Indigenous metaphor: ‘thing-Plural’ for ‘valued possessions’

Some linguistic work I was doing recently brought my attention back to the Lower Chehalis Salish word támtamaʔ ‘clothing; belongings; what you own’.

(Image credit: My Things)

I analyze that word into Lower Chehalis parts as:

  • the root tám ‘what; thing’
  • a suffixal reduplication of it, tam, creating a distributive plural
  • the ‘affective’ suffix -aʔ

All together, this amounts to a literal meaning like ‘all sorts of nice things’.

An alternative parse would’ve seen -aʔ as the a redundant instance of the Lower Chehalis ‘noun plural’. We’d normally expect the word to get “glottalized” by that suffix, into a shape like *tám̓tam̓aʔ* that we have not found. But that may have been one of the ways that Lower Chehalis speakers have thought about the word for ‘clothing; belongings; what you own’.

Either way, this Lower Chehalis word and Chinuk Wawa ikta-s (literally ‘thing-Plural’) calque each other. That is, even though they may not share any particular roots or suffixes, they have the same structure: root ‘thing’ + a marker of ‘plural’, generating the sense of ‘valued possessions’.

This same Indigenous metaphor and calque exists in Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan (the language I call Natítanui, from its word for the local people). There, the word for ‘property’ (valued possessions) is t-ktí-ma (Plural-thing-Collective.Plural) (Boas “Illustrative Sketch” 1910:240). And I suspect the final -ma of that word infuenced the form of the Lower Chehalis word, even though it is meaningless (i.e. not a suffix) within Lower Chehalis.

Once again we find evidence of the tight relationship between the linguistically unrelated Lower Chehalis and Lower Chinookan — which the historical and anthropological record tells us is for a simple reason: Lower Chinookans spoke Lower Chehalis, and spoke it pretty well, with Native outsiders. That kind of thing really happens; I understand the Cayuse tribe spoke Nez Perce with non-Cayuse people.

And we have yet another case of a Native metaphor getting replicated faithfully in Chinuk Wawa. As a rule, we can infer that such metaphors were already used in the Indigenous languages before 1794, i.e. before the earliest possible date I’ve found for CW to have existed.

I might have guessed that íkta-s is correspondingly a very old word within Chinook Jargon. One point of evidence for this claim would that the -s noun plural marker doesn’t seem to be felt as a suffix by most speakers of CJ. Everybody has used this word, even if they didn’t know English.

And speakers don’t freely generalize the use of -s to form additional CJ plurals. There are only a handful of other nouns that ever appear with -s in Jargon speech, and usually it’s an anglophone Settler saying those forms.

However, a check of the old dictionaries suggests to me that íkta-s is not terribly old. I find it as far back as James G. Swan’s 1857 memoir, but not in the solidly Fort Vancouver-era sources such as Horatio Hale 1846 or Demers, Blanchet and St Onge 1871 [1838].

Prior to Swan’s word list, the concept of valued possessions was expressed by the simple Jargon root íkta, which works okay, because as you know, nouns don’t change form to express plurality in this language.

So the form íkta-s indeed may reflect the lower Columbia River region Native metaphor (Swan learned his Jargon on Shoalwater Bay, among Lower Chehalis and Lower Chinook people). But it does seem to reflect the somewhat later time when English exerted a stronger influence on CJ.

Bonus fact:

The beautiful valued possessions that you have are represented by another Indigenous metaphor in Chinuk Wawa, this one known to us only from Salish:

Words for ‘flower’ have an Indigenous metaphorical meaning, ‘pretty thing(s)’ e.g. clothing, jewelry, etc.

  • Chinuk Wawa tatís ‘flower; pretty thing(s)’ is from Tillamook Salish.
  • Lower Chehalis spáq and x̣íʔsiʔ ‘precious things*; ornaments’ are words for ‘flower’.
  • The Cowlitz and Upper Chehalis Salish dictionaries have x̣íʔsiʔ translated as ‘flower’.

I haven’t found this metaphor in Lower Chinookan, where Boas 1910 has ‘flower’ sharing a root with ‘copper’ and ‘torch’ (and CW ‘bright’, although in LoChnkn he has it as ‘light, to shine’ and ‘bloom’.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?