Does the ABLE:FAST metaphor extend to CAN’T?

At least two eminent linguists say yes 😎

cannot quickly

(Image credit: Dive Deep Scuba)

The 2012 dictionary of Chinuk Wawa from the Grand Ronde Tribes gives this etymology for CW’s x̣áwqaɬ ‘can’t’ in Shoalwater-Clatsop Lower Chinookan:

< qxā′oxaʟx > /qʰáwx̣aɬx/ ‘I cannot may be [sic];* cannot’ ~
< xā′oqxaʟ > /x̣áwqʰaɬ/  ‘can not, cannot’

(*I picture the weird translation ‘I cannot may be’ as showing Franz Boas desperately taking notes on every single word that Q’ltí [Charles Cultee] was saying to him. We know these two fellas were communicating primarily by talking Chinuk Wawa. In this case, I bet you a dried salmon that Q’ltí’s CW explanation of Chinookan /qʰáwx̣aɬx/ included a hesitant “t’ɬúnas…” (‘maybe it’s…’).)

This word also shows up in Lower Chehalis and Cowlitz Salish, x̣áwqaɬ ‘can’t’. In the Cowlitz-to-English section of his 2004 dictionary, M. Dale Kinkade suggests the above Chinookan forms as the etymology of it.

But, in his English-to-Cowlitz section, Kinkade also says this word derives from a Cowlitz root x̣áw plus qaɬ ‘can, could (irrealis)‘. An issue here is that Kinkade doesn’t happen to show a root x̣áw in the Cowlitz part of his dictionary! 🙄

But we can tell that he intended to have such an entry. Looking at his existing entry for what he presents as a root, x̣áwə́lʔ ‘fast’, I notice that that’s already a very unusually shaped form in Cowlitz; typically we analyze what’s heard as // to be a single phoneme //. And the only example shown of this “root” given has a different shape: x̣aw-íł-kʷu ‘fast water’. (Analyzed, in other words, as ‘fast-Stem Extender-water’.) Dale thus shows he noticed the root x̣aw ‘fast’ in Cowlitz, cognate with Upper Chehalis x̣ax̣ʷ and Lower Chehalis x̣əw ‘fast’, and he was the then-living expert on SW Washington Salish.

So then, Kinkade analyzed CW x̣áwqaɬ as tracing to an (e.g. Cowlitz) Salish phrase x̣áw qaɬ (which is valid Cowlitz syntax, if you follow it with a predicate for whatever thing you’re able to do, exactly as in Chinuk Wawa), meaning ‘quickly able to’.

But wait now — that’s the opposite of what the Jargon’s x̣áwqaɬ ‘can’t’ means! What’s happening here?

Was there an ironic / polite Salish idiom in play here? (Something like slang English “Oh, sure I can!”) I’ve made what I believe is a strong case that Boas 1892’s CW ~ x̣áwənšʔi ‘let us’ is from Lower Chehalis, where it would have meant ‘it would seem I’m in a hurry’. I also think of how a Lower Chinookan word for ‘pretty, lovely’ became the Jargon’s word for ‘mean, evil, bad’, másháchi

That word also is based on SW WA Salish x̣áw ‘fast’. You can see the regional Indigenous metaphor, FAST:ABLE, that also shows up in Chinuk Wawa’s áyáq (literally ‘fast’) being used in the southern CW dialect for ‘able, can’.

I don’t have an ultimate answer here about the Native source of x̣áwqaɬ. But I keep finding that intentional wordplay happened a lot in Salish, particularly in the Coast members of that family.

And, in historical linguistics, we have a guideline that I can paraphrase as “A Salish etymology that contains 2 short meaningful parts is preferable to just saying there’s a long Chinookan word that means ‘cannot’.”


Plus, and I’m not sure how important this observation is, in Clatsop-Shoalwater Lower Chinookan, x̣áwqʰaɬ is followed by a verb that’s already fully inflected for tense and such. I wonder if this is a clue that we have a Salish form being added onto Chinookan grammar.

Similarly, ‘they know how to / they can cure’ is put as ‘they know, they cure‘ in Lower Chinookan.

Maybe relevant: ‘able to’ is expressed in S-C LC at least once by the adverb ánqati (which normally means ‘long ago’)!


So I see a likely explanation in the ‘quickly can’ etymology.

Bonus fact:

In this ironic  connection, I have in mind the history of another Salish root. Proto-Interior Salish *x̣əs(-t) ‘good’ seems to be in complementary geographical distribution with a previously unrecognized Proto-Coast Salish *x̣əs ‘bad’!

  • SW WA Salish x̣əs ‘bad’
  • SENĆOŦEN (Saanich Salish) x̣íʔsəl’ ‘scary, fierce, powerful, terrible, ugly, frightening, dangerous’, analyzed in Tim Montler’s dictionary as x̣í{ʔ}s-il{ʔ} ‘terrible{Actual}-Developmental{Actual}’
  • Sechelt xis ‘withered (one thing)’

Did this historical ‘good’/’bad’ split happen due to the well-known Salish cultural phenomenon of postmortem name tabooing?

Since a proto-root *x̣ə/is denoting a value judgment can be reconstructed in at least 2 branches of Salish, I suppose we therefore could reconstruct a Proto-Salish *x̣ə/is.

But what would that fundamental root have meant? ‘Good’ or ‘bad’? Hard question.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?