When did Chinookan ideophones come into CW?

hayu masi to Henry Zenk for a comment that brought this question to mind.


(Image credit: SpeakerDeck)

At my post on Pâquet’s 1895 history book relating information about early Catholic missionary Father Demers in the Fort Vancouver area, a comment added by Henry mentioned the Chinookan-language “ideophones” that became such a big part of Chinuk Wawa.

His idea was that those words are very easily borrowed into other languages, so they might have been a crucial early nucleus around which the rest of Chinuk Wawa would have accreted. 

I should define what’s meant by ideophones. In linguistics, these are defined as words that speakers feel imitate the sound of an action. Here is a classic paper on them by a Portland scholar; RIP Tucker Childs.

(This is separate from the Chinookan “sound symbolism” that you sometimes see discussed here, which fundamentally just connotes size.

It’s also separate from the often onomatopoeic words for birds etc., such as CW’s kə́ləkələ ‘bird’ and k’ák’aʔ ‘crow’, which in any case were often very similar from language to language in the PNW, in an “areal sharing” phenomenon.)

In my English, examples of ideophones are kerplunk, plop, smooch, whack, and whoosh

In Chinookan and in Chinook Wawa, ideophones are often reduplicated. Examples include (I’ll just show the current CW version of each here) híhi ‘laugh’, p’ə́q(p’əq) ‘hit’, tə́mtəm ‘heart’ (beat), shóx̣(shox̣) ‘slip’, and perhaps wáwa ‘talk’.

The groundbreaking 1910 descriptive grammar of Natítanui (Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan) by Franz Boas came up with a label “attribute complements” for such words. (Pages 627ff.) But, under that umbrella, Boas wound up also including other “particles”, as I’d term them — uninflected full words — that by no stretch of the imagination convey sensory impressions of the state / event / action that they denote. This includes spúʔuq ‘grey’, yútɬiɬ ‘proud’, tíki ‘to wish’, pʰáɬ ‘full’, k’wás ‘afraid’.

(Interestingly, many of these particles match ancient Salish and Sahaptian roots! I sense a possible test for loanword status in Chinookan languages.)  

Boas himself does subdivide the “attribute complements” into several categories, distinguishing those that he finds connotative of sounds. But he doesn’t emphasize that these behave differently from the rest. 

I emphasize this point because I suspect that we can usefully examine the earliest records of Chinuk Wawa in a search for the separate kinds of particles that come from Chinookan. 

My instant reaction to Henry Zenk’s idea that “ideophones would lend themselves uniquely well to registers of simplified Chinookan” — whether an earlier ancestor of Chinuk Wawa, or a distinct “slave’s” register of Chinookan — is that yes, this makes a lot of sense. I do think it’d be easier, in other words, for non-Chinookan speakers to pick up these distinct, simple “sounds-like” words than virtually all of the rest of Chinookan grammar. 

So for me, I want to examine to what extent Chinookan ideophones, as well as the other particles, show up in the earliest known CW. 

For this purpose, it’s convenient to refer to James Constantine Pilling’s 1893 publication “Bibliography of the Chinookan Languages (Including the Chinook Jargon)“, which concludes with a “Chronologic Index”. That’s a timeline of known early original documentation of CW that I’ve referred to in writing today’s article. Here I’ll place Lewis & Clark as the first identifiable CW data known to us, with the 2 other sources that pre-date the establishment of Fort Vancouver with its rapid changes (creolization) of the Jargon:

  • Lewis & Clark’s Journals — containing data from 1805-1806: The one relevant point that I know from memory plus a quick Google search is that they report the ideophone < timm > for ‘(water)falls’, a Native name of Celilo which we have few reasons to presume was CW. I will have to comb through their published journals yet again, as it seems I’ve never written here about the CW evidence I see there. 
  • Gabriel Franchere (1820) — containing Astorian data from 1810-1814: There are no ideophones. 
  • Ross Cox (1831 volume 2) — equally early Astorian data: Appears to be a copy from Franchere, and only part of that source!
  • Alexander Ross (1849) is also Astorian data, with some seeming influence from Franchere but more extensive, presented in a “Chinook” portion and a “mixed dialect” portion. (Note, Ross remained in the lower Columbia zone until shortly after Fort Vancouver was established.) One weak candidate for an ideophonic source here is *< piss-piss > ‘cat’, but beyond that I find no examples. 

The scarcity of data in the above is mighty disappointing! If we extend our quest for more ideophones into the early Fort Vancouver period, we can look into:

  • John Ball “manuscript 195” — early 1830s per George Lang’s book “Making Wawa”: < tumtum > ‘hart’ [SIC for ‘heart’], < siplip > [SIC for < liplip >] ‘to boil, or to cook’, < poo > ‘a charge of powder’.
  • Samuel Parker 1838 — only *< wâwâ > ‘speak’
  • FN Blanchet / A Demers / LN St Onge 1871 — data from about 1838-1840: many ideophones… < pu > ‘report of a gun’, *< loHoloH > ‘slippery, polished, even’, *< laHlaH > ‘turning, falling’, < haha > ‘to cough’, < hihi > ‘to laugh, play’, < hoho > ‘to vomit’, < hollol > ‘to tremble, shake’, < mamuk kishkish > ‘to drive (cattle)’, < mamuk pu / phu > ‘to blow’, < mamuk tintin > ‘to ring a bell, to play an instrument’, < mamuk toH > ‘to spit’ (saliva), etc. etc.

I’m not sure what to make of this distribution of forms. We can tentatively conclude that ideophones really took hold in CW only after stable mixed-culture households were formed at Fort Vancouver.

But why is it that only Blanchet et al. show us a significant amount of them?

Did Blanchet and company, by virtue of their working primarily with Indigenous people, hear more ideophones than other documentors did?

Did the very earliest documentors encounter ideophones, but perhaps leave these out of their published descriptions of Chinuk Wawa? Perhaps they felt these imitative words to be undignified, just as the Euro-American cuss words in CW often got edited out of published vocabularies. 

What do you think?