More about the early-contact origin of elackiè ‘sea otter’

A couple of years ago, I argued for a Salish etymology of the rare old Chinuk Wawa word for ‘sea otter’, < elackiè >.


Cowlitz otters 🙂 (Image credit: Columbia River Images)

That word is found in Lower Chinookan, as i-laki or i-ilaki.

My 2019 article suggested that this is a borrowing from the widespread Salish suffix (yes, suffix) for ‘hair; fur’. 

Specifically the coastal Quinault Salish language seemed the most probable donor.

Today I want to share a little more information.

I’ve now found Lower Cowlitz Salish ‘skin, hide’, < /ƛ̓əʔílkl- > as M. Dale Kinkade represents it in his 2004 dictionary. That is, he treats it as a root (by placing a slash before it) that’s bound (by putting a dash after it, he shows that it needs further suffixes), and one that can’t be analyzed into smaller parts. Dale was quite conservative in that way, refraining from parsing a word unless he perceived a lot of corroborating evidence. 

An interesting fact is that, when occurring with the Nominalizing prefix s-, this word is translated as ‘robe, blanket’. 

Now, I have a couple of conclusions about this form that differ from Dale Kinkade’s. 

For one, I’m confident that this Cowlitz “root” is actually a “stem”, made up of several meaningful parts.

Salish words, especially in southwest Washington (what’s called the Tsamosan branch of that language family), normally build on roots that are 3 letters long — to be precise, CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) in form. 

The root here is easily identifiable; it’s ƛ̓ə́ʔ ‘to hunt for, to harvest, to go get’, also often found as ƛ̓áʔ. (In a Grand Ronde style of spelling, these would be t’ɬə́ʔ / t’ɬáʔ.)

Second, in these languages, that root most typically is followed by some kind of noun, often what’s called a lexical suffix, a Salish affix referring to some kind of physical object. And again it’s quite recognizable that here we have -ilq ‘hair, fur’. This is a variant of the cognate -alq(i) that I wrote about in the article mentioned above. Lexical suffixes in SW WA Salish do occur with their first vowels varying among a ~ i ~ u, with possible but not yet defined shades of meaning difference. Did you notice that I write this suffix with a q, not the k that Kinkade shows? It’s my understanding that he got this form from the work of Franz Boas, and when Boas was working with a language that he had little experience of (Cowlitz was one such) tended to confuse those two sounds.

Third, I believe this stem ends in -ɬ, meaning something like ‘Intransitive Perfective’. Again I’m differing with Kinkade. But the fact is that the various inflected forms of the Cowlitz stem for ‘skin, hide’ shown in his dictionary all show this voiceless “slurpy L” sound — except for one form, where a vowel follows the stem, causing voicing to a “plain L” sound. To my understanding of these languages, the evidence shows us a final consonant that’s a voiceless ɬ.

All together, I think this stem that we’re told means a noun ‘skin, hide’ literally (and perhaps in actual use) is a verb ‘hunt for furs’ — prototypically for sea otters, in the early era of contact with Euro-Americans

Having analyzed the Cowlitz stem in this way, we can take away a couple of useful ideas.

A) Here for the first time, we find a Salish lexical suffix for ‘hair; fur’ with exactly the vowel that we’d expect. (Basing our expectations on Alexander Ross’s Chinuk Wawa < elackiè > ‘sea otter’, and on the Lower Chinookan (i-)i-laki.) 

B) Cowlitz ƛ̓əʔ-ilq-ɬ- provides us with another very clear example of something I claimed in my previous article — that foreigners such as Chinookans could fairly easily separate out that lexical suffix for ‘hair, fur’. There were plenty of Chinookans who spoke Salish, we know. And there are plenty of ƛ̓əʔ- formations in Salish, a large number of them involving nouns that are not lexical suffixes but (otherwise) freestanding words. So a foreign speaker of SW WA Salish could, and perhaps was really likely to, take -ilq as a word for ‘furs’ or ‘sea otter’ in its own right, and borrow that “word” into Chinookan.

C) It looks possible for us to date such a loaning from Salish to Chinookan, because, as far as we have information on aboriginal life patterns, sea otters were not necessarily the most important fur until after the Euro-American “Drifters” showed up. 

To establish which direction of borrowing is implied by this Cowlitz form’s existence, it would help to know about the historical range of this marine mammal.

If sea otters were not prominent in Cowlitz country, inland from where the Cowlitz River joins the lower Columbia, that would tip me in favor of seeing < /ƛ̓əʔílkl- > as evidence for an originally Quinault Salish form, taken into coastal Lower Chinookan, then brought up the Columbia. In that case, the Cowlitz stem would indicate Salish re-borrowing from Chinookan…or from Chinuk Wawa! (And, that scenario would make it more likely that the Cowlitz form really contains a k rather than a q, since we have the Chinookan word recorded only with a supposed k.)

Because sea otters are described as a coastal and estuarine inhabitant, I tend to lean toward this view. 

But if sea otters were a typical Cowlitz-country critter, then < /ƛ̓əʔílkl- > could quite easily be totally native to Cowlitz Salish.

In either case, I think today we’ve added useful knowledge on the background of a historically important word.

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?