Is kʰanákʰa a loan from sailors’ English?

We know that the Chinuk Wawa word for Pacific Islanders comes from a Hawai’ian one…

kanakas in bc 800px-Delia_and_George_N._Parker's_family

Delia Naukana, George Parker, and kids: a Kanaka family in British Columbia circa 1890 (image credit: Wikipedia)

But reading my beloved EtymOnline site, I’ve realized something.

Here’s their entry for kanaka in English:

Kanaka (n.)
U.S. nautical word for “a Hawaiian,” 1840, from Hawaiian kanaka “man” (cognate with Samoan tangata). In Australia, “native of the South Sea islands” working on sugar plantations, etc.

A couple of details in that brief entry leap out at me.

  1. This is a US nautical word, i.e. it’s from American sailor talk.
  2. The date of its first known occurrence in written English places it in the Fort Vancouver era. 

Take these facts together, and it seems kʰanákʰa might be still another of the early CW words that we got via nautical lingo.

Because, as BC’s Sam Sullivan has pointed out, the particular semantics of several core Jargon words such as

  • síl (from ‘sail’ => CW ‘cloth’),
  • hál (from ‘haul’ => CW ‘pull’),
  • stík (from ‘stick’ (mast) => CW ‘tree’)

can be attributed to a specific stratum of Anglophones: the crews of early Northwest Coast trading vessels. 

It seems entirely possible to me that kanaka may have joined CW as a (in fact, the) commonly used English word for Indigenous folks of the Pacific Ocean.

Why would I go to such lengths of etymologizing? Why not just call it a Hawai’ian word in the Jargon?

Well, there’s no real pattern of Hawai’ian words being taken directly into CW, as far as we know.

The extremely few documented lexemes of (ultimately) Hawai’ian origin in the Jargon tend to be place names — a class of words that’s highly likely to get borrowed into foreigners’ talk.

And crucially, they’re pronounced with an English-language accent. Which is precisely the same analysis we use to show that the Nuuchahnulth (Vancouver Island) words in early CW did not arrive via direct contact — instead being brought by sailors. 

Here’s what I mean by that. Hawai’ian phonology should be a piece of cake for PNW folks; all of the sounds in Hawai’ian are in the repertoire of CW. Yet we find CW pronouncing its words for Islanders in the following ways

  • (o)wáyhi instead of *hawayʔi*
  • wáhu (known from Colville-Okanagan Salish, where it’s presumably from CW) instead of *oʔahu*
  • kʰanákʰa (also kʰanǽkʰa) rather than *kanaka*

Looks like we have a pretty clear case here for thinking the Hawai’ian language had scarcely more influence on Jargon than did the Scots Gaelic, Russian, or Chinese natively spoken by so many CW users.

Unlike Chinookans, SW Washington Salish people, French Canadians, and British and US English speakers, those ethnic groups seem never to have formed major coherent segments of stable communities that spoke the Jargon at home.

And so, looking at the language, you’d hardly know those folks had ever been present :/  Which is why you have to take a whole lot more than words into consideration in order to understand our region’s history well.

You just can’t ignore linguistic evidence either.

What do you think?