(le)múlá ‘moulin’ as Métis ‘machine’

Checking back through my previous articles here, it seems I haven’t yet mentioned this connection between Métis French and Chinook Jargon.


La machine du Moulin Rouge (image credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been noted by various people that the Jargon calls ‘machines’ múlá or lemúlá, which is from Canadian / Métis French (le) moulin.

That word is translated, in most any French dictionary you pick up, as a ‘mill’ for grinding grain.

The most famous example of this word in current American culture is probably the Moulin Rouge nightclub, with its iconic red windmill, and the earsplittingly fun movie named after it. 

I think it’s interesting to show that Chinuk Wawa didn’t invent the metaphor ‘(wind)mill’ <=> ‘machine’. It looks like it has a longer history in North America.

Here are a couple of connections that I’ve found: 

One scholarly article mentions “moulin à coudre” (literally ‘(wind)mill for stitching’) for ‘sewing machine’ in World War 1-era Canadian French. I suppose that’s an early, now old-fashioned term for that device; I’m finding much more usage of machine à coudre recently. Read on…

Laverdure & Allard’s 1983 dictionary of southern Michif (in North Dakota) has various occurrences of < li/la moulaen >, their spelling of moulin, in the meaning of ‘machine’. It alternates with < machine > in their data, so I tallied up the different uses that turned up on a search for the word ‘machine’:

  • moulaen
    • ‘machine’ (generic)
    • …a koud ‘sewing machine’
    • …a lavee ‘washing machine’
    • …a baet ‘threshing machine, harvester’
  • machine 
    • ‘machine’ (generic)
    • …pour li cheur ‘(heart) monitor’
    • …bataezh ‘harvester’
    • …kapakitatawmouwayt ‘respirator’
    • en ptsit machine ayweechistawt la chueur shipimokoutayyik ‘pacemaker’

Also note, ‘machinery’ (generic machines) is mashinree.

The impression I get from this collection of phrases is that machines invented earlier were called by a North American idiom, moulaen. (“The first practical and widely used sewing machine was invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor, in 1829”, says Wikipedia. Commercially available washing machines appear to be mid-1800s phenomenon. The threshing machine may have appeared a bit earlier.)

Later, more highly technological, inventions are called by the more modern, international word machine. We needn’t check Google to know that heart monitors, respirators, and pacemakers are relatively quite recent contraptions, and maybe a machine bataezh is the kind of motorized ‘harvester’ that John Deere supplies. 

Put this information together with Chinuk Wawa’s early (Fort Vancouver-era, since Demers-Blanchet-St Onge have mula ‘mill, machine’ in their 1838+ data) metaphor that machines are (le)mula, and it looks like we have another nice connection between the folksy French once spoken in the Pacific Northwest and the dialects spoken in other northerly areas of this continent. 

(I say northerly, because Louisiana French has a rather different history to it, and sure enough Valdman’s dictionary of that state’s dialects shows moulin only meaning a ‘mill’ for grinding things.)

A bonus fact:

In my experience of revitalized Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa, smaller devices, especially tech-y ones, are called lakʰasét, literally ‘box’. So I’ve had conversations with people about (and via) the tíntin-lakʰasét ‘phone’ (literally ‘bell-box’). And I grew up in front of a nánich-lakʰasét ‘TV’ (literally ‘watching-box’). There’s no indication known to me of earlier North American French speakers using la cassette in this way, so this metaphor is indeed a CW invention!

What do you think?