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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T25


Metaphorical Expression in the
Language of the Kwakiutl
Indians 11

In the language of the Kwakiutl 22 Indians of Vancouver Island
metaphorical expressions referring to unhappy events are of euphemistic
character. Instead of “to die” (łela') words are used signifying
“to grow weak” (l!emasɛid R 710.6 33); “to be nothing” (wä'la
R 707.55); “to perish without reaching the end” (wibā'lisem). These
terms are derived from the negation wī-. From the same stem are derived
“to become nothing in mind” wīk˙!exɛid R 710.13 and wuye'msɛid.
Wā'nem may be derived from a stem wān- “deserving of pity”.
Often the term is used “it tears off” (viz. the breath) (ăłɛe'ls R 708.69
‘to tear off on the ground, outside of the house’; ăłɛā'lił ‘to tear off in
232the house’). In speeches we find “to have gone to rest” (x˙oyoxwā'lis
C III 74.7); “to lie down” (qelyax˙ɛā'lis C III 78.26); “to disappear
from this world” k˙!ēaxɛwid lā'xwa ɛnā'lax C III 96.25). For the death
of many it is said “all are (ended)” (German “alle werden” ɛɛwela
R 1147.67), and for the slaughter of man “to cause all (to end)” (German
“alle machen”, ɛɛwelā'mas R 1224.38). To kill is also expressed
by “to cause to reach the end” (hēbaɛyā'mas). To take revenge on an
enemy is “to eat meat” (q!esa' J III 136.33).

Instead of “to be sick” they say “to lie abed” (qe'lgwił).

Misfortune is called “it goes wrong” (ō'dzeg˙ila C II 16.13); a
widow “the one who spoils good luck” (aă'msila R 604.27).

Many metaphorical expressions and actions are used on ceremonial
occasions. To invite to a feast is called simply “to walk” (qā'sa C III
120.16) and the messenger is “the one who serves as walker” (qā'selg˙es
C III 120.19). It is not customary to follow an invitation at once, and
the messengers go a second and third time to call. This is termed “to
(go) around again” (ē'tseɛsta C III 126.26) and the messengers “those
who serve (going) around again” (ētseɛstelg˙es C III 128.8). Then the
guests come in, except the principal one for whose sake the ceremonial
act is performed. The messengers go a last time “to look for a face”
(dā'doqwɛm R 752.37). This last term is used only in the sacred winter
ceremonial (R 752.41). A single invitation is also called “to walk
around” (qā'tseɛsta C III 136.23).

Speeches are called “breath” (haseɛ C III 182.1) of the speaker. A
good speech has “a sweet taste” (ē'x˙p!a C III 182.9). A speech is
called “equal in weight” (gwa'ɛyoku J III 449.26) to another one.

The speech after a meal “pushes it down into the stomach” (lā'gwens
R 791.76). And the words of the speech “strike” (sepa' C III 182.15)
the guests, as a spear strikes the game or as the rays of the sun strike
the earth. A messenger who invites the tribe standing in the doorway of
the house reports that “our words have gone out of the house” (laɛmē'
lā'g˙aɛelsents wā'łdema
C III 220.24). The words of the host's speaker
addressed to his guests “go to the floor of the house” (lā'g˙aɛlił R
789.24). The speaker “vomits” (hō'qwa J III 449.1) all he has in his

Instead of “to sing” the metaphoric expression “the breath rises”
(hasō'stâ C III 183.3) or “it goes rising” (lā'g˙ustâ C III 176.23) is
used. Singers and messengers “tell the world” (nē'łaxa ɛnā'la R 789.22)
what is being done. In the sacred winter ceremonial a special messenger
233is sent out of the house to tell the world that the ceremonial is beginning.
The words of the song are its “place of walking” (qā'yas C III 136.21).

Guests who arrive by canoe are invited to come in to “warm themselves”
(te'łts!a C III 142.21) or “to warm their faces in the house”
(ts!e'lqwemg˙aɛlił C III 160.17). In a formal feast two courses are
given and the second one is called “doing the right thing afterwards”
(hē'leg˙end C III 108.21).

