Edward Holland Nicoll’s phony Chinook


Maybe I shouldn’t be so tough on the author of this Popular Science Monthly feature (June 1889, pages 257-261).  In his “The Chinook Language or Jargon” — which follows an interesting argument with Prof. Huxley on “Cowardly Agnosticism” — Edward Holland Nicoll (1846-1895) provides a typically and appropriately superficial introduction to “Chinook” for non-Westerners.

Nicoll’s article stands out for his including a couple of what he says are firsthand experiences with the Jargon in Washington Territory.  He reproduces one of the popular curios of the time, the “Our Father” prayer as put into Jargon and used at a church service for Indians that he attended.

By the way, internal and contextual evidence suggests an English-speaking Protestant as the translator of the prayer, which Nicoll lifts unattributed from the authoritative George Gibbs’s 1863 documentation of Washington Territory CJ — though Gibbs too fails to credit a source.  It’s not a direct ripoff of Zacharie Bolduc’s Our Father; compare the syntax and spelling of Gibbs’  Nesika papa klaksta mitlite kopa saghalie… with Bolduc’s more Indigenous-style “Nsayea Papa Sakalé mayea mitlaït…

This plagiarism isn’t my reason for my little “phony”, though.

What triggered me to go off like a BS detector was Nicoll’s cloyingly conventional introductory passage.  The little I can determine about his background suggests he was an upper-class New York City fella, and his literary style suggests as much:

I was about to take a trip up the S—-, one of the rivers which flow into Puget Sound.

Augh!  And what was Viscount N— de L—- wearing, pray tell?  Dunno, but with the Indian who the writer describes in condescending terms but as already an acquaintance of his,

…our conversation ran thus: ‘Klahowya,’ I said.  ‘Hyas kloshe,’ replied Jack…This is Chinook, and put into English would read: ‘How do you do?’  ‘Very well.’

Hogwash.  ‘Klahowya’ only ever meant ‘How are you’ to English speakers whose acquaintance with the Jargon lacked depth.  (Remember Paul Kane’s infamous ‘Clark, how are you?‘ faux ami/false friend for clah hoh ah yah.)

There’s also a small matter of spellings.  Nicoll repeats the frequent claim that Chinook is a spoken language only, which is always accompanied by its representation in writing 🙂 I detect nothing novel in his orthography; the various features of Jargon that he discusses look to be copied straight from Gibbs, maybe from further printed authorities as well.

Samuel V. Johnson’s 1978 dissertation on the old CJ publications includes this article of Nicoll’s in its bibliography.  But as far as I can discern, there’s no further mention of it there — so Johnson doesn’t note this as a member of the “Gibbs line” of word lists.  That’s the place that this derivative, though entertaining, piece occupies in the written history of our Pacific Northwest pidgin.  Now that Google Books exists, it’s become easy for everyone to take a look and make their own determination!