1871 [1838]: “spoիoի” for ‘black (blue) elder(berry)’

Here’s an obscure synonym for the 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary’s already obscure hayash-təmtəm-stik ‘blue elderberry’: spoիoի”.

black elderberry

(Image credit: WSU Clark County Extension)

This word spoիoի” is translated as ‘black elder’ by Demers, Blanchet, and St. Onge, in whose 1871 dictionary (using data from 1838+ from the Fort Vancouver area) it shows up.

Apparently it’s the same species as Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea, what we usually call blue elderberry around here. I’m no botanist, but some of the reputable websites about PNW species indicate this fact. Others call our blue elderberry S. caerulea. “C(a)erulea” = blue in Latin.

This is a really rare word in Jargon, so we’re bound to have further questions about it. Like, where did it come from?

The 2012 dictionary appropriately notes this word’s resemblance to Chinuk Wawa’s spúʔuq ‘faded, dusty, grey; ashes, dust’, due to the “characteristic ashy bloom of the blue-elderberry fruit”. But is that the same word? It’s possible. But if we check to be sure about this, we look for similar terms in the nearby Indigenous languages.

I found no such word for this plant/its fruit in any Chinookan language, where I only found -čə́x̣čəx̣ ‘elder-bush’ in Kiksht.

No similar word for ‘elderberry’ in SW WA Salish turned up, either. Those languages use entirely different-sounding words for it.

But of course the Chinookan family of languages has similar words meaning something else:

  • Clatsop-Shoalwater špə́q ‘gray’.
  • Kathlamet špíq ‘gray’.
  • Clackamas šbúq ‘grey’.
  • Kiksht špúq ‘grey’.

Due to the close similarity among the words in all 4 Chinookan languages, we could reconstruct a Proto-Chinookan form, say *špə́q ‘grey’.

(Yes, Chinuk Wawa inherits from the modern Chinookan languages its spúʔuq ‘faded, dusty, grey; ashes, dust’.)

There’s also the more-or-less identical Proto-Salish root *pəq meaning, according to Aert H. Kuipers’s 2002 dictionary, ‘white’ but appearing also in modern words meaning ‘faded; grey; bleached’! Is there another Chinookan-Salish connection going on there?

I write separately on my site about the good evidence of longtime Salish influence on Chinookan, most visible in Lower Chinookan.

For today I’ll just conclude by saying that spoիoի” — if it’s not just an odd spelling of spuʔuq — would seem to be a reduplicated form of the above-mentioned. Thus, a base form like (s)puq may have become something like spuq•uq.

I’ve never found reduplication in common use in Chinookan languages, except what we can call full-word reduplication of the “ideophones”. (Franz Boas backs me up on this.) Several examples of the latter are preserved in Chinuk Wawa, such as píl•pil, tə́m•təm, yíx•yix. That’s not what we have here; we don’t see a form like *spúq•spuq*. 

Now, SW Washington Salish likewise prefers whole-root reduplication, but also shows plenty of other kinds of reduplication, even if, unusually for the Salish family, these are mostly historical traces rather than modern productive use. (These facts perhaps reflect longterm contact with Chinookan.) So in local Salish we do find words like Lower Chehalis c̓əkʷ•íkʷ ‘blue elderberry’…hey, look what turned up!…where an old CVC-shaped root *c̓ə́kʷ or *c̓íkʷ (reflecting Proto-Salish *c̓ikʷ ‘blue elderberry’) took on a repetition of its final VC. It’s possible on these grounds that our Chinuk Wawa “spoիoի” ‘black [blue] elder[berry]’ could reflect an old Fort Vancouver-area (Cowlitz) Salish form like s-pəq•ə́q.

I want to point out that Demers, Blanchet, and St. Onge, like other French-speaking documenters of CW, often use the letter “o” for a schwa sound in Jargon. As for the correspondence I’m suggesting between their “ի” (x̣) and a Salish q, this seems especially frequent to me within Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan, less so in local Salish; a nice correspondence is Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan qxā′oxaʟx /qáwx̣aɬx/ ~ xā′oqxaʟ /x̣áwqaɬ/ ~ Cowlitz Salish x̣áwqaɬ ‘cannot’.

Is ‘black/blue elderberry’ an old loan, or an even older loan, from Salish into Chinookan, then into Chinuk Wawa?

Bonus fact:

I agree with the 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary that the early Chinuk Wawa synonym, háyásh-tə̀mtəm-stìk (‘big-heart-bush’), is somewhat hard to grasp a meaning in.

Screenshot 2023-02-07 121203

Blue/black elderberry tree, closeup on the multiple trunks (image credit: Mother Nature’s Backyard)

I can only add a suggestion that this term might’ve been inspired by the blue elderberry’s messy way of growing.

It’s a tremendously fragile wood, especially after the growing season, so most specimens of the bush that I’ve found wild in eastern Washington state have a big core area of dead, broken stalks. Mother Nature’s Backyard observes:

In areas with cold winters, most of the new growth dies back each winter.  The cycle of winter die-back and spring re-growth produces a large shrub 6-8 ft. tall and wide.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?