The guests of a person as well as wealth that he acquires are called
his “salmon” (k˙!ō'tela C III 172.13, meyâ' C III 174.1); a great
many guests “a school of salmon” (wayō'qwax˙iweɛ C III 172.14),
and the house or village of the host his “salmon weir” (Ḷā'wayu C III
152.14) into which he hauls (wa't!ed C III 152.17) his guests.

The valuable copper plates (L!ā'qwa), the symbols of wealth, particularly,
are called “salmon,” and the host expecting a copper plate
called “War”, says in regard to it, “heavy is this salmon caught in my
weir here” (gwe'nt! aɛemg˙ada k˙!ō'telak˙ mä'ts!âsg˙en Ḷā'wayuku C
III 152.21). The invitation to a potlatch in which host and guests rival
in prodigality is likened to war. The messengers who carry the invitation
are called warriors (wī'na C III 164.20) and the arriving guests
sing war songs (wī'nak˙!ala C III 172.1). The copper plate is also
called the “citadelle” of the chief. The orator says: “Behold, now we
stand on War (name of a copper plate), the citadelle of our chief”
(laɛe'mxōḶents g˙ēxtodex wīnäxa x̣weseläsen g˙ī'g̣emaɛyex C III
146.26). To give a present in return for services rendered is called
“making a soft layer” (te'lqwa C III 140.22), and the blankets that are
given away “are danced on” (yū'dzeɛwesoɛ C III 174.22) by the host's
daughter who performs a ceremonial dance on that occasion. The giving
away of blankets on a small scale is called “spreading out” (Lepa'
GUI 124.1).

The large amount of property given away “stands a mountain of
blankets, reaching through the world” (Ḷaxusâlis lā'xents ɛnālag˙ada
neg˙ä'k˙ p!e'lxelasg̣em
J III 455.2).

The chief is designated by laudatory terms. He is the “post of our
world” (qe'ldemsents ɛnā'lax J III 449.30), “the only long one standing.in
the world” (ɛne'mts!aqe lā'xwa ɛnā'lax J III 449.29), “great
mountains standing on edge” (k˙!ō'xk!egwidze nae'ng˙adze R 1284.40)
“an overhanging cliff” (k˙!ē'k˙!eslen J III 449.31, Lā'qwanux̣udze M
669.8), “the one to whom no one can climb up” (hē wīyag˙elidze M
668.1, wits!eg˙ustoɛ J III 449.31), “loaded canoe” (mō'g̣wemeɛ
234M 668.5), “the (cedar) that canont be spanned” (waweɛstalax̣udze
C III 196.8), “the thick root of the tribe” (egwā'neweɛ R 1290.10),
“the one farthest ahead” (k˙!ē'sɛoyak˙elis R 1285.6), the Dzōnoq!wa
(a fabulous being which is much feared J III 455.18). He is called “the
head” (x˙ōms C III 108.26), his speaker “the mouth (piece)” (sems
C III 160.30). Of the death of one chief it is said “the moon went down
in the waters” (k˙!ō''gwensâlag˙iLaɛyaxa ɛmekŭlak˙asɛoxu R
1292.2). Those who are the first to receive presents are the “eagles”
(kwēku) who, in the potlatch, stand outside of the recognized divisions
of the tribe and take precedence of them.

The chief's eldest daughter says, “copper is my seat in the house”
(L!ā'qwag˙en k!wadzâlił R 1315.2).

Of the Kwakiutl it is said, that “like a great, high mountain they have
a steep (high) face” (g˙ada ɛnemā'x˙esek˙ Ḷoɛ ē'k˙agem ɛwā'las
J III 455.16).

