Friday, April 18, 2008

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Dead Husband

Language Log today has an interesting post on the language of the Carrier people of British Columbia. With the arrival of a Francophone priest in 1865, and the subsequent influence of English speakers, their names changed.

There are a few family names of Carrier origin. There are a great many people named “Ketlo”, which is the anglicization of /ketloh/ (English speakers can’t hear the final /h/), which is the contracted form of /ke dʌtloh/ “squishy shoes”. The progenitor of the family was called by this nickname because he was always getting his feet wet.

As I mentioned, the idea of having both a given name and a family name was an innovation of the late 19th century, and to Carrier people it wasn’t terribly clear which was which or how they were passed on. As a result, some children would take their father’s first name as their family name and some the second. The little village of K’uzche, for example, is populated mostly by people named either “William” or “Austin”. They are actually the same family: the patriarch was named “William Austin”.
Wikipedia offers this account of how the Dakelh came to be called "Carriers":
According to noted anthropologist Antonia Mills, the term "Carrier" was derived from the mortuary tradition of carrying the husband's ashes back to the main traditional village site, where a potlatch would be held acknowledging the passing of the individual and dealing with redistributing his property. Which would make sense when considering seasonal movements and the need to bring the ashes back to the village as proof.


Mills is simply repeating the account given by Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice, which she embellishes with reference to the potlatch. Morice is the only source for this putative mortuary practice, which according to Morice's former houseboy Louis-Billy Prince was a made-up story told to stop Morice from pestering them. An alternative hypothesis that it refers to the fact that the Carrier, unlike the Sekani, participated in the coastal trade.

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