Alsea addendum

Today I will add to my previous scattered remarks about the Alsea (Yakonan family/isolate) language and its traces of Chinuk Wawa.


(Image credit: The Pacific Northwest Indians)

There aren’t a ton of obvious CW words loaned into Alsea. From the Vocabulary section of “Alsea Texts and Myths” published by Leo J. Frachtenberg in 1920, I’ve previously noted ‘knife’ and ‘metal’; see the first link above.

I strongly suspect ‘nasty’, mətsã́tsĩ[-]s[-]t, could reflect CW másháchi, as Alsea -t is ‘Adjectival’ and -s seems to be adverbial or some such; nasalized vowels in the language give me the impression of occurring pretty freely. Plus there exists a synonym that seems purely Alsea, tsilhuʔna.

I also wonder about Alsea tsiláts’ ‘flint; bottle’, as the exact same metaphorical extension occurred with the Chinookan stem -k’ilxchu, giving us a very early CW word for ‘bottle’!

There’s also ‘maternal uncle’, t’átsa / táts, but that may be a chance or areally-shared resemblance with CW tʰát which is from Chinookan and Salish.

We also find a couple or a few Alsea words that might reflect trade with Southwest Washington Salish speakers, e.g. ‘canoe’ kwíʔ, and ‘gun, revolver’ tsítsk’i-yust’, which resembles SW WA Salish tsich’-ɬən (both mean ‘shooting-tool’ and the root is similar) but which is also the presumably old Alsea word for ‘bow (for shooting arrows)’.

The late great linguist M. Dale Kinkade published a study showing that Alsea had borrowed its pronouns from Salish too, and noting many further resemblances in grammar and lexicon! (He didn’t seem to note the ones I’ve just shared.)

But today, I want to focus in on one of the “Alsea Texts” that anthropologist / collector Frachtenberg seems to have considered flawed, due to its including recognizably English-sourced words. His consternation was understandable, as all of the other texts were told in pretty pure Alsea. Of course, they all, except maybe for “The Big Fire” (told by William Smith in 1910 and set circa 1850), refer to pre-contact times!

I want to revisit the story that’s given the title “The Death of U.S. Grant, an Alsea Indian” (pages 219-223).

Why? Because, as we have so often learned by taking a second look at old documents, so-called English words in PNW Indigenous speech are likely to reflect the use of Chinuk Wawa. Viewed in that light, this narrative might add to our small knowledge of Alsea people’s CW. By 1910, they were reported to have no longer spoken Alsea in daily life, “preferring to use for that purpose English or Chinook jargon” (page 243). So we can perhaps expect some evidence of that, in a contemporary anecdote such as this one.

So here’s a list of interesting words in “The Death of U.S. Grant”, with the ones Frachtenberg gives in English spelling italicized, and with some color-coding that you’ll come to understand:

  • Agency (page 220)
  • lídi ‘ready’ (page 220)
  • pút ‘boat’ (page 220)
  • qóna ‘coroner’ (page 220)
  • agent (page 220)
  • tlóbil ‘trouble’ (page 220)
  • law (page 220)
  • judge (page 220)
  • púɬn ‘Portland’ (page 222)

Well now, out of this list, ‘boat’, ‘law’, and ‘Portland’ all show up as Chinuk Wawa words in the Grand Ronde Tribes 2012 dictionary! 

‘Ready’, ‘agent’, ‘trouble’, and ‘judge’ are words that I’ve found in CW elsewhere, typically in British Columbia.

I would be amazed if ‘Agency’, meaning the administrative center of an Indian reservation, didn’t occur frequently in Jargon.  

Only ‘coroner’ is new to me in a CW matrix, but it sure is Indianized in pronunciation! (Frachtenberg’s phonetics are pretty accurate as a rule.) 

And all of these words, occurring as they do in events involving Oregon Coast Indians prior to 1910, quite likely are being quoted to us from such a setting. The teller William Smith is said by Frachtenberg to have had “but an imperfect command of English” (page 10), so it follows that he’s equally or more likely to have gotten these words via Chinuk Wawa. 

What do you think?