“Dear Old Lady”: the tale of the suffix -sha

Leo Frachtenberg worked with Hanis speaker Jim Buchanan in 1909. As part of his work, he later published a grammar of Hanis. In it he noted a suffix -sha that is unusual in that unlike any other suffix in the language it affixes to one, and only one word: huu’mik’, old woman. Frachtenberg commented that “It was explained to me as having an endearing character, but instances are not lacking where the suffix is used in a derogatory sense.” I could find no examples in Frachtenberg’s work where the suffix was clearly derogatory, with one exception. He had one example of it sarcastically referring to a Pitch Woman. Pitch Women were a kind of ‘ogre’ who were notorious kidnappers of young men and frequent killer of children.

It isn’t odd to find a suffix that can be both endearing and derogatory – there are many such words and phrases in many languages, and the specific meaning in their use lies in context, body language and tone of voice. What struck me as a bit unusual is that –sha seems to affix to only one word – huu’mik’, old woman – and no other. (I have done word searches to see if it appears with other words, like huu’mis, woman or tuumitl, old man. None were found).

Lottie Evanoff, in her interviews with Harrington, did not seem to make much of a difference between the forms huu’mik’ and huu’mik’sha. For the latter, she said ‘old woman, oldish.’ for the former, she just said ‘old woman’.

Harrington’s assistant Jack Marr made sound recordings of Frank Drew in 1941.

The first time the suffix is used, it is in response to Marr’s prompt “Old woman”: Frank Drew says huumiksha. Listening to Jack Marr’s prompt, he kind of emphasizes the adjective ‘old’.

On the following recording beginning at 5:00, “He knew the old woman. Mitsisiiya lo huumiksha.”

I did some digging in texts, but all (with one exception, which I will get to shortly) were collected by Frachtenberg in his work with Jim Buchanan as well as material from other speakers, to try to figure out what exactly –sha meant, and if it was more endearing or derogatory.

Just looking at Frachtenberg’s texts (which are myths told by Buchanan) I could not find any examples there that read as derogatory to me, at least based on what I could glean from the text. The word comes up in just a few stories. One is “Night Rainbow and Grizzly Bear”, where a Grizzly killed some of Night Rainbow Old Woman’s relatives. She and her grandson eventually have revenge on the grizzlies and restore their kin back to life. (Indeed, do not mess with Night Rainbow Old Woman, she takes out one grizzly by stabbing it in a sensitive place with a digging stick made of ice!)

In the story, Buchanan describes her as a very old woman, but he uses the normal, suffix-free version of the word for ‘old woman’:

halt’yuu hlnuwii huu’mik’ lo soyaqáu

very very old.woman the night.rainbow

Night Rainbow Old Woman was very old.

She is also often referred to as ‘grandmother’, typically in scenes where she is interacting with her grandson (making him lunch, weapons, helping him restore his parents back to life).

Here are several of the scenes where she is referred to with the special suffix:

First use – after grandson has weapons she made for him, he brings home rabbits.

Heihats yuxwe wutxaiyat ho chuuxchuux.

Soon he brought back two rabbits.


Tlntits lehl huu’mik’sha.

That beloved old woman skinned them.


Yuxwe diihl nkihluuwit. Atlimaq diihl.”

I saw two things. Tall things.”


Wench tl’exom le temisnech.

That’s how her grandson spoke.


Xwitsxut shku lo e’kihluuwit.”

It must’ve been deer you saw.”


Wench tl’exom lo soyaqáu huu’mik’.

That’s how the Night Rainbow Old Woman was speaking.

Second & third use-after grandson killed the grizzly that killed his parents, he returns to the camas prairie to confront another grizzly, while his grandmother dances for him. He kills the last bad grizzly:

Sitsá’ata’ai ho lehl huu’mik’sha.

That dear old woman kept murder-dancing.


Loghii u iluwechis, I lau yixei tsxauwat lehl huu’mik’sha.

Her heart was glad, that dear old woman, when he killed one [of the Grizzlies].

Fourth & Fifth use: -When reviving his parents, his grandmother is referred to as ‘grandmother’ rather than ‘old woman’. When they return to the grizzlies’ house to rescue the other murder victims they work together to bring them to life and Buchanan uses huu’mik’sha again:

Xap ux xtlimiiyat hox huu’mik’sha.

He and the dear old lady warmed water.


Xle´ich tsuut lo e’, lo kihla, lo kxla.

With it he washed the faces, the hands, the feet.


Guus xwench tsix tsiixit….

To all he did this….


Tsuuwetl hiithiiwat hehl huu’mik’sha.

