Is this offensive word in Chinuk Wawa from métis French?

Here is a small set of real, if objectionable, data that I ask you to seriously analyze:


(Image credit: Amazon)

One of the known words for African-Americans in Chinuk Wawa:


JK Gill < Neg’ga > ‘Negro’

The above seems to be confirmed by its presence, as a loaned word probably from the Jargon, in…

Southwest Washington Salish:

Upper Chehalis < Ni’gû >

(Most loan words in Upper Chehalis can be proved to have come from Chinook Jargon.)

But, the surprising detail here is the difference in the first vowels.

If anything, the Upper Chehalis version, having an /i/ sound, is more like what we would expect in a direct loan from the English “n-word”. 

Why then does JK Gill specify it as an /e/ vowel? He certainly would be aware of the English word, and he wasn’t known for gratuitously altering the pronunciations of Jargon words. There must be a reason for that /e/

Could it be that Canadian / métis French nègre ‘black; black person’ exerted some influence?

That language was an enormous factor in the development of Chinuk Wawa in its lower Columbia River homeland.

And there were métis French-speaking families in Upper Chehalis country long into the 20th century.   

We would expect any CW descendant of nègre to have been pronounced /neg/, because Canadian French /r/ and /l/ typically drop off the ends of words. (When they follow an already “closed” syllable, that is.)

Examples of that pattern, as preserved in the Jargon, include:

  • liprét ‘priest; minister’ from Fr. le prêtre
  • latáb ‘table’ from Fr. la table
  • ledjób ‘devil’ from Fr. le diable

So, CW < Neg’ga > / < Ni’gû > aren’t perfect matches for the expected French form /neg/, because they have vowels at the end. That detail makes them a reasonable match with the English n-word.  

But that /e/ vowel…hmm.

I wonder if another Upper Chehalis word for African-Americans, néqamounts to a clue here.

That word is derived from a native Salish root for ‘black’, nə́q, having a schwa for its vowel. (Compare the synonym nəq-ús ‘negro’ in Lower Chehalis & Upper Chehalis, literally ‘black-face’.) 

In SW WA Salish, schwa can mutate into /é/ to form a Diminutive — so néq would appear to mean something like ‘little black one’. 

And yet, I see no compelling reason for a word for black folks to be a Diminutive in Upper Chehalis. Other ethnonyms don’t work that way in the language.

Plus, normal Diminutive formation in Upper Chehalis would also see a glottal stop added in, thus *néʔq*. I don’t see such a form in the dictionary of that language. 

Could it have been that Canadian French /neg/, and/or CW < Neg’ga >, were instead the force that influenced Upper Chehalis speakers to mutate their nə́q to the similar-sounding néq?

qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm? What do you think?