Competing etymologies for láwtish

A word recorded in Grand Ronde’s creolized southern-dialect Chinuk Wawa, and nowhere else, is láwtish ‘a bickerer, argumentative person’.

stickgame nezperce

(Image credit: NPS.gov)

The etymology of it was considered “obscure” at the time the 2012 Grand Ronde CW dictionary was being compiled. 

GR 2012 ventures, tentatively, a comparison with the English word ‘loutish’. That’s a sound-alike, for sure, but it’s a heck of a reach in terms of meanings. It’s tenuous sociologically, too — I doubt the earthy rez folks of the generation of Eula Petite, the elder (born early 1900s?) who recalled this word, had a lot of use for a fancy word like ‘loutish’. 

I’ve come to doubt the English explanation even more, since I’ve come upon several highly promising etymologies in Indigenous languages:

  • Dxʷləšucid (Lushootseed, Coast Salish of Puget Sound) ʔəw’tús ‘opponent (in slahal)’ and ʔətús ‘?challenge; ?humiliate’
  • Snchitsu’umshtsn (Coeur d’Alene, Interior Salish) ʔəwtús ‘antagonism, competition, contestant, opposition, rival, rivalry’ 
  • Npoqínišcn (Spokane, Interior Salish) ʔewtús ‘enemy, rival, opponent, challenger’
  • Ichishkíin (Yakama, Sahaptian) lamtús ‘competitor, opponent, challenger, rival, enemy’
  • Imatalamɬaamí Snwit (Umatilla, Sahaptian) lamtús ‘rival, opponent (as in the hand game)’
  • Ni•mi•pu•tímt (Nez Perce, Sahaptian) lem’tú•s ‘rival, opponent (e.g., in a stick-game)’

You’ll see that the closest resemblance among these to the CW word are the Sahaptian-family expressions. They have /m/ instead of /w/, but check this out, Nez Perce (and perhaps the other Sahaptian languages) regularly alternates between these two sounds, for what I believe is diminutive or similar affect. The sequence /ew/ in NP and in Spokane would sound essentially the same as CW /aw/.

The Sahaptian words also have /s/ rather than the “sh” found in the CW word, but this is predictable in Nez Perce, which only has the former and not the latter sound. We should expect Yakama & Umatilla, though, to have the same “sh” sound as CW, because those languages do have that sound. The fact that they use an /s/ instead suggests that they might have borrowed the word via Nez Perce. 

I’m not so far seeing what an etymology within Sahaptian languages would be for this word — not that I’m an expert Sahaptian scholar. 

I wonder if Nez Perce in turn got the word from their Salish neighbors, the Spokanes. There’s a significant degree of known word-borrowing in that direction; NP for example takes its words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ from Spokane. And ʔewtús in Spokane looks very natively Salish to my eye; there is for instance a Spokane root ʔew’ét ‘sneak up on’ and a frequent lexical suffix –ús ‘face, eye [and other round things]; fire’. If I’m not off the mark, that suffix can be used to form adversative expressions of actions done to the detriment of the notional direct object. (But the only reference I’m coming up with at the moment is that the cognate in Halq’eméylem Coast Salish, -as, is used as a dative applicative [‘for the benefit of’, etc.] suffix.) Anyway, the 2007 “root format” dictionary of Coeur d’Alene proposes this same morphological, if not necessarily semantic, analysis for the word.

I didn’t find this word in the nearest northern and western Interior Salish neighbor languages, Colville-Okanagan and Moses-Columbia. 

The Lushootseed version of the word shows more variation in form, leading me to suspect it may be a borrowing from Spokane, perhaps via Yakima, with whose speakers there was an ongoing relationship of trade and marriage. I’ve checked dictionaries of some other Coast Salish languages, and found no trace of this word, just as we’d expect if it were from the Interior. 

If the word is ultimately Interior Salish, this would raise the question of why there’s an “L” sound at the start of the Sahaptian languages’ version of it.

Zooming out for the moment, it’s easy to imagine that a word for ‘stick-game opponent’ could have become widely dispersed through regular inter-tribal gatherings such as the fisheries, bartering, and maintenance of political relations that went on yearly at Celilo on the Columbia River.

As a word for ‘enemies’ describing certain tribes, it could just as easily have been picked up by the earliest Euro-American fur traders who regularly spent time in territories where Sahaptian languages are spoken, circa 1800. Which was about when we first know CW to have been taking shape. 

As for the plausibility of an interior Northwest word winding up in the coast region, well, take a look at my research into the origin of Chinuk Wawa’s very basic word siks / shiks ‘friend’. I’ve shown that it most plausibly comes from a longer Nez Perce word that literally means ‘nest-mate’. 

Summarizing this welter of thoughts: I’m not claiming to have nailed down a precise single language as the source of CW’s word for ‘a bickerer, argumentative person’. But it looks very clear that lawtish traces back to somewhere in the Interior Pacific NW. And this is of great interest, as only very few CW words can be demonstrated to have that geographical origin. Kamas ‘camas’ is another very fundamental CW lexeme traceable to Nez Perce…

One last note. The languages discussed today that are geographically the farthest from the Inland PNW, Lushootseed and southern Chinuk Wawa, give this word the most divergent meanings. The scattered ‘bickerer’ and ‘?challenge; ?humiliate’ (which are explicitly tentative glosses in the Lushootseed dictionary) are quite different from the coherent cluster of ‘stickgame opponent’ and ‘enemy’ that we find in several languages of the southern Columbia Plateau. And in historical linguistics work, this is a signal of drift in those coast languages away from the interior original.

What do you think?
Kata maika tumtum?