1871 [1838] “sopenaի” isn’t about jumping

A word that I guess only one Chinuk Wawa dictionary reports to us is “sopenaի“…


Smelt dipping on the Cowlitz River (image credit: Longview Daily News)

You may be surprised to see me saying this about the common Chinook word for ‘jump’. But this is a different critter!

In Demers, Blanchet, & St. Onge (1871, based on 1838+ data) this word is translated as ‘Indian bag’.

And you should carefully notice the last letter in it — the “broken H” that those fellas used for sounds like /x̣/: 

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I don’t immediately recognize this word from the southwest Washington tribal languages that are traditionally spoken in the vicinity of Fort Vancouver, where Demers & Blanchet learned their Jargon way back when. So I checked:

The Chinookan family of languages

In Franz Boas’s “Chinook: An Illustrative Sketch” and “Chinook Texts” I find no such word. The one term for ‘bag’ is the same one that became our Chinuk Wawa ‘mat’, ɬískwis, and in one of these Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan tales, this is a thing used for catching fish. (Think about that!) Next upriver, I found no ‘bag’ or ‘sack’ in his “Kathlamet Texts“. Likewise in Melville Jacobs’s 2-volume “Clackamas Texts”. Farthest up the Columbia, Kiksht (Wishram, Wasco) seems not to use a word like “sopenaի” either. (I see Clackamas and Kiksht speakers borrowing Chinook Jargon for this concept, respectively as ilisákba and ilisáqba ‘in the sack’.)

The K’alapuyan family

One root for ‘bag/sack’, sabu′ ~ t’sabu′ ‘bag’ is somewhat similar to “sopenaի”, but it lacks the final syllable, and we’d expect it to carry a noun prefix shaped like a- in actual speech.

So now, on to…

The Salish family

Specifically we’re looking at the “Tsamosan” or southwest Washington Salish languages spoken in the CW homeland. I tried to cheat by working from the English-to-Salish sections of the existing dictionaries, but that turned up nothing promising. Well, the s- at the beginning of any medium-to-long word in Jargon can suggest a Salish source in the noun-marking prefix s-. Therefore, I should go looking for roots shaped approximately ʔúp ~ wə́p. (This alternation in shape is because /w/ in Salish interchanges with /(ʔ)u/ under various conditions.) In Upper Chehalis and Cowlitz, one form turned up that seemed attention-worthy: < wa´pia > ‘fishnet (bag-net)’. This calls to mind the ‘mat/bag/fish-catching implement’ associations I mentioned in Lower Chinookan, but it’s not a very good match in sound for “sopenaի”.

A form that resembles a bigger chunk of “sopenaի” is the Upper Chehalis pánxʷ(i)- ‘catch at something’, which I’m quite sure reflects Proto-Salish *pu/an ‘to find, get’ and Up Cheh -xʷ ‘Causative’, and possibly explains the SW WA Salish word for ‘sturgeon’, s-pán̓w-əɬas literally ‘the thing that is “caught at” ‘ (with Intransitive Perfect-Aspect -əɬ). I’m thinking here of the aboriginal method of canoeing the deepest part of a river while thrusting an extremely long-handled spear straight downward till you happen to run it into a sturgeon.

When I add up the semantic and morphological evidence, it seems to me that maybe our “sopenaի” in early-creolized Chinuk Wawa was less a ‘bag’ than a ‘net’, and that we might suspect a Salish-sourced *s-pán[-]xʷ that might’ve meant literally ‘the thing that “catches at” stuff’.

Why then do Demers, Blanchet, and St Onge have an unexpected “o” in their “sopenaի”? I can’t think of a valid explanation for this within Salish, where it’d be an /u/ sound. But maybe it’s just a schwa sneaking in, the way schwas do in unstressed parts of words. (So maybe it’s a clue that this Jargon word was stressed as “sopénaի”, as I’m guessing.)  French-speaking documenters of Chinook Jargon have long written /ə/ as “o”. (Think of komtoks ‘to know’, which is everywhere in D-B-St O’s book.)

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?