In speaking of rival chiefs derogatory terms are used. They are called
“little sparrows” (ts!e'sqwanao'ɛ C III 122.9), “little flies” (gag'ade'nameɛne'xu
C III 128.24), “little horseflies” (sā'dek!wamenē'xu C III
128.27), “little mosquitoes” (L!ē'sḶenameɛne'xu C III 128.30), “old
broken (coppers)” (lelaxsɛamot M 667.18, q!elq!atisot M 667.18),
“spider woman” (yā'yaqet! enega M 669.21), “old dog” (ɛwayol M
670.7), leavings of food (ha'ɛyamota R 1284.25).

Rivals arc ridiculed by saying that they “decorate” (ămō'sa M 670.1)
their speeches by claiming privileges that do not belong to them. Their
tongues loll (e'lɛelqwela R 1288.8); they are losing their tails (like old
salmon) (xwāh˙!axsdala R 1291.11); (the chief) throws them across
his back (like the wolf a deer) (x̣wē'leg˙end R 1293.12). When they
try to rival the chief, “they talk through their noses” (e'ndzasâla R
1280.33). They “walk zigzag” (wailē'qa M 670.1); of one rival it is
said that “he holds a canoe in his throat” (x̣wā'gwiL!exâla M 670.2),
and that “he holds giving-away-canoes in his throat” (sag˙iL!exâla
M 670.2), meaning that he promises to give away a canoe, but that he
will never do it. The guests “cry like the bluejay” (kwā'ɛyala R
1282.65). One who has never given a great feast (a “grease” feast in
which fish oil is poured on the fire) is called “dry face” (le'mlemx̣wemlis
M 670.4), or “mouldy face” (qwēqwexLemlis M 670.4). Of
one who is called an old dog it is said that he “spreads his legs before (the
host)” (yāqaLalg˙iweɛ M 670.7).

A young woman whose father has not repaid his son-in-law adequately
235is called “slim wristed” (hē'wägemx˙ts! aneɛ), because her wrist
is not compressed by the wearing of bracelets.

Chiefs praise their own strength. They “burn to ashes (the tribes)”
(q!wā'loɛso J III 483.1), they “make the world smoky (by the fire of
their feasts)” (kwa'nesela'mas R 669.18), the great one whose smoke
of the fire is meeting (kwā'kwexâladze R 669.19); he makes people run
away (q!we'mx˙ɛidamas J III 483.2). When a guest outdoes the host
in prodigality his “fire is extinguished” (k˙!e'lx˙ɛideda legwī'ł R
774.28); he has chiefs as his servants (ā'łanoku J III 482.16) or as his
speakers aɛye'lgwad J III 482.16).

A warrior says, “I am the double-headed serpent in my world” (yen
sī'seyuL łaxg˙en ɛnā'lak˙
). Warriors are called “hellebore” (ăx̣usō'le R
1311.2), a term also applied to people of violent character. Warriors
say, “for we are the great thunderbirds and we avenge (bite) our late
ancestors” (ye'ntsaxg˙ents ɛwā'lasek˙ kwe'nkwenx̣welig˙aɛya qents
q!esɛē'de qae'nts wiwompdäents
J III 468); “we shall soar and grasp
with our talons the Bella Coola” 14 (q!ā'nex˙ɛideL qents lē'Lens xap!ē'deł
lax Be'lx̣welax˙de
J III 468.11). The warriors say that they are no
longer men, “we are now killerwhales” (lents la mae'mxɛenoxu la J III
470.18. Men killed in war are “eaten” (hă'mk˙!ăes J III 469.29) by
the enemy, and when they are avenged they say, “our late tribe fellows
have been vomited up (by the enemy)” (hō'xɛwitsents g˙ō'kulotaents
J III 469.30).

Many metaphorical expressions are used in connection with the purchase
of copper plates and with marriage ceremonies. These are accompanied
by symbolic acts. In the purchase of a copper the preliminary
payment is called “the pillow” (qē'nulił); the “soft layer” (te'lqwa);
the harpoon line (dō'xusem) by which the copper is held like a seal; or
“what results in the lifting (of the copper) from the floor” (dā'g˙elelem).
The purchase itself is called “pushing” (Lā'sa), viz., pushing the
purchase money under the name of the purchaser whose rank is raised
by the purchase. To offer a copper plate “which groans in the house”
(gwāLelag˙elił J III 448.32) for sale is called to let it “lie dead by the
side of the fire” (yā'g̣wenwaɛis J III 448.32). The purchaser must
“take it up from the floor” (dā'g˙elił C III 282.4).

