Loanwords into BC Interior Languages: Métis Traces

Continuing our exploration of Métis connections to the Pacific Northwest landscape, let’s feature several nouns from the interior of British Columbia.

[Edited after posting, to add Word #7.]


Métis in BC (image credit: Métis Nation British Columbia on Facebook)

Word #1

Spelled < sagunaz > in the modern way of writing the Nakalbun dialect of Dakelh (Carrier), a central BC Dene (Athabaskan-family) language, this is pronounced /sagʌnaz/. I’ve also seen it spelled sagonaz. In the historically significant dulk’wahke (‘frog tracks’) syllabics, that’s ᙓᗱᘇᙆ . This noun means ‘Englishman’ and is considered to now be in disuse.

Its etymology is in the unrelated Algonquian-family language Ojibwe, which has (to give one old spelling) saganash, suspected to be a borrowing from old-time Canadian French les anglois (modern-day standard spelling les anglais). I’ve found the word in an 1800s anecdote of Ojibwes from the Wikwemikong area, spelled Jaganache; I’ve also found Saganâche. The National Museum of Canada’s “An Ojibwa Lexicon” has $a:kana:$$ ‘Englishman or Canadian’. Compare this with the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary entry zhaaganaashiimowin ‘the English language’. 

I consider it important to note that this is an old-fashioned word in Dakelh, and that it’s known to be Ojibwe. There’s never been much of an Ojibwe-speaking community in BC; that language has its homeland in the vicinity of the historic Red River Settlement in Manitoba (etc.). So, how did this word wind up a totally foreign language, way over in BC? 

As I understand things, in early fur-trade days, when the employees typically came from Québec families that were of mixed Indigenous and French origin — the “small m” métis — fluency in Ojibwe was normal. And later, as the “Big M” Métis Red River Colony took shape, again there were non-Native men marrying Native women and speaking good Ojibwe at home. Although large percentages of the Métis came to use Cree as their main language, they preserved a number of “heritage” words from Ojibwe. This history, according to linguist Peter Bakker, explains why some Ojibwe words have wound up being present in their descendants’ Michif (mixed Cree & French) language. 

And Métis were most of the workers in the historic fur trade, using Cree not just in the vast swaths of Canada where it’s traditionally spoken, but bringing it into their contacts with such BC ethnic groups as the Ktunaxa and the Secwépemc Salish. Some members of those groups learned and used good Cree for this reason, for a while. 

Now, I haven’t been able to find traces of Ojibwe saganash in Métis French, nor in Plains Cree (which contributed the “Cree half” of Michif), nor in modern-day Michif.

But I hypothesize with fair confidence that it was the speech of Métis people working for protracted terms of years in British Columbia’s fur trade that brought saganash to the province. And I specifically would guess that it’s Métis French (historically known as BC’s “French of the Mountains”) that brought this noun, because much more than Cree, there’s abundant evidence proving Métis French was used by lots of Indigenous tribal people here.

As I have recently pointed out, Métis French was the lingua franca of BC until Chinuk Wawa nudged it aside. 

All of these observations seem to me to harmonize into a picture where saganash was a word in use for ‘White people’ / ‘Englishmen’ at a time when those folks were a really new entity in BC, the first half of the 1800s. The English language had very little influence that I’ve detected from the historical record, as the Britishers were way outnumbered by the many Indigenous ethnic groups. So, in practice, it came to be Métis French “of the Mountains” (and to a lesser extent Plains Cree) that turned out to be easy enough for BC tribespeople to learn and use in conducting their trading and diplomatic relations with the newcomers. 

We’ll see more evidence below of the involvement of Métis French, and of how saganash got replaced by still other Métis words in BC languages. 

Word #2

In the unrelated language, Tsaaʔ Dane / Dane-zaa Ẕáágéʔ / ᑕᓀᖚ ᖚᗀᐥ / “Beaver” Athabaskan, we find the Cree-sourced “mǫniiyas” “White-man”. In Tɬįchǫ (Dogrib Athaskan of the Northwest Territories) we find its cognate, mòla(i) ‘white people’. 

Of course this word also exists in Saulteau First Nation Cree of northeast BC, the farthest western community of Plains Cree speakers. I’ve heard that First Nation described as the location of one of the westernmost known Métis settlements, tracing roots back to Red River. 

Previously I’ve told you on this site that this same word, a Plains Cree diminutive of the French place name Montréal, turns up also farther south, in BC, in a Chinuk Wawa setting. 

Little more need be said, I think, to show that this word in BC (and NWT) tribal is due to the presence of Métis fur-trade employees.

