tíntin ‘bell’ isn’t *just* onomatopoeic

Everyone seems to sing the same tune, that tíntin is an onomatopoeia, but does that really “count” as an etymology?


(Image credit: “First Lessons in Arithmetic” by Edward Olney, 1885)

Here are a couple of examples from the Chinuk Wawa literature:

tintin gibbs

Tin’-tin, n. By onoma[topoeia]. A bell; a musical instrument. Mamook tintin, to ring a bell. Among the Indians round the Hudson Bay Company’s posts, the hours were thus known; as, mokst tintin kopet sitkum sun, two hours, i.e., two bells after noon.

—  George Gibbs 1863:26


…tiŋtiŋ (or tintin) is the ringing of a bell;…

—  Horatio Hale 1846:636

But has anyone paused the music long enough to consider which language it comes from?

Yes, even “ideophones” (onomatopoeias), which folks often assume are as primeval and instinct-driven as caveman talk, do vary from culture to culture.

That’s why my very smart dog Jackie says “bow wow” to me, but “kong kong” to Balinese people!

So you can quite often pin down whose language one of these mimicking words traces back to.

The huge majority of onomatopoeia-based words in Chinook Jargon can be proved to come from Lower Chinookan languages. This includes ɬk’úp ‘cut’ and chxə́p ‘extinguish’.

From another Indigenous source, the Jargon has p’ú ‘shoot’. This goes back to “Nootka Jargon” days prior to CJ.

…But I think tíntin is a very special onomatopoeia.

Unlike virtually all other sound-imitating words in CW, this particular one isn’t to be found in the traditional lexicon of the Chinookan languages, a great reference being Franz Boas’s 1910 “Sketch” of Lower Chinookan grammar.

Granted, the superb 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary of Chinuk Wawa notes this word’s presence…

  • in Kathlamet Lower Chinookan, as an uninflected “particle” tíntin (which is normal for onomatopoeias in that language family), but with a meaning as a noun ‘bells’ (which is weird, because native-Chinookan nouns effectively always show up with gender- and other prefixes on them),
  • and in Kiksht Upper Chinookan, as an inflected noun root, in iɬ-tíntin ‘bells; the Indian Shaker church’ and a-tíntin ‘singing’, also connected with the Shakers.

However, there weren’t, in the old traditional cultures, many metallic items to speak of.

And the Indian Shaker Church, with its ringing of hand bells, didn’t come into existence until 1881 — and it didn’t spread from Puget Sound to the Columbia River until a bit later than that. The word tíntin dates rather earlier than that in Chinuk Wawa:

tintin demers blanchet st onge

Demers, Blanchet and St Onge 1871 [1838]:21

Also noteworthy is that tíntin‘s meaning expanded to denote Euro-American musical instruments and singing, but I think not Indigenous music culture. As seen above, we tend to find tíntin referring to post-contact stuff, whereas traditional stories use native words for ‘singing’, ‘drums’, etc.

So any ‘ringing’ sounds presumably came in with the early-1800s Euro-American newcomers, and their culture trait of metallurgy.

I personally think Hale’s comment above (which by the way matches the Grand Ronde dictionary’s idea of the best etymology) is on the right track. English ‘ding-ding’ is an excellent candidate for an etymology of tíntin. It’s the best one, as a matter of fact, for Hale’s tiŋtiŋ, i.e. tingting. As a native speaker of English, I can tell you that this is a word that we all understand — and we’d expect it to be pronounced as tíntin in early-days Chinook Jargon, with the strong Indigenous influence on pronunciation typical of those days. (No languages of the lower Columbia River area have /ŋ/ phonemes.)

But it’s worth considering Canadian French as well. I expect the canadiens in the Pacific Northwest had a similar way of imitating bell-ringing, as in the traditional song:

Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.

I don’t know if Canadian/métis French has a “bell” exclamation like “din(g)-din(g)”. That would be phonetically [dɛ̃dɛ̃], a less-good match for the Jargon tíntin, because we’d expect such a French word to result in a Jargon pronunciation like *tátá* or *tété*. On the other hand, though, Canadian French is credited by the early CW experts with a number of other sound-symbolic and/or baby-talkish words in the Jargon, such as bibi ‘kiss’ and huyhuy ‘trade’. It’s notoriously difficult to find many Canadian French words documented in print, I’ve found, so unless positive evidence turns up, I’ll stick with English.

The news for today: tíntin is specifically an English-sourced Jargon word.

Bonus facts: 

A teacher of French who I know tells me that tintin [tɛ̃tɛ̃] is the sound of distant bells, while ding-dong is what nearby bells sound like. If you were a laborer at Fort Vancouver, which would you hear?  


At right: Fort Vancouver bell tower in 1846 or 1847 (image credit: Fort Vancouver Historic Structures Report)


Replica bell tower at Fort Vancouver (image credit: Library of Congress)

And this: you tell time in traditional Chinuk Wawa by counting bells, as George Gibbs implies. In the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary you can find an elder saying qʰénchi tíntin álta? ‘What time is it now?’ That’s literally ‘How many bells is it now?’ Presumably this goes back to Fort Vancouver times, when at least some hours of the day were rung to regulate work and church life. 

Vive l’archéologie linguistique!

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm? What do you think?