Even more traces of Canadian/métis French “calumet” (‘pipe’) in early-contact PNW

In a previous post, I claimed to have discovered a previously unrecognized French loanword < koulama > in early Chinuk Wawa, meaning ‘pipe’.


A Hudsons Bay Company pipe (calumet) tomahawk (image credit: Cisco’s Gallery)

In that post I tallied these forms of that same word as loaned into Indigenous languages of the region:  

  • as k’álama in Clackamas Upper Chinookan (without any Chinookan gender etc. prefixes, so obviously a loan),
  • as  aya-k’álamat ‘his pipe’ in Kiksht Upper Chinookan (with such prefixes),
  • and as chalámat in Sahaptin.

I also noted such a mainly-inland Indigenous language distribution of an old North American French word for a trade item, the calumet ‘(peace) pipe’ (see McDermott’s “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French” 1941:41), suggests it was borrowed in overland fur-trade days, which were:

(1) before CW took in a lot of French influence from 1825+, and

(2) before CW spread up the Columbia circa 1840.

Let me call your attention to the significant variation in the first consonant of it, in the various Native languages, both above and below — a sign that they’ve had the word for a relatively long time.

I’m now adding to the list of languages that I see as having this loanword:

  • kelé•met in Nez Perce,
  • q’walé[-]m’ɬ-tn’ ‘pipe’ in Lower Cowlitz Salish,
  • and q’walí[-]mɬ-n’ ‘tobacco, pipe’ in Upper Chehalis Salish

We can add that the forms farthest upriver (Nez Perce kelé•met) are closest to the full French word calumet — which I infer, like many North American French words, retained its final /t/ in pronunciation. The forms farthest downriver (Salish) are the most divergent. 

So it’s as if the very earliest Canadian French-speaking overland fur traders, around 1800 AD, introduced calumet in the inland Pacific Northwest, where they had worked for some time before the establishment of Fort Astoria/Fort George (1811) and Fort Vancouver (1825) brought them to Chinookan country. 

And I get the impression that a succession of Indigenous tribes passed the word along downriver, leading to its increasing shortening and phonological nativization. So by the time calumet reached farthest downriver, in southwest Washington, Native people were evidently folk-etymologizing it as containing the ancient Salish root *q’ʷal ‘to scorch, (burn to) ashes, black; roast, ripe(n); berry’ for ‘burn/cook/ripe’. That spelling < koulama > by Gabriel Franchère is a pretty fair match for this. 

(For a metaphor parallel to the native Salish one, compare Chinuk Wawa’s páya ‘fire; cooked, ripe’!)

Therefore, the Upper Chehalis and Cowlitz Salish forms above are not straightforward borrowings of the French word. In fact, they display the logical result of the folksy idea that the word calumet contains *q’ʷal ‘burn, cook, etc.’ — These words are based on an inferred verbal stem *q’ʷal-m’əɬ-, where -m’əɬ is the Salish “implied object” suffix, so the meaning is essentially ‘burn something; do some burning’. Finally, the -tn’ / -n’ is the Salish “instrumental” suffix signifying “a thing used for ___”. 

We might think that Cowlitz q’walé[-]m’ɬ-tn’ and Upper Chehalis q’walí[-]mɬ-n’ aren’t forms of calumet at all, since they are fully analyzable into Salish parts. But given the many demonstrable instances of calumet in a whole string of adjacent Indigenous languages, and the close resemblance in sound and meaning, I argue that we’re justified in adding these two languages to our data set on this word. 

What do you think? qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?