A “CJ” loan in Klamath tells us something more ancient

I was using M.A.R. Barker’s “Klamath Dictionary” (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1963) for some research — resulting in one article already on this site — when a really obvious loan word appeared before my eyes.


A truly ancient coyote, 10,000 years old (image credit: FossilMuseum)

That previous article is “The Klamath language preserves Métis influence“. It’s a good read, just saying.
I’ve also recently posted “CW múwatʰwas ‘Modocs’ is Klamath for ‘Pit River Indians’“.

In that article, I briefly mention the entry that caught my notice enough to write today’s separate piece:

kʼolyʼaˑ […] coyote. Also skʼolyʼaˑ in apparent free variation. Informants stated that this is not a Klamath word but possibly Chinook Jargon.

That’s no CJ word that we’ve ever seen!

I figured it was actually from a Sahaptian language, maybe X̣ʷáɬx̣ʷaypam (Klickitat) Sahaptin. The Klickitat people, famous for roving over massive ranges of territory, were present from the Klamath area as far north as the Mt. Adams region of Washington state and as far south as the Umpqua River in Oregon; nowadays you’ll be told most of them are enrolled in the Yakama and Grand Ronde tribes.

(A Chinuk Wawa-related fact about the Klickitats is that one of their chiefs in southwest Oregon was known as “Socklate Tyee” in the 1840s. That’s CW sáx̣ali táyí ‘high chief’ or ‘high-country chief’, which is also the usual name of the Christian god.)

But all dictionaries of Sahaptin that I know, from Pandosy 1862 to the recent ones by Beavert and by Rude, have only spílya for ‘coyote’ (with a variant spilyáy as the myth character’s name). That word is native to the Sahaptian languages as far as we know, and it was loaned into some neighboring Interior Salish languages such as Spokane.

But I didn’t find a Sahaptin form resembling the Klamath (s)k’ol’ya.

So I did a literature search, and it turns out GMTA (great minds think alike 🙂)…

The late anthropologist, specialist in Chinookan cultures, and advocate for Chinuk Wawa, Dell Hymes, wrote a book review of Barker’s dictionary (along with several other publications) in American Anthropologist 71(1):131-138 (February 1969). I’m grateful to find it.

On page 133, in a discussion of Barker’s uneven handling of loanwords into Klamath, especially Chinuk Wawa ones, Dell pointed out this same word:

In Klamath Barker reports k’olya, sk’olya ‘coyote,’ with the informants stating that it is not a Klamath word but possibly Chinook Jargon. In fact -sk’ulya is the Wishram-Wasco [Kiksht] Chinook normal form; if transmitted by Jargon, its presence in Jargon is not attested. And in fact, close mutual acquaintance of the Wasco-Wishram and the Klamath, despite location at opposite ends of Oregon, is indicated by ethnohistorical evidence (cited in Spier and Sapir 1930) and the presence in each of a common name for the other (Wasco, -ɬa-maɬ ‘their-large body of water’ [when English “Klamath”], Klamath, ‘amp- [possibly related to ‘ambo — ‘water,’ p. 26). Direct loan of sk’olya is especially probable, since exchange of stories would have occurred on the Wasco expeditions to Klamath territory, and since Coyote occurs under this very name both as the principal figure in Wasco myths and in two of the four Klamath myths containing Coyote published by Barker (Klamath Texts, University of California Press, 1963) (15, 16, narrated by Peter David, as distinct from 2, 3 narrated by Mrs. Phles — that the form is used by the male narrator of the two is further evidence).  

Jargon itself is not adequately controlled by Barker in assessing the vocabulary. The word ch’i:k — ‘wagon’ is listed as “onomatopoetic: named for noise of the squeaking wheels” (p. 91), which is correct, except that the naming was first done on the Columbia River in the early nineteenth century (a notebook from the archives of the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology attests to the form; it is general in Chinookan and spread via Jargon). One fears that Barker probably did not collect Jargon during his stay at Klamath. Only a few years remain to secure more adequate knowledge of the spread, local adaptations, and nature of the Jargon in Oregon: and the one recent body of material obtained from the late Siuslaw Clayton Barrett at Florence, Oregon, in 1953 by one Robert Melton of Columbia [University] now seems lost from sight.

