1872: A Métis French word in Shoshoni

A word in the Shoshoni/Shoshone language (Uto-Aztecan family), spoken in western Utah, is almost correctly attributed to Chinuk Wawa.


An 1855 Canadian piastre (image credit: Bank of Canada Museum)

A term for ‘money’, an acculturated concept, is what I’m focusing on here.

Screenshot 2023-03-01 080043

Money ……………………… lay-pe′-ase (Chinook jargon: la pièce)

— in this 1872 US Government publication on Shoshoni (which I believe some folks refer to as Gosiute, P(a)iute, etc.).

This word shows up with an “L” at the start only in the above source.

William Bright’s big book of Native American Placenames of the United States repeats this attribution to Chinook Jargon, for Napias Creek, Lemhi County, Idaho. So it seems this word can alternate between an initial “L” and an initial “N” sound.

Other sources on Shoshoni also have it with an “N” at the beginning:

  • napiasi ‘Money’ in Ely Shoshoni, Graham 2008
  • napii’us ‘money’ in Duckwater, Harbin 1988
  • nappias ‘money’ in Big Smoky Valley Shoshoni, Crapo 1976
  • nappiaseh ‘money’, Crum&Dayley2
  • nappiaseh ‘money’ in Duck Valley, Crum, Crum, and Dayley 2002
  • nappiasi(n) ‘money’ in Duck Valley, Crum, Crum, and Dayley 2002
  • nappiasi+n ‘money’, Crum&Dayley1, Crum&Dayley2

I’m also noticing these dictionary entries that may be related:

  • na’piyaa ‘fifteen cents’, Crum&Dayley1, Crum&Dayley2
  • na’piyaa ‘fiteen cents’ in Duck Valley, Crum, Crum, and Dayley 2002

This ’15 cents’ business is highly reminiscent of Chinook Jargon’s bit, which historically had two values: a ‘short bit’ or ‘dime’ of 10 cents, or a ‘long bit’ of 15 cents. Confusing, eh?

But I believe there’s next to no chance that this word for ‘money’ came from Chinook Jargon, which was never a useful language in the desert areas of the US West.

And the idea that it came ultimately from French la pièce ‘the piece’ strikes me as fanciful; was this person imagining it related to ‘pieces of eight’?


It’s well known that French-speaking fur traders, most of them Métis, of the Hudsons Bay Company and other outfits were historically active in these interior regions. This source says “The Shoshoni who had mixed with French trappers had a little knowledge of French phrases”.

And it’s demonstrable that a few other French words made their way into Shoshoni. I found these in a quick search:

  • gosho ‘pig’ (French cochon, compare Chinuk Wawa kushu)
  • Vuu Taivo ‘Frenchman’ (literally the ‘vous whiteman’)

All of this I say as a basis for proposing that Shoshoni lay-pe′-ase / napiasi / etc. come from Métis/Canadian French la piastre. Compare that word’s preservation in Southern (Heritage) Michif, the mixed Cree-French language of the Métis:

  • pyaas(s) ‘dollar’
  • en pyaes/pyas ‘a dollar’ in Turtle Mountain, North Dakota

Also, in Québec and Louisiana French:

We’ve also seen piastre in British Columbia Métis French from 1863.

In all of the regions mentioned above, piastre(s) has functioned also as a synonym for ‘money’.

So this looks like an intriguing prospect for explaining the Shoshoni word.

Caveat: I’m not well-versed in Shoshoni phonology. Maybe I’m off the mark in supposing that “L” and “N” sounds can alternate in that language, as they do all over the Pacific Northwest.

I do notice that for Big Smokey Valley Shoshoni, this dictionary explicitly says nappias is the ‘old form’ for ‘money’ and that it comes from French la piastre — but it still repeats the linguistic folkore about it having been transmitted ‘via Chinook’.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?