“Otter” words come from Fort Vancouver

There is one widespread SW Washington Salish word for ‘otter’ — and then there’s also “skaləmən”.


skaləmən vs. nanamuks (image credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service)

The common word for ‘sea otter’ among these tribal languages is ƛ̓əq̓ʷ-áləqi (and variants). It means ‘good-hair’, that is ‘the good fur’. This word, in fact strangely just the suffix from it, appears to have gotten loaned into Chinookan languages to form a noun that gave us Chinuk Wawa’s ~ ilaka ‘sea otter’. That CW word is actually not well documented, and wasn’t necessarily in very common use.

Makes sense, maybe, because the capital of the PNW land-based fur trade was Fort Vancouver, quite a ways up the lower Columbia River & outside of sea otter country.

Screenshot 2023-03-11 100647

Historic & current sea otter range in Washington state (image credit: Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife)

Two of the SW Washington Salish languages, Cowlitz & Upper Chehalis, have another word p̓ítkʷ[-]ɬ translated as ‘sea otter’, apparently based on a root for ‘cover, wrap’ (normally shaped like pətákʷ). Upper Chehalis is traditionally spoken near “Olympia” on the above map; Cowlitz, near “Columbia River”. Maybe this word connotes the fur’s major aboriginal use as a robe, an item obtained in trade from outer-coast tribes. 

Even though — and because — sea otter furs weren’t locally sourced, they remained valuable, if you could procure any to bring in to Fort Vancouver. So there are indeed words for this animal in Chinook Jargon. They’re just from slightly non-obvious sources. 

The 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary tells us, for instance, a totally different Chinuk Wawa word (from Demers, Blanchet, & St. Onge 1871 [which is 1838+ data from Fort Vancouver]). It’s skaləmən, which is obviously from Salish too, if you’re trained in Salish. It’s known as skálmn in Cowlitz, the Salish language traditionally spoken in the vicinity of Fort Vancouver. From Proto-Salish evidence its literal meaning should be ‘the hunter’ or intriguingly, ‘the hunting tool/aid’.

But as the 2012 dictionary is right to point out, this word originally denoted a different species in Cowlitz, the river otter.

Did that word get extended to the sea otter when Fort V. was built in Cowlitz territory & made that non-local species economically crucial? Such semantic alterations are perfectly typical in pidgin-language circumstances. 

That question becomes all the more interesting, when we consider the geographic distribution of the word skálmn. It’s only known from Cowlitz, not in the 3 nearby sister languages: Upper Chehalis, Quinault (on the outer coast, in actual sea otter habitat), and Lower Chehalis.

Those languages do share other ‘land otter‘ words, which are culturally very important. For instance, a constellation of “an irregular row of 6 stars in the southeast” is called ‘the land otter’, using the widespread SW WA Salish word for it, ~ wáš-ups ‘long-tail’.

Still another SW WA Salish word for ‘land otter’ is ~ sáx̣ʷəy̓, of still uncertain derivation. 

Of course Chinuk Wawa used yet a different source for its own well-documented word for ‘land otter’, the Lower Chinookan-derived nanamuks. Given that that word’s referent was so clear, being a local species at Fort Vancouver, I’m inferring that Demers, Blanchet, & St. Onge were correct in telling us the other word “skaləmən” was in use for the separate species, the sea otter. (Despite its originally being ‘land otter’.) 

I tend to assume, then, that Chinook Jargon’s nanamuks ‘land otter’ comes, like CJ’s word skaləmən ‘sea otter’, originally from the Fort Vancouver area — They’re just from 2 totally different source languages. 

So these 2 mammal species names in Jargon show us something about the fur-trade history of the lower Columbia River as an outpost of the later overland, not the earlier maritime, fur trade. 

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?