[Folks seem to agree that Morris Swadesh’s graduate student Robert Melton dropped out of Columbia and unfortunately disappeared from academic sight, along with his Chinuk Wawa field data. 😫 Is the the same fella who was a high-school assistant principal in 1960s California?]

Anyways, sure enough, as Dell says, it’s only in Kiksht Upper Chinookan (and in none of its sisters downriver) that we find this word (i-sk’úlya) for ‘coyote’. Kiksht is in fact one of the 3 major Native languages of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation community, and it’s easy enough to tell from entries in Barker’s Klamath dictionary that there has been plenty of contact with what it generically labels as “Warm Springs” people.

How interesting that Klamath indeed pidginized the Kiksht word, removing the highly salient masculine noun prefix i-, just as also happened to many Chinookan words that entered Chinook Jargon.

Another detail that fascinates my mind is that the Kiksht Chinookan noun stem -sk’úlya ‘coyote’ bears such a resemblance to Sahaptin spílya ‘coyote’. Kiksht speakers are the Chinookan community in closest historical and present-day interaction with Sahaptian-speaking groups. And one thing we know for certain about the Sahaptin (the language, including its Umatilla and Yakama dialects) is that -ya(y) is the ‘Personifier’ suffix, as Noel Rude’s Umatilla dictionary calls it. Its function is to name myth characters. Compare related Nez Perce, where Aoki’s dictionary has it as -yeye ‘a suffix to personify animals’.

So the roots we’re talking about here in these ‘coyote’ words may both be from Sahaptin, *k’ul and *pil.

Extending this thought, the Columbia River Sahaptins themselves have an oral history memory that their territory used to be populated by Salish speakers. And an ancient Salish root word for ‘coyote’ resembles (s)k’ol'[-]ya; it’s given by Aert Kuipers in his 2004 “Salish Etymological Dictionary” as the unusually morphologically complex Proto-Salish *s-n-k’əl([-]ap).

By far the majority of items reconstructible to Proto-Salish, the earliest accessible ancestor of the modern languages, are single morphemes — short roots of CVC shape (consonant+vowel+consonant), or affixes. This fact causes me some skepticism; I’d think *s-n-k’əl([-]ap) ‘coyote’ is actually from the somewhat later stage, Proto-Interior-Salish, which Kuipers reconstructs with longer roots and stems. This word could easily then have been loaned into the two nearby Coast Salish languages that now have cognates of it, Upper Chehalis and Stó:lō. The latter language has two variants of this word,

  • s-lə-k’iy[-]ép with lə- as we’d expect due to regular sound changes from earlier *n-,
  • but also one without this prefix and anomalously reduplicating the root, s-k’ə•k’iy[-]ép. 

It’s as “slək’iy[ép” was morphologically “opaque” to Stó:lō minds, which perhaps then tried to make more sense of it by seeing it as a typical Stó:lō reduplicated form. In fact both variants’ /y/ from earlier */l/ is diagnostic of the neighbouring Interior Salish language Nɬeʔkepmxcín, Thompson River Salish!

Correcting the analysis of *s-n-k’əl([-]ap) to be a Proto-Interior-Salish word has an effect of geographically restricting it to oldtime Interior Salish territory. Here I repeat that Interior Salish people are reported by Sahaptians themselves to have previously occupied modern Sahaptian territory. Our ancient Interior Salish root *k’əl for ‘coyote’, by the way, mutated within nearby Salish languages to /č’əl ~ č’ər/ about 200 years ago, but it’s preserved in its ancient form in Chinookan (and Klamath), which must therefore have received this word quite long ago. 

