But with a Whymper

The Western Union Company’s 1865 Telegraph Expedition artist, Frederick Whymper, wrote a couple of memoirs that feature some interesting Chinuk Wawa from Canada and Alaska.

The Sea: Its Stirring Story of Adventure, Peril & Heroism” (London: Cassell, 1889) — I’ve featured bits of this one previously.

whymper the sea

(Image credit: Internet Archive)

[page 167:]

The savage Haidahs are a powerful race, of whom not much is known. They, however, often come to Victoria, or the American ports on Puget Sound, for purposes of trading. “How,” it might be asked, “does the trade communicate with so many varieties of natives, all speaking different tongues?” The answer is that there is a jargon, a kind of “pigeon-English,” which is acquired, more or less, by almost all residents on the coast for purposes of intercourse with their Indian servants or others. This is the Chinook jargon, a mixture of Indian, English, and French—the latter coming from the French Canadian voyageurs, often to be found in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company, as they were formerly in the defunct North-West Company. Some of the words used have curious origins. Thus, an Englishman is a “King-George-man,” because the first explorers, Cook, Vancouver, and others, arrived there during the Georgian era. An American is a Boston-man,” because the first ships from the United States which visited that coast

[page 168:]

hailed from Boston. This lingo has no grammar, and a very few hundred words satisfies all its requirements. Young ladies, daughters of Hudson’s Bay Company’s employes in Victoria, rattle it off as though it were their mother-tongue. “Ikte mika tikkee?” (“What do you want ?”) is probably the first query to an Indian who arrives, and has something to sell. “Nika tikkee tabac [1] et [2] la biscuit” (“I want some tobacco and biscuit”). “Cleush; mika potlatch salmon?” (“Good; will you give me a salmon ?”). “Nā-witka, Se-ām [3] (“Yes, sir”); and for a small piece of black cake-tobacco and two or three biscuits (sailors’ “hard bread” or “hard tack”) he will exchange a thirty-pound or so salmon.

Notes to the above:

[1] tabac ‘tobacco’ is a new addition to Chinuk Wawa as documented in existing dictionaries. It’s the French spelling of the word, and there’s every chance that this was in actual use among the significantly Métis Hudson’s Bay Company families.

[2] However, et ‘and’ would surprise me if it were actually used in the Jargon; it would be another new discovery if so. My feeling is that this is a slip-up by the educated and literate Whymper, precipitated by the occurrence of tabac and la biscuit, both of which he has obviously identified by their standard-French counterparts.

[3] Se-ām keeps cropping up in people’s contemporaneous reports of Chinook Jargon from Puget Sound up to BC Coast Salish country, and it’s totally clear that this Salish word, too, needs to be added to our existing dictionaries of the pidgin.

whymper travel and adventure in the territory of alaska

(Image credit: Google Books)

Travel and Adventure in the Territory of Alaska” (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869). This book is the origin, actually, of the French-language quotation I gave the other day about ‘ice’ being a Jargon word.

[page 41:]

He [a lost White man] had subsisted for twelve days on fern and ” gamass [camas],” or lily-roots, and a few berries….We, however, pushed on, and, after following the Homathco Biver more or less closely for the greater part of a day, we reached the first glacier stream, and soon obtained a distant view of the great ” frozen torrent” itself, with the grand snow-peaks behind it…

[page 42:]

…To this point several Indians had accompanied us, and I was not overgrieved to see them continue following the main river ; they were bound for Tatla Lake. They begged for a “potlatch” or gift, and, glad to get rid of them, I acceded to their request for a little flour, tobacco, etc. To one of the children I gave a sixpence, explaining in doubtful Chinook that her majesty, as thereon portrayed, was Victoria, Klootchman tyhee copa King George illi-he — or “Woman-chief of the King George Land” or England, and he immediately suggested by motions that he intended to hang the coin from his nose!

[page 50:]

He afterward told us, pointing back to the place with a shudder, “Hyu si-wash hyack clattawa keekwully ya-wa!” — “Many savages (Indians) had quickly gone to the bottom there,” or had found a watery grave.

[page 63:]

On the 9th June, after a “hyas wa-wa” (big talk) with the Indians, Brown at length succeeded in hiring a canoe, and, putting the larger part of the stuff therein, sent it up the Cowichan River in charge of one white man of our party and several Indians. The larger part of us proceeded by land direct to the village of Somenos, where we found several large lodges, or ” rancheries,” as they are termed in the colony…At length “Kakalatza,” an old “tyhee” or chief, of grave but dignified appearance, and who persisted in wearing a battered chimney-pot hat, given to him by some settler, was engaged to act as our guide to the Cowichan Lake, but this was on the understanding that we allowed him to take his hat-box with him; and every night afterward he carefully deposited his beaver in it before retiring into his blankets.

JPage 65:]

Or else the Indian yarns of Tomo, many of them childish, some incomprehensible, but sometimes showing that the natives have inventive power and a sense of humor. Here is one of them, apparently a native version of the book of Jonah! “An Indian, paddling in his ‘frail kanim‘ on the great ‘salt chuck ‘ or sea, was swallowed — canoe and all — by a great fish, and lay down at the bottom of its belly, sad at heart, thinking it was all up with him, and that never more would he see his people.

Whymper’s writings, many of them multi-volume works, are valuable documents of various Native languages and local customs of the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and the Asiatic Russia’s coastal region, and they’re really worth a read!