Steering through possible etymolgies of ʔaptsit ‘stern, rudder’

In my article “Etymologies or ‘Oops’,” I suggested that Chinook Jargon nouns starting in /up/ preserve a sort of Chinookan ‘Instrument’ prefix.


“Native and dugout canoe, Celilo, Columbia River”, 1897 (image credit: Oregon History Project)

To be precise, I suspect those words contain Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan u- ‘Feminine (Singular) noun’ and p- ‘Instrument’.

There I also noted 2 nouns having different vowels before the /p/, 

  • i[-]p[-]t’łikʰi ‘curve, arc’ [this may have been intended by Father St. Onge as ‘bow [for arrows]’, which is arc in his native French]. The i- is Lower Chinookan ‘Masculine (Singular) Noun’.
  • ʔá[-]p[-]tsit ‘stern, rudder’ (one of the few words currently spelled with a glottal stop at the start, which may be superfluous). The a- would be Kathlamet Lower Chinookan ‘Feminine (Singular) Noun’ — that’s a Native language of the old Fort Vancouver area — or the same from Upper Chinookan.

Today I want to add to this last noun’s etymology.

The 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary of Chinuk Wawa quite rightly finds SW Washington Salish a likely source, citing good matches in Lower Chehalis (used in a myth) and Upper Chehalis, where it also means ‘front seat of a car’.

Emma Luscier in 1941 told researcher John P. Harrington that the Lower Chehalis hereditary ʔál’əsəs tiʔ ‘canoe chief’ (literally ‘their chief’) would decide to make a journey, and would sit in the stern and direct the paddlers. This explains why an old word for the back of a canoe became the term for the driver’s seat of an automobile in local Salish! (By extension, maybe we can now call drivers ʔál’əsəs tiʔ 😁.)

I also find in Lower Chehalis the supposed synonym ~ ʔácan ‘canoe stern’ from Charles Q’lti (Cultee) in 1890. This may or may not have been a local variant of ʔáptsit. A difference that I can point out is that ʔáptsit isn’t analyzable as a Salish word (I speak as someone having a decade of SW WA Salish work under my belt) — but ~ ʔácan is possibly native to Salish. Compare the sister language Quinault, where ʔácən is said to be the ‘bow of a canoe’…which is the opposite end from the ‘stern’.

I seriously wonder if Franz Boas misunderstood Q’lti here, as on a number of other points, or if the Quinault dictionary maker Ruth Modrow misinterpreted speaker Hannah Bowchop, etc.

Anyways, if ʔáptsit didn’t start out in Salish, where could it have come from?

The most common solution to questions like this is to go seeking in the Chinookan neighbor languages of Salish.

And it happens that in the original “Chinook” language (I mean the first one called that by outsiders), Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan, there is a verb root written by Franz Boas as -tct ‘to move on water’. That notation indicates a pronunciation we’d write as “cht” in the modern Grand Ronde alphabet. And in Chinookan (also in Lower Chehalis Salish), we know there’s variation between “ch” and “ts” sounds, so this Chinook root can legitimately be thought of as also being pronounced -tst.

That’s effectively the same, to my linguist ears, as -tsət or -tsit. I mean you’d likely perceive a schwa or /i/ sort of vowel between the /ts/ and the /t/ in a language of the lower Columbia River.

By my reasoning, Chinuk Wawa’s ʔáptsit may have originally been a Lower Chinookan word that we haven’t spotted yet in the existing data on those languages, but having an inferable meaning as ‘an instrument (tool) for traveling on water’.

Bonus fact:

I’ve found yet another example of a word loaned in the opposite direction, from Salish to Chinookan:


(Charles Q’lti, “First Ship Seen by the Clatsop”, in Franz Boas’s “Chinook Texts”, 1894, page 277.) The root there is Southwest Washington Salish ts(‘)úsaq ‘nail’, itself easily analyzable as literally ‘hit the head’ in Salish. I’ll always remember that this was the first Lower Chehalis word I ever heard, as Tony Johnson (Chinook Indian Nation) recalled one of his uncles teaching it to him.

Here’s a thing that I find deeply striking:

I keep finding Salish, and very specifically Lower Chehalis, words for early European trade goods. What’s more, I find these loaned into the other SW WA Salish languages as well as into Lower Chinookan.

It’s hard for me not to see in this pattern a reflection of the known Lower Chinookan use of Salish language(s) to talk with “outsider” Indigenous people.

  • The earliest direct trade in Euro-American goods was between (A) Shoalwater & Clatsop Lower Chinookans (and Lower Chehalis Salish living together with them), and (B) well-stocked but sporadically visiting sailing vessels, from the early 1790s.
  • Lewis & Clark visited Clatsop and “Chinook” lands for several months in 1805-1806, bringing a few new trade products.
  • Fort Astoria / Fort George, in Clatsop territory, was built in 1811. It remained the major trading center for Euro-American items until Fort Vancouver took over from 1825 onward.

Ergo, non-Indigenous merchandise, and words for it, diffused outward from Lower Chinook/Lower Chehalis-speaking territory.

And because more of the neighbors understood Salish than the famously difficult Chinookan, some of the new items’ names that caught on were Lower Chehalis neologisms, like ts(‘)úsaq ‘nails’.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?