1788: A scrap of Nootka Jargon?

This scrap of early information might help us figure out the etymology of Chinuk Wawa’s háyásh ‘big’.


“High seas” (image credit: Huffpost.com)

From the truly excellent scholar of Pacific Northwest history, BC’s judge F.W. Howay, comes the article “Early Navigation of the Straits of Fuca” (The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 12(1):1-32, March 1911).

On page 16 we get a quotation from British merchant ship Princess Royal Captain Charles Duncan’s visit among the Makahs of far northwest (present-day) Washington state:


The Indians of Claaset said that they knew not of any land to the Eastward; that it was a’ass toopulse, which signifies a great sea.

Okay, so we see fairly early in the maritime fur trade (“contact” dating to Captain Cook’s visit in 1778), that a visiting Euro-American ship’s crew had pretty good communication with the Indigenous people of “Claaset” or “Classet”, as that locale was usually known then.

The Makahs speak a language very closely related to Vancouver Island’s Nuu-chah-nulth, and were visited often by fur traders who also came to the more famous “Nootka” on the opposite shores.

We can infer that any “Nootka Jargon” trading language was also used in Makah land.

A clue that this is so is the phrase cited by Duncan, < a’ass toopulse > ‘a great sea’.

The first word is recognizable by any Chinuk Wawa student as hayas(h) ‘big’. This adjective is said, in the authoritative 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary of CW, to be of unclear etymology. There it’s compared with the Nuu-chah-nulth-sourced CW word hayu ‘many, much’, and with Makah x̣ayaač’ ‘high’ and Ditidaht Nuuchahnulth x̣aačk ‘high’. (Which I might add seem to be cognate with most Nuuchahnulth languages’ sayaač’a ‘high’, an ancestor of CW saya ‘far’!)

The second word matches Makah & Nuuchahnulth tup’aɬ ‘sea; saltwater, ocean water’.

So the phrase all together seems to literally mean ‘high seas’, as in ‘rough waters’. Thus, essentially a synonym for the known Nootka Jargon phrase < Peshackness > and the Nuuchahnulth wiiqsii.

Having figured this out, we can infer that Captain Duncan had an unfortunate near-miss-understanding, grasping just enough Nootka Jargon to get the idea of bigness and the idea of saltwaterness. Howay says that Duncan took the Makahs as denying that there was a Strait of Juan de Fuca, which was indeed the idea (a Northwest Passage) that was on the minds of the Euro-Americans!

What I think we’ve learned here is a little more information about the ancestry of CW’s word for ‘big’, and how the original ‘high’ came to be taken as the more general ‘big’.

And we’ve discovered another apparent phrase of Nootka Jargon, showing the same syntax (Adjective followed by Noun) that we’ve seen elsewhere in NJ, as well as in CW.

What do you think?