Implications of foreign in-laws: Against pre-contact CW

In all things, words have implications, and this applies to Chinuk Wawa’s history…


(Image credit: OuiInFrance)

In Natítanui Lower Chinookan (Shoalwater-Clatsop), I notice a kin term,


with the stunningly specific translation ‘their woman married into a foreign tribe’. 

(The u- is the feminine singular noun marker, -ɬa- means ‘their’, and the rest is the noun root/stem.)

I’ve found 5 occurrences of this strangely translated word in Charles Cultee’s “Chinook Texts”, published by Franz Boas in 1894 by the US Government Printing Office in Washington, DC. They’re all in “AnēkctXō’lEmix Her Myth”.

I readily admit that I don’t feel my grasp of anthropological kinship theory is the most solid. So I wouldn’t want to make more of today’s tidbit than is warranted.

What I’d like to present to you is some context for it.

Here’s what’s known of affinal kinship terminology (relatives by marriage) in the Chinookan languages, based on my searching in collections of stories. The morphological segmentation and phonologization of these 7 root forms is by me, and any mistakes are mine. 

(A couple of the following are additionally known to us from rarer, older, southern-dialect Chinuk Wawa words: yátum ‘[anyone’s] sister-in-law’ and íqsix̣ ‘[anyone’s] son-in-law’.)

(Key, in order from coastal to farthest upriver on the Columbia:
N= Natítanui Lower Chinookan (Shoalwater-Clatsop)
K = Kathlamet Lower Chinookan
C = Clackamas Upper Chinookan
W = Wishram/Wasco/Kiksht Upper Chinookan)

  • (1) DIFFERENT GENERATIONS — apparently reciprocally used
    • (A) Husband’s
    • (B) Wife’s
      • C wá-kšdi ‘[woman’s] mother-in-law’, i-dčá-šti ‘her father-in-law’
    • (A) Of local origin / speaker of same language as me (?)
      • (i) Same sex
        • (a) Husband’s
        • (b) Wife’s
          • C wa-gá-tum ‘her sister-in-law’ (a woman’s sister-in-law)
      • (ii) Different sex
    • (B) Foreign / speaker of different language from mine (?)

I want to draw attention to that final category, (2B), tentatively identified as “Same Generation, Foreign / speaker of different language than mine”. By adopting this classification, I’m wondering aloud if those two terms might constitute a single category. We just have to think quite a bit about the odd translations given for them. 

Based on hardly any evidence at all, and that being vague (!!), I’m thinking that these two in effect denote traditional interpreters. These would be the folks who I’ve kept claiming functioned in aboriginal times to enable communication between communities speaking different languages. 

According to Verne F. Ray’s 1938 ethnography of the Lower Chinookans, “residence was uniformly patrilocal” (page 73). That is, a married couple lived in the husband’s home community. Now, the Natítanui u-ɬá-šinmaiɬ in the text I examined is the title character, AnēkctXō’lEmix, who has married into the local tribe and is thus living among her husband’s people. So, it’s they who are the ‘their’ of whom she is a relative; in other words, they are what anthroplogists call the ‘ego’ from whose perspective the kin relationship is reckoned. I’m breaking this down into a detailed understanding, to show that the ‘foreign tribe’ is them, themselves. And she’s their sister-in-law (also their daughter-in-law etc., but none of the otherwise applicable Chinookan words for her are used). 

The Kathlamet i-á-qaqšən ‘his [Mink’s] relative’s brother-in-law’ …. also translated as ‘the woman’s relative’ (page 113)  and as ‘the old man’ (page 114, 115, 116) in the fluent English translation of the “Myth of the Mink” … is a relative of Panther’s wife, living with Panther. Thus a foreigner, right?  

Dutifully looking for ways to disprove my own analysis: An alternative interpretation that I can imagine turning out to be true would be that these two supposed ‘foreign same-generation sibling-in-law’ terms would be myth-word synonyms for the regular in-law terms. In that event, these two words needn’t necessarily imply foreignness in themselves.

Maybe someone reading these words of mine will put forth still another way of seeing things. 

But I’m inclined to explore the implications of Chinookan languages having specialized nouns for your “foreign” in-laws. If it’s safe to infer that “foreign” = “foreign-language-speaking”, it seems to me that the well-known pre-contact “chain of interpreters” way of translating is embodied in the very lexical structure of the kinship system.

And so the existence of the concepts expressed by the roots/stems -qaqšən and -šinmaiɬ may form part of our argument that no such thing as Chinuk Wawa, or any other pidgin / trade language, was needed prior to contact with Euro-Americans. 

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?