Word #3

In BC linguist Bill Poser’s extraordinarily good online Stuart Lake Carrier Dictionary, I notice < (lu)meljah > (ᘤ)ᘋᑊᘛᑋ /(lʌ)meldʒah/ ~ < lumajoo >  ᘤᘍᘔ /lʌmadʒu/ as one of the words for ‘white person’, with its etymology considered opaque.

I’d suggest a specifically Métis French source such as les américains [lii amaaričε̃ ], which has the typically Métis French lack of liaison (according to Peter Bakker in his 1997 book on Michif). That is, it’s not pronounced as in the standard French [lezamεrikε~].

In the French part of Michif, ‘America’ and ‘American’ are always < La Mayrik / La Maenrik >, leading me to speculate that BC Metis “French of the Mountains” was in effect calling USA folks “Lamericans”!

Dakelh folks had sufficient familiarity with French of the Mountains to conceivably have taken it on themselves to separate out the French definite article, giving the known variant pronunciation meldʒah.


Word #4

Another Métis French word in Dakelh displaying a parallel palatalizing sound change /k/ => [č], said by linguist Peter Bakker to be particular to Métis French, is < ludi musjek > ‘Labrador tea’ (literally ‘muskeg tea’). Here Plains Cree (which I remind you is also the Cree part of Michif) apparently supplied the known Metis French form “məškeg“, which in its turn transformed into ~ “mʌs.čeg” in BC.  


Word #5

In the Nak’azdli dialect of Dakelh we find < sooniya > ‘money’, also used in the Nazko dialectStuart Lake dialect, etc. This is from a Plains Cree word for ‘money’. Compare Turtle Mountain Michif < shooneeyawsh > (synonym larzhawn from French). 

This same word is also known farther south, in Nlakapamx and St’at’imc (Thompson and Lillooet Salish) country, in Chinuk Wawa.

Again, by virtue of being Plains Cree, this is word we can ascribe to Métis presence, activity, and influence in historical British Columbia. 

Word #6

Missionary Adrien-Gabriel Morice’s article “Carrier Onomatology” says much about French in Dakelh country. One example I want to lead my readers to is, page 654, the place name “Francois Lake”, a.k.a. Lip or French Lake. It’s not named for an individual person, Morice takes care to specify. Instead, it’s a locale where there were plenty of foreigners who called themselves ‘French’, françois [fra~swε] in historical Métis speech.

I have to tell you that in modern Turtle Mountain Michif, ‘French’ is a different word < lee kanayaen ~ lee kenayaen >, and in the Dumont Insitute’s online Michif dictionary it’s the modern pronunciation < lii fraansay >. In this instance again, I see a trace of Métis speech of an earlier time remaining in BC. 

Word #7:

ᘊᔆᑐᔆ / ᘊᔆᑌᔆ < Musdoos / musdus > ‘cow, domestic’ in Dakelh is clearly from Plains Cree ᒧᐢᑐᐢ mostos ‘cow; buffalo; cattle’.


The preceding list of words may at first glance look confusingly complex to you, with Ojibwe, Plains Cree, and distinctly Métis French words showing up in BC tribal languages and the BC dialect of Chinuk Wawa.

But this instantly becomes a single, simple picture once we realize that those are the languages of the Red River Métis, who are for a fact known to have been working and sometimes settling in the province from the early fur-trade days.

Bonus fact:

Dakelh people have been dealing with folks who came from outside of BC for quite a while. One consequence is that they have many synonyms meaning ‘White person’. Among the more recent ones (1858 or later, we expect) is the familiar Chinuk Wawa-sourced < Bosdun > ‘White man’; ‘American’. 

Now this gets very interesting. Americans weren’t in the Cariboo (Dakelh territories) in noticeable numbers until the 1858+ gold rushes. So, word #3 above, a synonym for ‘American(s)’, indicates that Métis French was still in active use at least that late. 

And if we trust the linguists who have documented Dakelh, the pronunciation of < bosdun >, i.e. [bostʌn], is quite notable as well. (I place great reliance on Bill Poser’s decades of dedicated research with Dakelh communities.) The vowel /o/ in this word is not what we expect in Chinuk Wawa, where the general North American English dialect pronunciation /a/ is the rule: bástən. The simplest explanation that I can provide under the circumstances is…

…Dakelh < bosdun > was influenced by the well-known older North American French word bostonnais ‘White person’. I’m inferring that the earlier historical stage of Métis French that was in use as BC’s French of the Mountains still had this word — which is known in its sister dialect, Mississippi Valley French, but is absent from the modern Michif and Métis French dictionaries. 

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?