Métis “coulee” and “kuri / kuli”

hayu masi kʰapa Darrin Brager, man yaka kwanisəm nanich ukuk nayka t’wax̣-x̣umx̣um hom-iliʔi.

touronds coulee saskatchewan

Tourond’s Coulee, Saskatchewan, a Métis historical site (image credit: Indigenous People’s Atlas of Canada)

Darrin sent in what may be a clue to a Chinuk Wawa word that we’ve always considered “French” in origin, but whose etymology could stand some clearing-up.

Once again we have a case where, if we finally look to the Métis people, we may understand CW history better.

Darrin noticed a Michif-language “word of the day” from the excellent Gabriel Dumont Institute for the noun, a ‘stream’:


In standard French spellings, this would be une petite coulée, ‘a little stream’.

(In the sound file of this phrase at the GDI site, I can’t hear the /p/. Small surprise, considering Chinuk Wawa’s name chiza ~ pʰchiza, etc. for the Métis folktale character Petit-Jean.)

The etymology of this Michif < koolii > has to be French coulée ‘a flow; a stream’. That word, in turn, derives from French couler ‘to flow; run; skip; slide’. (Related, way way back, to English colander, ultimately from Latin cōlō ‘to filter, strain, purify’.) The Métis word entered western North American English as an equivalent to ‘gulch; arroyo; ravine’, becoming a frequent part of place names in my part of eastern Washington, coulee.

This < koolii > got Darrin thinking of the Chinook Jargon verb kuri / kuli. In the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary “As Our Elders Teach Us…”, that word is given the etymology

From French courir (probably reflecting a dialect pronunciation \kuri\…).

He wondered if the MIchif compound for ‘stream’ could be related to Jargon kúri / kúli. I suspect he’s right, and that that’s kind of an untold story.

Before I explain how, I’ll make a few remarks about the quoted Grand Ronde 2012 etymology:

Its comment above about a “dialect pronunciation \kuri\” confuses me, I have to admit. It references, I’m supposing, an idea that Métis French (MF) might normally pronounce the infinitive form as /kurir/, with a final “R”. But I say “might” because I don’t have a ton of reference material on MF at hand to confirm such a notion. The Louis Riel Institute’s nifty small textbook “Speaking Michif-French: Teacher’s Manual” happens to show only the finite (non-infinitive) form of the verb ‘run’, < cor >, and no other “-ir” infinitives. Turning to the French part of the mixed Cree-French Métis language, Michif, which is much better documented than MF, is still scant help because Michif has almost no French verbs. It does have lots of French nouns, but hardly any of these (in French or Michif) end in -ir, so we can’t even check how such a sequence would sound in a non-verb word! 

Chinook Jargon expert George Gibbs (1863) suggests specifically the French-language imperative form “courez!” as the source of kúri / kúli, and I agree with his insight. Most Chinuk Wawa verbs from Métis French (and/or possibly from very early Michif) come from command forms, as Gibbs probably noticed by being around Pacific NW Métis speakers of both French (and/or Michif) and CW. Important to realize: infinitive courir and imperative courez! would both be /kuri/ in the characteristic pronunciation of the Red River Métis. But you see, who would ever think, or say, a French infinitive by itself in conversation 200 years ago?

About the Jargon pronunciations: variation of “kúri” as opposed to “kúli” wasn’t rare in the Fort Vancouver days. We see the version with “R” documented in the 1853 “Columbian” word list, 1858 AC Anderson, 1865 G Stuart, and perhaps implied in T Winthrop’s 1863 < couway >.

So now I’ve made all the clarifications that are strictly necessary to the French etymology of Chinook Jargon’s verb kúri / kúli ‘to run’.

At this point I’d like to kuli (‘wander / travel’, which is the usual Northern CW dialect use of the word) along to Darrin’s idea.

I really suspect, but haven’t found any published authorities to back me up, that the long history of French courir ‘to run’ and couler ‘to flow’ involves lots of mutual influence between those two verbs. I’d imagine this was going on even back in France long ago. Virtually all European languages that I speak or have studied use the metaphor that STREAMS “RUN”. As similar-sounding and -meaning as courir ‘run’ & couler ‘flow’ are, I expect the chances that folks blended their uses are quite high.

Let me give you a comparable example that’s currently happening in American English — for about 10 years I’ve been noticing how lots of folks say “hone in on” (to mean ‘focus on; get to the central issue of’), instead of the previously existing phrase “home in on”, but you still hear that one also. Would you seriously dispute that home in & hone in sound similar? And that they have conceptually similar meanings? (‘Home in’ gives me an image of finally reaching a central point; ‘hone in’ puts me in mind of finally sharpening a blade to the desired degree. Close enough for jazz, eh!)

In my view, even though the Métis noun < koolii > / coulée has never been a part of Chinook Jargon, it’s still very likely that historically that word influenced the speech of Red River Métis people who played a huge role in shaping CJ. Thus the perfect Jargon dictionary might include an etymological note that also references < koolii >. 

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?