Lie-telling, Salish, and natural gender on the Lower Columbia

There’s a little more to know about Chinuk Wawa’s word for ‘a lie; tell a lie’.

coyote liar

(Image credit: imgflip)

I’m talking of course about t’ɬəmínxwət

The best Chinuk Wawa dictionary so far on this planet, published by the Grand Ronde Tribes in 2012, accurately traces this word’s etymology back to “a Chinookan noun” i-t’ɬmínxut ‘a lie’.It cites Franz Boas’s 1910 “Illustrative Sketch” of Natítanui (Shoalwater-Clatsop), page 600, as well as his 1894 “Kathlamet Texts”, 52.16.

Two further points about that:

First off, the genderedness of the Natitanui word isn’t mentioned in the 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary.

lie of a male

Boas 1910:600

The snippet above shows that Lower Chinookan has two separate noun stems for ‘a lie’. One of these refers to things made up by a male, one to a female’s falsehoods. Now, neighboring but linguistically unrelated Lower Chehalis Salish happens to have the same division of lexical labor, with yul-áq-m ‘to tell a lie (females)’ (literally ‘to crazy-talk’) vs. q’ə́x̣-əp ‘to tell a lie (males)’ (literally ‘(to have a) rancid-ass’?). (That makes me think of Coyote talking to his poop!)

These facts suggest to me that the Natítanui source of CW t’ɬəmínxwət possibly was loaned from Salish, and is therefore analyzable into meaningful Salish parts.

Instantly I can isolate ínxwət as a pronunciation of Lower Chehalis -ínwət ‘mind; feelings’. (Funny that later influence from English, where folks wrote the /xw/ sound as “wh”, which alternates with /w/ in many dialects, by chance caused a return to the original /w/ there, for some Settler speakers.)

And this implies a root t’ɬə́m, which resembles Salish roots meaning ‘to chip’, ‘to poke’, and so on. Was this an Indigenous metaphor similar to “Coeur d’Alène” (‘awl-hearted’, customarily said to refer to that Salish tribe’s sharp business sense but perhaps implying their dishonesty)? 

As to why it’s an old word for male lies that came into the Jargon, I can only speculate that this was due to the social setting. For example, the trading milieu that dominated the earliest known CW years was male-dominated…at least on the Euro-American side. Were Indigenous people sometimes telling the fur-traders ‘you’re a liar, dude’? 

(Note 1A: before and after these Chinookan ‘lie’ words in Boas 1900:600, I see occurrences of a Chinookan stem for ‘mind’ -kakamit, in which -amit too has a pretty fair resemblance to Salish -ínwət!

Note 1B: both the female and the male liars in the above are described by Boas as “subject of transitive verb”, which would at first glance seem to mean a grammatical Agent in this ergative-absolutive language. But we are really talking about nouns for ‘lies’, so in actual usage we have e.g. i-mí-t’ɬminxut, literally ‘it’s your lie’ [although translated by Boas as ‘you lied’.) 

Second, we can also specify usefully that CW t’ɬəmínxwət comes from a Lower Chinookan noun. In Upper Chinookan we find something different for ‘a lie’. Kiksht (Wasco/Wishram) for example has the purely Chinookan chshudít’ɬi ‘he is lying’. Note also the ideophones such as láx̣lax̣, which are native to Chinookan and are pretty uniform across that entire language family. That láx̣lax̣ is the only word for ‘lying’ that I’m finding in Clackamas Upper Chinookan. In neither Upper Chinookan language do I find a positive indication that their words for ‘lying’ are gendered.

The takeaway is that it’s only Lower Chinookan that uses the stem t’ɬmínxut. And this falls into the pattern where it’s only Lower Chinookan, i.e. the Chinookan languages that traditionally bordered on and interacted with SW Washington Salish, that has plenty of seeming old Salish borrowings. 

What do you think?