Alakichik: Chinook Jargon word

Last year my cousin Heidi sent me the Grand Ronde’s dictionary of Chinook jargon. Chinook Jargon is a trade language that was once widely spoken throughout the Pacific Northwest. It’s core vocabulary is derived from Chinookan and other neighboring Native languages, and in the fur-trading period also incorporated a lot of English, French and Cree words. And at Grand Ronde, local jargon also picked up words from Tillamook and Kalapuyan languages. It is a wonderfully detailed dictionary – part of the fun is that it contains etymologies of the words.

Jargon seems to have been relatively unknown in southwestern Oregon until the reservation period. Remember this letter of an 1853 visit to Coos Bay – few Coos Indians knew jargon, though many Lower Umpquas did (probably through their interactions with the HBC Fort Umpqua at Elkton). But soon after, during the reservation period, southwestern Oregon Indians learned it and used it regularly in meetings with agents. The 1875 meeting at Yachats with Indian agents was conducted in Chinook jargon, and the 1880s Ghost Dances when Athabaskan-speaking people came down from Siletz were also conducted in part in Chinook jargon. Also, Coosan and Siuslawan speakers picked up jargon words for newly introduced items and animals; like puus (house cat), muus muus (cow), kyuutan (horse), and kapuu (coat). There was one other word that came up a few times – we could spell it alakichik, or alakichiik, and it meant dentalium shell. (The Coos and Siuslawan languages have their own words for dentalium – indeed, several words, depending on the size of the shell). The word alakachik sometimes was used in a way it implied not just dentalium but any valuable decorative bead. Lottie Evanoff and the Barrett brothers all mentioned to linguist JP Harrington that ‘alakichik/alakichiik’ was a word for dentalium. Harrington noted he’s also heard the word at Smith River in northern California.
The word was known to whites in Coos county too – the word appears in Orville Dodge’s book from 1898 on Coos and Curry county history. In writing of Marple’s expedition to Coos Bay in 1853 he wrote ‘The natives did not seem to appreciate the value of gold or silver coins. They had shells that the Hudson Bay Company had traded to them for furs that were a circulating medium among them. The shells were of spiral shape, and their value was calculated by the length or size of the shell. “Alaqua Chick” was the jargon name given to this mercantile commodity.” (see page 131)

So here is where the word gets interesting – according to the Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa dictionary, alikʰuchik (as it is spelled there) is of uncertain origin. The authors noted “This is an obscure word found in some of the old “Chinook” dictionaries. We cite it from Gatschet, who records it as an English translation of one of the Tualitin Kalapuya terms for dentalium. The word’s apparent occurrence as local English in 1877 argues for its contemporary currency also in local Chinuk Wawa.” However, they further note that some other historical sources point to origins from the Puget Sound or from Michif Cree, lee kwachee (although there the word final -k is unnaccounted for). Apparently alikʰuchik was not often used at Grand Ronde (odd, considering it may have come from Tualitin) and instead tended to use haykʰwa, which traces back to Ditidah Nootkan ḥiixʷa. (Interestingly the Siuslawan word for dentalium is hiiq’wa, which is superficially kind of similar to the Nootka word).

So for whatever reason, alakichik appears to have not been a widely used word at Grand Ronde after 1877. But it seems to have been well known in southern Oregon and neighboring northern California among both whites and Indians. It’s just one of those minor linguistic mysteries.


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Just sharing some fun on language
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5 Responses to Alakichik: Chinook Jargon word

  1. Anthony Grant says:

    Hi Patty:

    If it comes via Michif the form would be the expected form of French ‘les coquilles’ (the shells); -k is a common pluraliser in Algonquian languages. If all this is what it is – and I can’t prove it top be true – the big mystery is the initial a-. (Possibly of relevance in Kalapuyan morphology?) Lots of Wawa dicttionaries have ‘lukutchi and the like for ‘clams’. The Grand Ronde dictionary is superb! It’s a real “labour of love” and gives one such a sense of what it must have been like when Grand Ronde was a Wawa-speaking area. I reviewed if for IJAL. Best, Anthony.

    • shichils says:

      Ah! Interesting, thank you. Yes, that Chinook dictionary is wonderful. Also, kind of interesting to see the ‘regionalisms’ in jargon. About this word, I do wonder if it was used more commonly at Grand Ronde at one time but just had not made it into print.

    • shichils says:

      OOO, thinking of initial a-…I can’t recall now where I read it, but in lower Chinook the nominal prefixes i- and a- marked gender; a- being feminine. In the jargon those prefixes get stripped away. If I recall right, Tualitin also had gender prefixes, apparently under the influence of their Chinookan neighbors as other Kalapuyan languages did not do that. I don’t know for sure if the prefixes were the same in Tualitin, much less if dentalium would have been marked as feminine, but I suppose it is possible. Dang I wish I could remember where in the heck I read that…it was some time ago and my brain is just blanking.

  2. Pingback: Dentalium | Shichils's Blog

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