Chinuk Wawa ‘mole’ from a Salish metaphor?

Are pigs and moles similar, in a Salish point of view?


The Townsend mole (image credit: Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife)

This thought came to me as I was working with vocabularies of Chinuk Wawa that trace back to Father Demers at Fort Vancouver. One eventual published version thereof has an entry < kilapailemai >, ‘mole’ (the animal). That’s k’ílapay-lima ‘turn(ed)-hands’ if you put it into the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary style of writing. It’s a purely CW coinage, as far as my research can show — there’s no parallel expression for moles in the Indigenous languages that helped form the Jargon. So that’s that, at least for now.

But, in the course of looking into that question, I noticed something else about ‘mole’ words in SW Washington (“Tsamosan”) Salish, that I can relate back to Chinook Jargon:

  • Lower Chehalis púk̓ʷə́l̓-məš ‘mole’
  • Upper Chehalis p̓k̓ʷə́l-məš ‘mole, (gopher)’

In dividing those 2 words into meaningful parts, I follow linguist M. Dale Kinkade by treating these as having the suffix -məš ‘earth, ground, soil, dirt’. Now, a frequent element preceding such a “lexical suffix” in Salish is the “stem extender” –ə́l(‘) (which can be stressed or unstressed),which can give a sense of ‘in, at, etc.’ If that element is present in this pair of words, we might compare the initial sequence p(‘)(u)k̓ʷ with the Upper Chehalis root púk̓ʷ ‘float’, or the Lower Chehalis root p̓ək̓ʷ ‘flash, fire, etc.’. But those seem nonsensical to me.  

So I want to suggest another tried & true strategy for parsing Salish words — consider “metathesis”. That’s a process that has historically been super-frequent in Salish languages, where 2 consonants switched places. What if our ~ p̓k̓ʷə́l shape were a methathesis from the root we know in an early Chinuk Wawa word (apparently from Cowlitz Salish), p’alə́k’ʷ-qs ‘hog’, literally ‘digs – with.the.nose’ in Salish…

Then, p̓k̓ʷə́l-məš etc. would have to mean ‘dig – the.dirt’. Makes sense, for mole behavior, yeah?

This idea works all the better for me when I consider that the metathesis leaves precisely the consonant /l/ that Salish likes to have (as that “Stem Extender” suffix) following its most typical root shape, CVC (consonant + vowel + consonant). Well, puk̓ʷ is a nice example of a CVC root shape! And we know Salish languages like to “reduce” root vowels down to schwa (/ə/) and even to nothing, in the process of forming full words, so p̓k̓ʷ likewise probably comes from an original CVC shape. I’m saying that the modern Lower Chehalis and Upper Chehalis words for mole both likely sound to a native speaker “like” they mean ‘dig – in – the.dirt’.

Fascinatingly, the Washington State Fish & Wildlife’s website says the Upper Chehalis Salish word here means ‘hands turned backward‘, but it doesn’t cite a reference for that weird claim. And if you read the first couple of sentences in today’s article, you realize that this just represents a Salish speaker defining the word in Chinuk Wawa! The CW term for mole does mean ‘hands turned’, etc.

Bonus fact:

In another neat resonance between pigs, moles, & Chinook Jargon, one of the CJ terms for a ‘seal’ is < Siwash cosho >, literally ‘Native pig’. That phrase has always mildly mystified me. But now that we’re seeing how moles are named in Jargon for their flipperlike hands…

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?