Q’lti’s “First Ship Seen by the Clatsop”: First-contact words in Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan

Told by Q’ltí (Charles Cultee), the 1894 publication “Chinook Texts” preserves countless cultural treasures.


Chart of the mouth of the Columbia River for 90 miles… (image credit: “The Konapee Wreck” in Oregon Encyclopedia)

One sample of those riches is his narrative “First Ship Seen by the Clatsop” Lower Chinookans. It’s the oral history of events surely more than 100 years prior to the telling, and if the ship was Spanish, possibly a couple centuries earlier than that. So it’s his people’s telling of first contact with Euro-Americans. Other versions of the story were told by “Soto”, Celiast, and Silas B. Smith.

But indulge me —
I have to stamp down any ideas that this story is about Sir Francis Drake.

Or, that Chinook Jargon played any part in the encounter.

My particular angle on this “First Ship Seen” thing is, the narrator uses a bunch of Lower Chinookan words for the commodities that the Clatsops discovered from the shipwreck.

He tells this, to be specific, in what I call the “Natítanui” (‘people’s’) language, Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan.

Some of the items were labeled, as you’d expect with totally new phenomena in a culture, names that were neologisms — they were descriptive words built from native Chinookan parts. We are going to figure out what their literal meaning is, some day; this will involve creating the first dictionary of Lower Chinookan. (I believe I’m going to start that dictionary now, and look for funding later.)

But, some of the new items got names that Chinookan borrowed from other languages.

Let’s see what kind of picture emerges from a list of these products.

I’m going to put in dashes to separate out affixes from stems (therefore I’ll remove any dashes that were already in the oldtime spellings), and I’ll distinguish /phonemic spellings/ of Chinookan from < older spellings >:

  • ‘copper’: a stem /wax̣[-]umi/ almost certainly based on the Chinookan root /wax̣/ ‘bright; shiny; flower; etc.’, which we know in Chinuk Wawa’s t’wáx̣ ‘light; bright’. The substance copper wasn’t technically a new thing to coastal Native cultures, but it would’ve shown up in brand-new forms in the shipwreck that Q’lti describes. Contrast with Clackamas Upper Chinookan /k’ə́š/ ‘copper’ (an ideophone or a bare root used exceptionally as a free word), which seems related to ‘brass’ below.
    • < i-āʹ-woxomē > ‘its copper’
    • < i-uwāXōʹmē >  ‘copper’
    • < ē-waxōʹmi-qL >  ‘copper’
    • < i-waXōʹmi-t > ‘copper’, compare Kathlamet Lower Chinookan < ē-waXōʹmi-t > ‘copper’
  • ‘iron’: a stem /qi[-]wiqi/, presumably Chinookan and analyzable into smaller meaningful parts. Compare Clackamas Upper Chinookan /wi-Gí[-]wiqi/ ‘iron’. For the apparent prefix /qi-/, which resembles the ‘Past Invisible Masculine‘ (perhaps connoting the mythical?) demonstrative stem /qi-/, compare ‘brass’ below. Perhaps /wiqi/ is a variant of a more typically shaped Chinookan ideophone */wiq/, which we’d then expect to connote e.g. the visual appearance of iron.
    • < ēʹ-qe[-]wiqē-ma > / < i-qē[-]wēkēʹ-ma > / < i-qē[-]wiqēʹ-ma > ‘iron’
    • < i-qē[-]wēʹqxē > ‘iron’ (also ‘knife’ per Gibbs 1863, who furthermore translates /u-ptsax̣/ as both ‘knife’ and ‘iron’)
  • ‘ship’: a root/stem /šip/ < Chinuk Wawa < English; we have to wonder what the oldtime Clatsops called the first ship that they saw, because the event happened earlier than we are able to prove CW existed. Of course it may have been a US or British ship, whose English-speaking crew could have supplied this word to the Clatsops.
    • < i-ciʹp > ‘ship’
  • ‘boxes’ [‘chests’]: a stem /(ƛ̓(i))qšən/ < Nuuchahnulth ƛ̓aḥiqs (literally ~ ‘flat on top; flat lid’ (probably via Salish, but not via Nootka Jargon, which would’ve English-ized the Indigenous sounds in the word, giving something like *”clicks”! In Salish, compare Klallam and Lushootseed ƛ̓úyəqs, and Lower Chehalis ƛ̓íqsn, which adds the SW Washington Salish -n(‘) ‘Instrument/Tool’ suffix, providing the form that Lower Chinookan borrowed. As usual, totally different, apparently native Chinookan, words for ‘box’ are found in the Upper Chinookan languages).
    Technically not a new cultural item, as “bentwood boxes” are a longtime PNW Coast product, but Euro-American chests would’ve been a sudden innovation.