The knife used for cutting a copper plate that is to be broken is called
“crazy edged” (nā'nulx˙ä C III 216.25), and the copper is “killed”
(hă'ł►x̣wa, a word belonging to the Bella Bella dialect C III 218.4).236

For marrying they use the term “walking into the house” (qa'dzel
C III 238.26); the blankets paid to the bride's father are “what results
in a marriage” (qā'dzeḶem C III 242.11, or “the means of marrying”
(qă'dzeḶayu C III 248.8). The word qā'dzel means that the property
given to the bride's father walks into his house.

Marriages between the eldest children of chiefs are very elaborate.
They are called “taking-care-of-the great-bringing-out-of-the-crests
marriage” (ɛɛwalatsila k˙!esɛołt!end qā'dzeLa C III 240.9), that
means that the chiefs who act as messengers have to use their crests in
proposing to the bride's father. A number of chiefs make the first proposal.
They receive for this message from the bride's father each a
blanket. This is rolled up and carried in arms like a child. They return
carrying it to the groom's father and say in regard to it “it is great, we
come carrying in our arms your future wife” (g˙āxdzeɛmenuɛu q!ełelqālaxg˙as
C III 238.22). After the first proposal they go
back “to shake (the bride) from the floor of the house” (temsx˙eelił
C III 246.13). One chief after another gives a mimic representation
of his family myth, which means “he tries to lift (the bride) from the
floor” (wā'wixeliɛla C III 250.4), or “to lift from the floor” (wī'xelił
J III 464.1), or “to handle a heavy weight” (g̣wāg̣wentselił J III
464.2). One of them, for instance, has the family myth according to
which his ancestor was given the power to become a whaler. He appears
carrying a whaling harpoon which he throws into the house, thus
harpooning the bride whom he calls “a whale” (g̣weɛye'm C III
252.13). By these performances they induce the bride to move on the
floor (qwenēqwelił C III 252.20; k!wēmg˙elił G III 256.19; k˙!aniɛlälag˙elił
C III 256.24; k!wäg˙elił Ḷē'qwelił C III 264.30) and finally “to
come right off the floor” (hē'łq!eelił G III 260.7) and “to come to
the door” (g˙āxstolił C III 268.13), and “to approach the door”
(ē'x˙astolił G III 268.4). Finally she is “off the floor” (Lā'g˙elił C III
272.19). Then blankets to be paid to the bride's father are given as “a
means of calling (the bride)” (Lē'ɛlalayu C III 272.30) and the girl
comes out “dressed” (q!wālenku C III 274.17) in (that is, carrying) a
copper plate. The bride's father gives her blankets as “a tump line”
(āō'xLăas G III 276.16). These are distributed “to be used as belts”
(wesē'x˙ɛid C III 278.28) by the groom's tribe.

A year or more after the marriage the bride's father repays the property
received. This is called qotē'x˙a, a word that in the Bella Bella dialect
signifies “to dress.” He arrives symbolically in a canoe which is
237represented by a square of ceremonial box-covers. In it stands a copper
plate “the mast” of the canoe (Ḷāk˙eɛyala C III 280.10); blankets represent
“the mat” (łe'ɛweɛ C III 294.16) on which the bride sits.

The marriage is also called “to make war on the princesses” (wī'nax
k˙!ē'sk˙! edeła
J III 463.18). Other forms of marriage are called “to try
to get a slave” (q!ā'q!ak!wa C III 280.4), “to take hold of the foot”
(dā'x˙sidzend C III 280.4) and “sham marriage” (x̣wē'sa). A union
without formal marriage is called “sticking behind (like dogs)”
(k!wet!exsda' R 1105.26), a child born of such a union, “obtained by
sticking behind” (k!wet!exsdā'nem R 1099.27).

