More on Robert Brown; he knew his Jargon

We haven’t given Robert Brown (b. 1842) his due.  I mean, he was a well-regarded Scottish botanist and explorer of our Pacific Northwest region, and certainly I’ve already praised his Chinook highly, but he remains pretty unknown in our little world.  Let’s remedy this.

Robert Brown Chinook Jargon scholar

Start with John Hayman’s book “Robert Brown and the Vancouver Island Exploring Expedition“, which relates vivid Chinook Jargon-connected events from Brown’s adventures.

For example, on page 49 we learn (referring to Thursday, March 9, 1864) that among the Vancouver Island tribes, “few understood any Chinook or English”, while the Chinook/Iroquois interpreter/hunter “One-Armed Tomo” had a grasp of various local languages there.

Yet Brown intersperses plenty of Chinook Jargon into his telling of daily events among the Salish people of southeast V.I., such as his having engaged chief Kakalatza for an agreed sum “and the promise of a cultus potlatch(a gift) (page 50).  “We were chiefs of King George they said & if cultus men did pay as much surely we ought…”

Page 51 speaks of a place known as the “mowitch illale” (an editorial misreading for “illahe”) — “deer trail”.

I think on page 56 Brown is protesting too much, but showing a genuine command of Chinuk Wawa learned on the ground and not from books, when he brings up a place whose “Indian name is Squitz [Skutz] which means in the Cowichan language the fall or the end of the swift places though in the Chinook jargon it comes under the same category as Shella untranslatable to ears polite.”  My Google Books preview of the book excludes me from checking the footnote to this statement, so I don’t yet know what this Shella means, but Brown is connecting (mistakenly I think) Squitz with a Chinuk Wawa term for female genitalia.

Page 72 is great because here Brown conveys a couple of full sentences he recalls from discussions with the boy “Lemon” who has been employed on his expedition: “…turning to one of our party, whom he supposed had cast certain sly glances at some damsel of his acquaintance ‘Nika wawa Mary copa mika’ (‘I will speak to Mary for you’) & turning to another ‘Spose Mary halo tiki yaka nika[…]hiyu wawa copa mika’ (‘I hope Mary want him. I want will speak plenty for you’…”

Brown tells on this page also of giving each of his Native employees a ” ‘hyas paper’ or memorial of their character as I found it on the expedition (these papers when true are very useful, but you find them scattered all over the coast full of the most absurd nonsense and untruths”.  This is a mighty neat lexical discovery in Chinook Jargon, another term for what were known farther north as skookum papers.

There’s a bit more of this solid Jargon in Brown’s memoir; enjoy tracking it down for a colorful read.

In his lifetime, Brown was considered a noted authority on Jargon. His obituary in the journal The Academy (Nov. 2, 1895 — No. 1226) refers to him as such.  It’s just a twist of fate that Brown published little in his lifetime that would have cemented that reputation for subsequent generations of Jargonists.

My good turn today, I hope, is to start fixing that gap.

His papers appear to reside at UBC, and they will be worth a closer look into.