Boas 1892: Many discoveries in a short article (Part 2: ‘bone of fish’)

Not just any old bone!


yak’ísiɬ-pʰìk’w? (image credit: Wikipedia)

The great linguistic anthropologist Franz Boas’s brief 1892 piece, “The Chinook Jargon“, is really more of a letter to the editor of Science than a full article. For that reason, it’s all the more important. It punches above its weight class.

In this letter, Boas reports recently noticed developments in Chinuk Wawa as spoken along the lower Columbia River and Shoalwater Bay.

The majority of these newer CW words come from the Lower Chehalis Salish language, which had already been contributing lots of material to the Jargon since its beginning in mixed Lower Chehalis/Lower Chinookan country.

Today’s second word in our mini-series drawn from Boas 1892 is:

< pēk‘ > ‘bone of fish’

Knowing what we know about Boas’s ways of writing Indigenous-language sounds, we can identify this with Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa pʰík’w ‘(a person’s) back’.

This is indeed from Lower Chehalis, cf. in James G. Swan’s 1857 memoir < ten-pake’ > ‘back’, which more exactly means ‘her/his back; their backs’.

In none of the sister languages have I found a comparable word. They all, however, have an almost certainly related “lexical suffix” for ‘back’, -ič(n), which traces all the way back to anciently spoken Proto-Salish.

When Boas translated this word < pēk‘ > into English as ‘bone of fish’, he was kind of off the mark. Boas was thinking of what he’d been told — in Chinuk Wawa — by his elder consultant Q’ltí a.k.a. Charles Cultee.

And that amazing language expert was, as he so often did, attempting the impressive feat of defining a Jargon word in Jargon.

salmon backbone

Salmon backbones are good in fish stock (image credit: Eat Simply, Eat Well)

Q’ltí must have told Boas, as we can approximately back-translate, that this word “pʰík’w, kákwa pus wáwa, “sámən yaka bún”.” (‘pʰík’w, it’s as if to say, “fish’s bone”.’)

What Q’ltí of course had to have had in mind was the most culturally prominent “bone” in a “salmon” (the generic word for ‘fish’ in lower Columbia River-region Chinook Jargon) — its backbone (spine). I’m no big fisherman, but I’ve read plenty enough to know that traditionally fish were sliced along the backbone in various ways, and the backbone itself was preserved in the drying process.

No other subset of a fish’s skeleton (not even the whole shebang) makes any sense as a commonly discussed topic that would have its own special word, considering that the generic bún (from English bone) was already present in the Chinuk Wawa vocabulary.

We obviously can infer that Q’ltí was using pʰík’w in the particular context of fishes. But, like bún, it’s a generic term, too, in the sense that it applies equally well to human’s backs and to a fish’s backbone. I assume that if for some reason we were translating the names of US football teams into Chinuk Wawa, the Razorbacks of Arkansas would be something like the yak’ísiɬ-pʰìk’w (‘sharp-backs’).

It’s remarkable that Boas’s passing comment in 1892 was the only mention of this and quite a few other words in the entire Chinuk Wawa scholarly literature, until Henry Zenk’s work in the 1970s-1980s with Grand Ronde elders radically strengthened our understanding of this language. We owe chup henli huge thanks!

Bonus fact:

The word for someone’s ‘back’ in northern Chinook Jargon is bak, from English. We see this word often in the Kamloops Wawa newspaper, and < bone kopa back > for ‘spine’ shows up in GC Shaw’s 1909 dictionary out of Seattle.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
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