‘Cranberry’ is Salish

Lee & Frost’s “Clatsop” brief vocabulary list in “Ten Years in Oregon” (1844) is indeed Chinookan, but it’s Lower Chinookan as spoken with the White missionaries.


That’s how far down you have to bend to harvest swamp cranberries! (Image credit: Chinook Observer)

That is, it’s pidginized. In my view, it’s not a form of Chinuk Wawa, so here I’m differing with the thinking of scholars such as my friend George Lang.

I analyze this “Clatsop” vocabulary as something separate, a pidgin Chinookan starkly contrasting with the already creolized CW of Fort Vancouver:

  • The many Chinookan nouns in it typically lack “normal” Chinookan’s required gender/number prefixes u-, i-, t-, etc.
  • The Chinookan “dual” grammatical number is lacking, with the pronoun set simplified to singular vs. plural.
  • Verbal stem inflection appears to be absent (or invariable; pick your point of view). This is drastically different from the great complexity of “normal” Chinookan verbs.
  • The “Clatsop” word order is different from ChW, e.g. (Object – Verb – Subject) ‘tobacco eat I’ expresses ‘I will take a smoke’, which like other active transitive expressions would be S – V – O in the Jargon, as in Métis French or English. (Note the authentically Indigenous metaphor, though; ‘eat tobacco’ parallels SW Washington Salish ‘drink smoke’ as an idiom for ‘smoking’.) This same V – S “Clatsop” word order is used in a stative intransitive expression, ‘die I’, whereas Chinuk Wawa likes to differentiate stative V – S from active S – V – O order.

But this “Clatsop” pidgin Chinookan also uses various non-Chinookan, thus Chinook Jargon, words — as though the missionaries had had only quite limited success learning to speak Clatsop, and were therefore accommodated by the Clatsop people with words that the newcomers were more likely to understand:

  • Two of the most obvious are cloachaman ‘woman’ and mischemus ‘slave’, both etymologically from Nuuchahnulth up on Vancouver Island, BC.
  • There’s also lalo ‘wolf’, originally from Métis French le loup.
  • Sulumisha ‘cranberries’ is quite possibly from SW WA Salish.

I want to focus on this last noun today.

The 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes CW dictionary is right to point out similar-sounding Lower Chinookan nouns for ‘[swamp] cranberry’, all of them prefixed with i- ‘Masculine Singular’ and ending in /x/ instead of /š/. That’s very interesting!

Compare Lower Chehalis Salish ʔasúlm̓əš ~ ʔasúləm̓š and its very close cognate, Quinault ʔəsú:məš, where in both cases older Salish /x/ has undergone its regular historical development into modern /š/. These Salish forms also have a totally non-Salish but totally Chinookan noun prefix ʔa-, ‘Feminine Singular’ in Chinookan…as if the word had been sort of borrowed back into Salish from Chinookan!

(Taking a moment to tell you that there is a Salish noun prefix ʔa-, but it’s the 2nd person singular possessive marker, ‘your’. I see no great reason to believe that these Salish speakers ever called the plant and its fruit ‘your cranberry’!)


These forms, as well as the closely related Cowlitz language’s synonyms x̣ántmx ~ ɬántmx (preserving old Salish /x/), contain the ancient Salish “lexical suffix” *-(t)mx ‘ground, soil, place’. Perhaps the idea is of a plant that grows “right at ground level”? Cowlitz’s variant, ɬántmx, is flagged with a question mark next to its dictionary gloss as ‘cranberry’, and is said to also refer to kinnikinnik, a ground-hugging creeper if there ever was one, and similar in appearance to swamp cranberry.

(Sister language Upper Chehalis has x̣ántm for ‘cranberry’, where the lexical suffix has been reinterpreted into a Passive suffix -tm.)

The roots of these Salish words are a bit opaque. Cowlitz *ɬán and *x̣án (and Upper Chehalis *x̣án) have no meaning yet known. The Lower Chehalis and Quinault root is either *sul, which matches only an Upper Chehalis root of unknown meaning, or (“factoring out” the common Salish Noun prefix s-), *wəl ~*ul. These, however, are a very good match with Proto-Coast-Salish *wal ‘spill, tip over, capsize’.

(For the record, I’ve also searched, in vain, for the potential historically “metathesized” forms of all of the above root shapes, because Salish languages do a lot of that reversal. For example, if you’re searching for a Salish root *ɬán, you’re well advised to also seek *náɬ.)

So my hypothesis is that ‘[swamp] cranberry’ in Chinook Jargon is ultimately from an older stage of Lower Chehalis Salish, *s-ul-mx ~‘the thing(s) spilled all over the ground’.

A number of CJ words that I’ve found plausible etymologies for in Salish share this trait — they’re bits of older SW WA Salish preserved in the amber of Lower Chinookan, then passed along to the Jargon. Off the top of my head, I can think of t’əmánəwas ‘guardian spirit’, kʰámuksh ‘dog’, t’ɬəmínxwət ‘(to tell a) lie’, and təmstiyu ‘serviceberry’. To my thinking, this speaks to the very longterm bilingualism of the Lower Chinookans in Salish.

Here’s the whole Lee & Frost 1844 word list of “Clatsop dialect”:

leefrostclatsop 1

leefrostclatsop 2

leefrostclatsop 3

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?