower Chehalis that many or most Lower Chinookans also spoke) + -li / -ni ‘LOCATIVE / DIRECTIVE’. All together giving us something like ‘drifting ashore on a body of water’. 

The 2012 dictionary also refers to a Lower Chinookan particle of similar but I think notably different form, (m)ɬx̣(i)liu, also glossed as ‘inland’. That form, though, strikes me as resembling  a different Chinookan root, the same one we see in Jargon’s luyma ‘other, different’ and perhaps in an Upper Chinookan place name Nix̣luidix ‘coming-together place’. 

It interests me a good deal that a third and rarer form for ‘(go/carry) inland’ in Lower Chinookan, a root -pčk, is a pretty fair match for CW pʰishak ‘a rough brushy place, a bad place’ — which is a very old word from Vancouver Island’s “Nootka Jargon”! (Compellingly similar forms glossed as ‘wild; wild place’ can be found in Upper Chehalis Salish and Lower Cowlitz Salish.)

Ideas of inland areas being wild and dangerous recur across Pacific Northwest languages, as I’ve shown in the Salish etymology of skukum ‘strong; a powerful monster/being’.  

In summary,

it seems clear enough to me that these two words were originally (in Lower Chinookan) antonyms: máłini ‘away from land, to sea’ vs. máłx̣wəli ‘shoreward, inland’. 

It looks even more obvious that for as long as these words have been documented in CW, they’ve tended to be confused with each other. They were unknown in northern / BC dialect. And in the south, by the time of the elders who were interviewed for the 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary, virtually nobody recalled them.

You always had the option of using less-specialized, more clear words for concepts involved with these 2 old lexemes — inatay ‘across; other side’ comes to mind, for instance.

What do you think?