During that long-ago time of multicultural Indigenous contact, Sahaptians must have picked up the Salish stem *s-(n-)k’əl(-ap), perhaps folk-etymologizing the *-ap suffix into their native ‘Personifier’ -ya(y). It has to have been Sahaptians (or, I admit, some folks treating this word as if it were Sahaptin!) who passed the resulting stem, approximately *sk’əlya, along to Kiksht Chinookans. 

The Kiksht Chinookans then supplied this originally Salish word to the Klamaths as i-sk’ulya.

The Klamaths had sufficient familiarity with Upper Chinookan (“Warm Springs”) ways of talking that they were perfectly capable of removing the incredibly frequent Kiksht prefix i-. The Klamaths had no significant exposure to Salish speakers, so they didn’t know that the s- was a Salish noun-marking prefix; but they surely also recognized is- as the similarly frequent Chinookan ‘dual number’ noun prefix (i)s-, which conventionally shows up on all kinds of common words. (Including ones that non-Chinookans see as singular, e.g. ‘a robe made of skins’.)

By either and both paths, Klamaths would ultimately wind up with the forms actually documented in the Klamath language, kʼolyʼaˑ and skʼolyʼaˑ.

Quite a historical picture, isn’t it? 

This is one of my favorite aspects of doing historical (or as I call it archaeological) linguistics; you can legitimately puzzle out, detective-style, quite a lot of ancient history, even though none of it was ever written down!

I’m completely fascinated that a proper understanding of the story of this word requires us to recognize the interactions between 4 linguistically unrelated groups of people.

“Language contact” in the Pacific Northwest goes back an extremely long time…are you aware of what’s been called “the Great Mart of the West” at Celilo?

See bonus fact #3 below, for some entertainment involving this same Salish ‘coyote’ root.

Bonus facts (really 3 tangents for fun):


Could Klamath ‘ambo ‘water’ have any connection with the place name, “Umpqua”? That name is typically said to be Athabaskan (e.g. by William Bright). Seems worth investigating further, delving more deeply into both Klamath and Tolowa/Siletz Dee-ni word structure.


Hymes’s book review mentions his own etymological analysis of the Chinookan (and then early Chinuk Wawa) word for a ‘mirror’: -ts-x̣-i-l-u-qmi-t ‘those two little ones (eyes) see themselves in it’. Dell knew much more than I yet do about Chinookan grammar, so I want to recommend considering his view over the one I expressed in “A Chinookan etymology for ‘mirror’ “.


The late, phenomenal Spokane Tribe elder Pauline Flett used to tell us in her Salish language classes that her people would tease each other with the nickname sneč(‘)rús.

Well actually, that’s me dignifying her word by trying to write it in the Spokane alphabet.

The way I remember this is that Pauline would say it almost as if it were English, “snatcheroose”. She explained this word to us as being connected with Salish mnéč ‘shit’, with the noun-marking prefix s- and the suffix for ‘face’, -ús … so it essentially meant ‘poopface’ to her.

The funny thing to me always was, why didn’t Pauline ever say this word with the “M” sound that you need to properly say ‘shit’ in Salish?

And where did that “R” sound come from??

Well, in the intervening 25 years or so, my research has indicated to me that Salish speakers have an ancient tradition of humor that involves making puns. (Here’s a link to my paper on it.)

At first I thought Salish puns might just be a Coast thing. But in saying “snatcheroose“, maybe the Interior folks here were punning ‘poop’ with their own typical way of saying ‘Coyote’ (a version of which is in that Klamath borrowing of skʼolyʼaˑ above). This is something like /…nč̓r…/ in modern Spokane Salish.

Coyote is the notorious creative/destructive myth hero…so why not affectionately call a friend or a close relative ‘Coyote face’, with an overtone of ‘poop face’? Plus, in the stories, Coyote’s go-to move is to ask his brothers, who are literally pieces of poo, for advice.

Not my call to make, understand, I’m not Native. But Pauline talked a whole lot about how much “Indians tease each other”…😁

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?