4 words for ‘star’ in Chinuk Wawa

A language mostly documented by short lists of words can still surprise you!

greg robinson star

Miniature panel depicting a star, by Greg A. Robinson, Chinook Indian Nation (image credit: Quintana Galleries, where it’s for sale)

#1: “łak’ísi”

I was glancing at my linguistic colleague and acquaintance Anthony P. Grant’s “Survey Chapter: Chinuk Wawa” in the Atlas of Pidgin and Creole Language Structures Online, and noticed his mention that CW…

…was bolstered with smaller accretions from Coast Salishan languages (specifically Lower Chehalis…and probably Cowlitz, as in older Chinuk Wawa łak’ísi ‘star’…

This surely arrested my attention. I’m always interested in finding Salish words in CW that are specifically Cowlitz. Coming from a local language of the Fort Vancouver area, i.e. from 1825+, they’re from a slightly later stratum than the formative (1794+) Lower Chehalis (plus Clatsop-Shoalwater Chinookan) layer.

And this łak’ísi was unfamiliar to me. It’s not a word that you’ll find in Chinook Jargon lexicons after the Fort Vancouver era. I only know it from the 1853 “Columbian” word list, James G. Swan’s 1857 book about Shoalwater Bay, and the 1858 exploitive gold rush job inaccurately attributed to Alexander Caulfield Anderson. Those sources spell it as “klakeece”, “kla-ceece”, and “klakeee” respectively.

I’m not sure where Anthony got his impressive, and probably correct, phonetic reading of the word. The ɬa- portion would seem to be the (Kathlamet) Lower Chinookan “neuter/indefinite” prefix ɬ- (not a Salish element!). The –k’ísi stem corresponds to kásiʔ ‘star’ in M. Dale Kinkade’s 2004 Cowlitz dictionary — I’m not sure why a “plain” /k/ corresponds with a “popping” /k’/ here. For a better match of vowels with the Jargon word, I especially take note of Horatio Hale’s form in Cowlitz, txlatçílis ‘star’ on page 138 of the dictionary (accidentally not included in the main entry for kásiʔ). That word could be taken as partly influenced by Chinookan (and Chinuk Wawa) tsíltsil ‘button; star’! 

Upper Chehalis Salish, farther inland from the Columbia River and closer to old Fort Nisqually than to Fort Vancouver, actually has the best match for Anthony’s form, ɬač’ís, since newer Salish /č’/ comes from older Salish /k’/. It’s also useful to realize that Lower Chehalis and Quinault Salish use a totally different root for ‘star’, xʷákʷ

Interestingly, in Franz Boas’s “Kathlamet Texts” from Q’lti (Charles Cultee), we find just the native pan-Chinookan word t[-]q’ix̣ánap ‘stars’. (There’s a separate word in Lower Chinookan languages for ‘morning star’, which I take to be ‘Venus’.) So the Cowlitz and Upper Chehalis Salish words for ‘star’, even though they apparently contain Lower Chinookan ɬ-, are apparently using a Salish root. Aert H. Kuipers’ 2004 “Salish Etymological Dictionary” connects at least the Cowlitz word with Proto-Salish *kʷusən ‘star’.

#2: “tsíltsil”

Documented even earlier, and much more widely than any other ‘star’ term, is the CW word for ‘brass buttons’, tsíltsil, from a Chinookan ideophone word. That is, this word apparently “sounded like” shiny things to Native ears. This word also means ‘star(s)’ in the dictionaries, and I’d like to contribute the observation that this may very well be due to (A) the frequent graphic design of Euro-American brass buttons, with a stylized 5-point star, and/or (B) the similarity of a row of gleaming buttons to a constellation of stars. Figure 14 in Louis Caywood’s “Final Report: Fort Vancouver Excavations” shows buttons found there, but no star designs, so make of this what you will.

#3: “le-sit-well”

Joel Palmer’s 1847 book reports this obviously French-derived word for ‘stars’ in Oregon of the Fort Vancouver era, another of the many contributions of the Red River and other Métis to Chinook Jargon. The standard French spelling is les étoiles.

#4: “stars”

John Booth Good’s 1880 dictionary from southern interior British Columbia reports something typical of Chinook Jargon in that region toward the end of the 1800s — a new borrowing from English.


This assortment of influences, ranging over a couple of Indigenous language families and a couple of European-derived speech forms, is certainly typical for Chinuk Wawa. I was happy to learn so many historic CW words for ‘stars’!

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