‘Chehalis’ is Chinookan — and therefore CW?

The Natítanui language, as spoken by Q’lti, and preserved in the 1894 “Chinook Texts”, gives us clues about Chinuk Wawa’s history.

chinook and lower chehalis

(Image credit: ChinookAndLowerChehalis.com)

Quite a number of mentions occur there of the (Lower) Chehalis Salish neighbors of the Natítanui a.k.a. Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookans. 

Q’lti steadily refers to Chehalis as:

  • the place: Ni-č́x̣ílš (ni-c’hx̣ílsh): page 216 (four times), 260
  • the people:
    • Gitá-čx̣ilš (gitá-chx̣ilsh): pages 219, 260
    • Gitá-ćx̣ils (gitá-t’sx̣ils): page 259276
    • Giɬá-ćx̣ils (giɬá-t’sx̣ils): page 277

Additionally, in a recounting of “Beliefs, Customs, and Tales: The Soul and the Shamans”, page 207 notes that “Numbers 1 to 21 were originally Chehalish beliefs and customs.” The spelling used there suggests Q’lti’s pronunciations chx̣ilsh ~ c’hx̣ilsh

Here’s why this is of interest.

The name “Chehalis” comes from Lower Chehalis Salish ćx̣-íĺs (t’sx̣-ílʔs), having a literal meaning there as ‘sandy point’. (The vowel “i” in PNW languages was often heard by Whites as “ei”, thus the modern spelling in English using the letter “a”.) Take note, please, that this Salish word involves the “back X” sound ; I’ll return to this detail. 

So, when “Chehalis” occurs in Chinookan, where it has no analyzable meaning, it’s a borrowed word.

But it then gets treated according to Chinookan sound rules. 

Sometimes Q’lti pronounces it much as in Lower Chehalis itself, which was in fact his main daily language at the time. Franz Boas wasn’t very accomplished at hearing the “glottalized resonant” consonants in Pacific NW languages, so we can’t tell for sure whether Q’lti was saying –ćx̣íĺs (-t’sx̣ílʔs), or instead –ćx̣-íls (-t’sx̣íls), in his Chinookan. The latter, without resonant glottalization, would be more natural and more expected for Chinookan phonology, loanword or no. 

What we can tell from Boas’s representation of Q’lti’s speaking is that we also have the distinctively Chinookan pronunciation –č́x̣ílš (-c’hx̣ílsh) ~ čx̣ílš (-chx̣ílsh). That’s to say, 8 of the 11 occurrences of the ethnonym have a “hushing” realization (“ch” rather than “ts”, “sh” rather than “s”), not native to Lower Chehalis. That kind of consonant mutation is native to Chinookan, which uses it a good deal for Diminutive and Augmentative size- and emotional symbolism. Let’s look into that now. 

Using Kiksht (Wishram / Wasco etc.) Upper Chinookan data as a guide, since that’s what’s most readily available, it would appear as though Chinookans “heard” native Lower Chehalis Salish ćx̣-íĺs (t’sx̣-ílʔs) as a Diminutive form. For Chinookan, it’s known that:

  • ć (t’s) is Diminutive for c (ts)
  • (plain “front” X) is Diminutive for  
    (note, Boas often reversed these symbols in the “Chinook Texts” — so actually it’s not firmly clear whether Q’lti was pronouncing this word in one or the other way)
  • s is Diminutive for š (sh)

Putting together what I’ve said so far, I’ll claim, with a slight bit of boldness, that Chinookans took

Salish ćx̣-íĺs (t’sx̣-ílʔs)
as Chinookan ćxíls (t’sxíls). 

The important observation here is that for a Chinookan speaker, the psychological reality of a pronunciation ćxíĺs (t’sxíls), which I think we’re probably seeing from Q’lti, would be that it was the expected Diminutive form of a “Normalcx̣ílš (tsx̣ílsh)

And I suppose Chinookans would’ve varied between saying Diminutive/affectionate ćxíĺs (t’sxíls) and Normal cx̣ílš (tsx̣ílsh), as the situation warranted. 

That right there already mutates several of the original Salish sounds: 

  • x̣ into and ĺ (lʔ) into for the Chinookan “Diminutive”,
  • and into š (sh) for the Chinookan “Normal” form.

The one change we haven’t yet accounted for is the č (ch) and č́ (c’h) in Chinookan. Definitely this is a sound change not found within Salish. And definitely it is found in the Chinookan system of consonant mutations.

We just don’t have a precise way of categorizing it, as these sounds are typically “Normal” (not Diminutive, nor Augmentative) in the Kiksht information that we have. I’ve previously found Lower Chinookan data that suggest a slightly different consonant-mutation system from this, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to systematize enough information into a solid conclusion. In any case, saying “Chehalis” with a “ch”type sound is a pronunciation foreign to the people named by it! 

And because “Chehalis” is a foreign way of saying the name ćx̣-íĺs (t’sx̣-ílʔs), I might further speculate that it’s how the name was first encountered by non-Indigenous newcomers around 1800, who first and foremost dealt with Chinookans. 

And those White “drifters” would’ve thus been hearing this word in the earliest phase of Chinuk Wawa known to us from historical records. Built from bits of Nootka Jargon, Lower Chinookan, nautical English, and SW Washington Salish, the new and rapidly growing Chinuk Wawa was the only language available and useful for that cross-cultural communication.

So perhaps we should add something like (in a Grand Ronde spelling style) *t’səxéls* ~ *tsəx̣élsh* ~ *chx̣élsh* to our Chinuk Wawa dictionaries, to have a way of talking about this historically important Salish language and people!

What do you think?