    • < LE[-]qcāʹn-ukc >, where the suffix is ‘Noun Plural’ and in this form, Chinookans seem to have reanalyzed the initial /ƛ̓/ as the Chinookan Neuter/Indefinite Noun prefix /ɬ(ə)-/. Contrast this with the following form, where the /ƛ̓/ was heard as part of the root.
    • (in Geo. Gibbs’s 1877 “Alphabetical Vocabulary” of Lower Chinookan as a Feminine noun < o-kléukshin > ‘box’).
  • ‘nails’: a stem /cusaq/ < SW WA Salish c(‘)ús-aq, literally ‘hit head’. A different, native Chinookan-seeming word is given in Gibbs 1863.
    • < i-tsusāq-Ema > / < i-tsusāq-ama > — the suffix is the Collective Plural.
  • ‘brass buttons’: a root/ideophone /čəl/, apparently native to Chinookan (found also in Clackamas Upper Chinookan) and probably connoting some physical property of these buttons, such as their jingling when you buy a handful of them. (Compare Chinuk Wawa, from Chinookan, tíntin ‘bell’.)
    • < ēʹ-tcEl•tcEl > (fun fact, this word in Chinookan only means buttons of metal; the same shape made of wood was the Chinookan word that gave us Chinuk Wawa slahál ‘stickgame; stickgame playing pieces’)
  • ‘brass’: a stem /qi[-]k̓əš/, native to Chinookan as far as we know, presumably analyzable into smaller meaningful parts; compare Clackamas Upper Chinookan /k̓əš/ at ‘copper’ above. For the apparent prefix /qi-/, compare ‘iron’ above. Perhaps /k̓əš/ is another ideophone e.g. connoting the visual appearance of brass/copper; it’s of the right shape (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant) to be such a thing in Chinookan.
    • < i-qē[-]k’Eʹc > / < i-qē[-]k’Eʹs > ‘the brass; brass’

The strong generalization here is, I think, is that Lower Chinookan speakers had a ready-made (conventionalized) mechanism for naming new stuff.

Chinookan languages use a large number of “sound- and appearance-symbolic” words, the ideophones — which provided the nucleus for new noun stems to be coined.

Chinookans also had a tradition of using noun stems borrowed from and via neighboring Salish. 

Understanding these facts helps us to understand the origins of various words known to have been used in early Chinook Jargon. 

Also briefly note, from other source documents:

  • ‘A brass pin’: < ōʹ-kualäʹpkaʹn > (in a different story, Boas 1894:125) — this word looks possibly Salish.
  • Geo. Gibbs’s 1863 ‘brass; bracelet (of brass wire)’ < klikʹwalli > might be built on the same root.
  • We can recall that an early Chinook Jargon word, from Chinookan, for ‘glass; mirror; bottle’ is from Chinookan for ‘flint‘.
  • Early CJ ‘gun; musket’ /sə́-qʷalala/ (e.g. Gibbs 1863; Jacobs I) was Chinookan; it looks as if it were built on the same ideophone that I recall as connoting the ‘sound of an arrow flying through the air’. (I’ve also found a fairly widely loaned early-contact SW WA Salish word for this item, as well as for ‘eyeglasses’ and such.)
  • Clackamas Upper Chinookan ‘brass thimbles’ /iɬ-sk’ály-uks/ (Jacobs I).
  • Clackamas ‘brass finger rings’ /iɬ-qiƛáyudax̣/ (Jacobs I).
  • ‘White man’s hammer’ Gibbs 1863.
  • ‘Gunpowder’ Gibbs 1863.
  • ‘Keys’ Gibbs 1863.
  • ‘Powder horn’? Gibbs 1863.
  • ‘Ring’ Gibbs 1863, which gave us the Chinook Jargon word for this item.
  • ‘Scissors’ Gibbs 1863.

Bonus fact:

Not concerning a new cultural product, but in the same publication, Boas 1894:85 (and on page 235 etc.), I see a Lower Chinookan /ɬ[-]ʔwíluɬ/ ‘cedar bark’. (Also as /ɬ[-]wíluɬ/ on p. 191, and as /ɬ[-]á[-]qʷiluɬ/ ‘her cedar-bark’ (p. 245), /ɬ[-]á[-]kʷiluɬ/ ‘her cedar-bark’ on p. 240 of his “Pregnancy and Birth”.) This has to be a borrowing from the SW Washington Salish q’ʷíl-əɬ ‘cedar bark’ (known in Lower Chehalis, Quinault, etc.). That’s to say, Lower Chinookan normally varies an original /q’/ sound to a /q ~ ʔ ~ k/, but Salish languages don’t. Under these conditions, SW Washington Salish languages would be unlikely to uniformly wind up with the /q/ sound that they have for this word.

Similarly, in the “First Ship” story, there’s a Chinookan word for a traditional Native product, < c-pāʹyix > translated as ‘curried deer skin’, phonemically something like /š-paix̣/. Franz Boas tells  us this is a noun in the Dual number, as the prefix indicates; this may be true, as the Dual prefix gets used to indicate a product made from “a couple/few” of something. (As in the word loaned into early Chinuk Wawa, < sewellel > ‘mountain beaver’, originally meaning a robe made of their skins, then in CW the name of the species.) The root/stem /paix̣/ is remarkably similar to the common SW WA Salish euphemism for deer. Euphemism, I say. A taboo name that you might use during hunting season, so the deer don’t hear their name and get spooked. In Salish, the word is p’aqʷ-ús ‘grey-face’. So I suspect Chinookan may have borrowed this root/stem, too, from neighboring Salish.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?