In all purchases as well as in marriages, the blankets which are the
standard of value are designated by what they represent. After the price
has been paid, blankets are given as “boxes” to store the blankets, as
“canoes” to carry them away; or a canoe worth so and so many blankets
is given as “a dress” for the recipient. The carrying strap for blankets;
the belt for travelling; all these are represented by blankets. Split sticks
represent canoes or the values of canoes measured in blankets that are
given away (J III 457—458). Carpenters who are hired receive blankets
to protect their hands (te'lxts!ane G III 316.10).

In all speeches reference is made to the adherence to old customs.
They “walk the road made by the creator of chiefs” (qā'sa lax t!ee'läsa
R 790.62); they walk in “that what results as the
groove of the world” (xwe'lt!alidzem R 789.25). The chief says, “I
follow the road made by my late ancestors” (len neełtewē'x t!ex˙ī'laɛyasen
C III 124.22); or “what is laid down by our
ancestors” (k˙!ā'taeyasents g˙ā'lemg˙a'lisa C III 146.10). Progress in
social rank is “walking along on flat (blankets)” (qädzo CIII 130.22),
or “walking along” (ɛna'kwela R 791.71). Customs are also called
“the support of the tribe” (qa'dad C III 884.10).

In talking to children or to intimate friends, people use terms of self-effacement.
The most frequently used term is “master” literally “the
one who owns (me) as a slave” (q!ā'gwid); children are addressed as
“the one who owns (me) as a dog” (ɛwā'dzid). The grandfather calls
himself “old dog” (ɛwa'yoł R 1313.3). Parents also call themselves
“slaves” (qlā'k˙o R 712.45); and they call the children “treasures”
(Ḷō'gweɛ R 712.44). The chief speaks of his wife as “receptacle of
wisdom” (nâ'g̣ats!e C III 158.19), because she manages the property
needed for potlatches.238

A name given during a potlatch is fastened (e'lg˙ăalelod C III
130.5) to its owner. A person who is ashamed “wipes off (the shame)
from his body” (dēg˙it C III 132.19) by giving a potlatch.

Love is called “sickness, pain” (ts!eela R 1309.2). The lover
wishes to be the bed (ts!ā'g˙ił' R 1310.15) or pillow (qē'noł R 1310.16)
of the beloved. To be downcast is called “to be withered” (x̣we'lsa R
186.2); to ridicule “to nettle” (dze'nk˙a JX 67.6).239

11 Verzameling van Opstellen door Oud-Leerlingen en Bevriende Vakgenooten
Opgedragen aan Mgr. Prof. Dr. Jos. Schrijnen, 3 Mei 1929
(Chartres, France),
pp. 147-153.

22 e a very weak vowel, probably derived from a weakened ă
ä the German umlaut ä
â as in English “law”
! glottalizes the preceding consonant
ɛ glottal stop
, , palatized, similar to gy, ky, and German ch in “ich”
g, q, x velar g, k, and German ch in “Bach”
u expresses labialization of the preceding g, k, , g, q, x
ł voiceless l
l affricative tl
affricative dl
u medial labialized spirant

33 Quotations refer to pages and line of the following publications:
R “Ethnology of the Kwakiutl,” 35th Annual Report of the Bureau of
American Ethnology
J III, X “Kwakiutl Texts,” Publications of the Jesup North Pacific Expedition,
vols. 3, 10 (Leiden, 1902, 1905).
C II Kwakiutl Tales, Columbia University Contributions to Anthropology,
vol. 2 (1910).
C III Contributions to the Ethnology of the Kwakiutl, Columbia University
Contributions to Anthropology, vol. 3 (1925).
M “The Social Organization and the Secret Societies of the Kwakiutl
Indians,” Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1895 (Washington,

41 An enemy tribe.