What if…pʰishák is an ancestor of masháchi?

Thanks to re-reading FW Howay’s classic article “Origin of the Chinook Jargon“, I had a thought 🙂


(Image credit: Ruth Ann Nordin’s Author Blog)

On page 50 of that study, I saw him observing that the earlier (because Nuučaan’uɬ-derived, i.e. part of the “Nootka Jargon”) word pʰishák ‘bad’ was superseded by the at least somewhat later (because Chinookan-derived, i.e. part of Chinuk Wawa) synonym masháchi

Such a simple point. And true. Those Nootka Jargon words that didn’t get entrenched as cornerstones of CW vocabulary did get superseded by other words. 

But I’m thinking there’s a little more to the story. 

For one thing, while pʰishák indeed comes from Nuuchahnulth word for ‘bad’, masháchi comes from a Chinookan word for…’beautiful’! WTF! I’ve written about that previously here.

For another thing, when we think of it from a Natítanui (Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan)-language point of view, these two words are nearly identical. WTF again, right? Check it out: 

pʰ <=> m     by a frequently seen variation in pronunciation, which doesn’t change a word’s meaning
i <=> a     
because both can be understood to be fundamentally /ə/
sh <=> sh
á <=> á
k <=> ch   
by another sound alternation frequent in Natítanui and ubiquitous in Lower Chehalis Salish, which large percentages of Shoalwater-Clatsop folks also spoke

         … i     is extra, so let’s ignore it!

I’m proposing that we think about this close sound resemblance as maybe explaining how the Chinookan word for ‘pretty’ became the normal CW word for ‘bad’. That is, to Chinookan ears, the two words may have been hard to tell apart.

It may be the same sort of thing that gave rise to Quinault Salish míy[-]u for a ‘bee’, a word that I suspect is English bee + Quinault diminutive suffix -u. 

Here’s a Pride Month-related factoid:

The replacement of a ‘bad’ word by a ‘pretty’ word could (from a certain angle) be compared with the history of the English language, where older evil came to be replaced, as the antonym of good, by the word bad. Some scholars have claimed that bad comes from a word for a transvestite or hermaphrodite. Huh!

Anyways, us historical linguists know very well that words often come to mean their opposite, a process we call “amelioration” or “pejoration” depending on the outcome. In English, nice originally meant ‘clumsy’ or ‘weak’. Villain at first meant ‘villager’.

Bonus fact:

In my research, I’ve also demonstrated that western Washington Coast Salish languages seem to have a traditional form of punning. In that verbal art form, a full (inflected, stressed) word could be substituted by some word that sounded very similar to it (by a limited, principled set of correspondence rules) and had a meaning that was in some sense its antonym. So, did Lower Chehalis Salish punning contribute to the weird triumph of masháchi??

What do you think?