How many “HOWH” in Chinook Jargon?

In our Facebook “Chinook Jargon” group the other day, Greg Cleveland quoted his late grandfather as addressing him and other kids decades ago with “Howh klat’-a-wa.”


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Greg translated this as ‘scatter’, ‘get out of here’, or ‘go’.

The word  < klat’-a-wa > is instantly familiar to us as ɬátwa ‘go’.

Are you familiar with < howh >, though? It’s a word that’s now little-known. But there are ample traces of it in this language’s past.


The earliest recorded occurrence of a word similar to this < howh > in Chinook Jargon source might be Horatio Hale’s Fort Vancouver item from 1841, < hau! hau! hurrā! > ‘hasten! quick!’ (Page 639 of his published report.) Hale classes this as an expression formed “by onomatopoeia”, but I have doubts.

This < hau > is evidently Cowlitz Salish x̣áw (i.e. from Fort Vancouver’s local tribal language). (The Cowlitz dictionary by M. Dale Kinkade lists the verb root as x̣awə́lʔ, but that’s clearly a suffixed form. Our < hau! > is one of those occurrences where an Indigenous-language word is known to us only in another language, here in CW.)

Hale’s hurrā might be from English hurry, for all I know, maybe even a Scots brogue version via Red River Colony. I’d doubt hurray! as the source. Could it be from some Métis French etymology, though?


George Gibbs’s rightly much-respected 1863 dictionary of Fort Vancouver-area CJ has this word as < howh >calling it an interjection. In the space where he typically provides an etymology in each of his dictionary entries, he has an Indigenous word HAUKH, but doesn’t specify which language it’s from. He defines < howh > as ‘turn to’ and ‘hurry’. (In the English-to-CJ section, he gives a synonym < hy-ak’ > for the sense ‘hurry’. )

Interesting for a linguist like me — this particular spelling < howh > suggests a different source language, Cowlitz’s northerly neighboring sister Upper Chehalis Salish, with its x̣áxʷ ‘fast, quick, hurry, (early)’. This root is a normal cognate of the Cowlitz form we’ve just seen; there’s plenty of /x̣ʷ ~ w ~ xʷ/ variation in this branch of Salish.

(We don’t seem to find a comparable form in the sister languages Quinault and Lower Chehalis, except in an old word for ‘river rapids’…but see also our Bonus Fact, below.)


The dictionary attributed to Father FN Blanchet, published in Oregon in 1873, has < howh > ‘to turn’, but not with a meaning ‘fast’. The same goes for Portland entrepreneur JK Gill’s dictionaries, which incorporate the Blanchet one. Nothing new turns up in other Chinuk Wawa dictionaries between 1873 and 1909, such as those of Hibben and of Long.


But GC Shaw’s 1909 dictionary out of Seattle has howh in the established senses of ‘hurry’ and ‘turn’ — and adds more meanings, the exhortation ‘ho!’ (synonym na, which we know from many other sources to function as an attention-getting ‘hey!’), and ‘silence’ (synonym kopet noise, literally ‘finish noise’).

Are ʹquick/hurry’, ‘turn (to)’, ‘ho!’, and ‘silence’ all a single word in Jargon? Yes, I do think all of these are indeed traceable to Southwest Washington Salish for ‘fast’. It’s not hard to picture this Jargon word being used in a variety of circumstances, for instance in:

  • the fur-trade work of paddling a boat or canoe, thus ‘quick(, turn us!)’
  • getting the attention of someone at some distance from you, thus ‘quick(, pay attention to me!)’
  • needing someone to rapidly hush up, thus ‘quick(, shut up!)’

In SW WA Salish, this < howh > appears to be a normal adverb. In those languages, an adverb is stressed, it’s intensifiable, and to some limited degree it’s inflectable as a verb in the 3rd person (‘it’s fast’, ‘they were quick’, and so on). When this root is spoken in isolation and with no further pronounced affixes, it’s indeterminate between a function as the verbal ‘it/she/he is fast; they are fast’ or an exclamation ‘fast!’

In the Jargon, by contrast — judging from the evidence in the dictionaries (we don’t have examples of the word in Chinuk Wawa sentences, other than Hale’s mildly puzzling expression) — < howh > was instead an interjection, just as Gibbs claimed. My personal definition of an interjection is a stressable word, usually having no other function or meaning, that serves as an entire sentence (utterance) all by itself.

In this word, which we’d write as x̣áxw ~ x̣áw in the modern Grand Ronde alphabet, we see yet again the too-often overlooked Salish heritage of Chinuk Wawa.

Bonus fact:

In his March 4, 1892 brief article in Science, Franz Boas reports a number of previously undocumented Chinuk Wawa words used in the lower Columbia River – Shoalwater Bay area. One of these is < hau’ansē > ‘let us’. That is, in PNW English as I’ve always talked it, “let’s!”

I wonder if this is from Lower Chehalis Salish, as so many of the words in that article are.

Then it would be something like x̣áwən̓sʔi ~ x̣áwən̓šʔi. Both would lie within the predictable range of variation for what we can analyze in that language as a use of a cognate of the same root we’ve been discussing today:

x̣áw  -ən̓š                                         =ʔi
~ ‘it would seem I’m hurrying’

This ‘Evidential’ =ʔi is used in several non-intuitive ways in Lower Chehalis. For example, it very often gets tacked onto question words (sounding incredibly polite to my brain!), giving literally ‘where does your paddle seem to be?’, ‘who does it seem to be?’, etc.

This would, well, seem to demonstrate traditional Indigenous good manners in conversation. I infer that our apparent Chinuk Wawa x̣áwənsʔi ~ x̣áwənshʔi, to write it Grand Ronde style, likewise shows a considerate Salish way of demanding that the person you’re talking with get off their butt. I doubt you’d ever scream this expression!

I’ll soon write more about some of the words in Boas’s piece that were “new” to CW scholars in 1892.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?