That dear old woman had grease.


Xle´ich hliphliiyaq le e, ihl le kihla, ihl le kxla.

With it she painted their faces, their hands, their feet.

In “Spider Old Woman” (Winqas Huu’mik’) she is only referred to with the suffix once, at a point in the story when she is training her grandson to have power against weapons:

Tsuu atsa lo willek lehl huu’mik’sha lox temisnech

Now the grandson gave the whale-bone club to that dear old lady.

In Buchanan’s telling of the death of the Five Grizzly Brothers, Old Wren (who defeats the last Grizzly brother) was also once described as huu’mik’sha, a dear-old-lady.

In only one story does Buchanan go a bit wild with the -sha suffix. In the 3rd “Nuuskilii” (Pitch Woman) story he told, he refers to the grandmother in the story every time with -sha. The grandmother was a hero who tried to save her grandchildren from a pair of Nuuskilii – she succeeded in killing the Nuuskilii (by luring them into a fire) but it came too late to save her grandchildren.

In Annie’s Hanis stories, she never uses the -sha suffix. She uses it once in a Milluk one. In ‘Grandmother Afterbirth’, she describes beliefs and customs around birth and the afterbirth. The placenta was called ‘the grandmother’ and was believed to cause a bruise on the lower back of newborns, and frighten the babies.

She gives the story first in Milluk, then Jacobs read it back to her and she translated it into Hanis. Curiously, she uses the -sha suffix once in the Milluk version in referring to the Old-Woman-Afterbirth, but in the identical line in Hanis, curiously, she leaves it out.

To compare here is the Milluk line (note: Jacobs uses the symbol c for sh):

tłɛ-x-hu’mik’ca tłɛ-kwi-aq’alqsit’úwa

The old woman scared her


And the Hanis:

lɛ´-x-hú’mik’ lɛ´lɛu aq’álsit’í•wat

The old woman scared her

So most of the time when the -sha suffix appears, it seems to refer with affection or respect to an elderly woman. Perhaps not unlike the English expressions of ‘dear old lady’ or ‘amazing old lady’. Twice could examples be interpreted as being sarcastic or derogatory – when used to refer to a Nuukilii or the “grandmother” afterbirth that was said to frighten newborns.

About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
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4 Responses to “Dear Old Lady”: the tale of the suffix -sha

  1. Yoram says:

    Hi Patty! Could it be that -sha is not a suffix, but rather that huu’mik’ is a short form of huu’mik’sha? Is there a precedent for that kind of process?

    • shichils says:

      Hi Yoram! An interesting thought, but I cannot think of a case of that kind of contraction. I think huu’miik’ (and other forms recorded like huumik) is the ‘normal’ standard form. It turns up in an 1884 word list (Bissell), St Clair in 1903, Jacobs, Jane Sokolow’s work with Martha Harney Johnson in the mid 60s (1964? 65? I forget year off top of my head) etc. It usually appears without the -sha. The only exception I have found is the 3rd Nuuskilii/”Giantess” story where every instance Buchanan named the grandmother with the -sha every time. And no other nouns have I noticed that kind of contraction. Do see it with verbs – like the formal version of ‘came to know it’ would be kwa’aniyahaya but vowels can be dropped and it becomes kwanyahaya (glottal stops are way fun – they come and go – Jacobs noted how glottal were ‘lightly rubbed’ and listening to Frank Drew in the 1941 recording seems true, tho’ Martha Harney Johnson’s in a 1953 recording seem a little more forceful in comparison, but not that much)

      And in Frachtenberg’s conversations w/ Buchanan and Buchanan’s usual translator Frank Drew, and another Hanis speaker Tommy Hollis, he seemed to get the impression it was a suffix. He was just confused as it seemed to have a double meaning of ‘dear’ or derogatory. But I don’t think that kind of nice/mean dichotomy for a word or expression is all that unusual – “Bless Your Heart” in southern English at least has become a condescending insult, even tho’ on the surface it does not look like it is one.

      • Yoram says:

        That makes sense.
        FWIW, I looked at Pharris’s Molalla grammar, and found a prefix s- which only applies to the nouns meaning ‘old man’ and ‘old woman’, making their referents older. That’s a little like your case.

        Molalla also has a diminutive -asa, but that’s plausibly coincidental.

  2. shichils says:

    I hear some people at Grand Ronde are working on all surviving Mollala texts right now. I am getting a copy when it is available!!

    Curiously Hanis does not seem to have a general diminutive. Siuslaw does – it’s isk’in. So you get pus (cat), pusisk’in, kitten. OR father, mit’a and stepfather mit’ask’in.

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