Imaginary Chinuk Wawa, the worst kind

There is a category of secondary (really tertiary) sources on Chinook Jargon that you need to beware of…

George Drouillard

A reliable guide (pictured)

You know who not to use as a guide? Experts who, because they don’t speak Chinuk Wawa, rely on what others have published about it, but then make up phrases and sentences in the language.

This kind of thing fairly understandably goes on in some historical fiction. HIRE A LINGUIST!

I’ve also encountered individuals, even entire small communities of people, who don’t learn Jargon but insist on expressing themselves in it. HIRE A LINGUIST!

Most problematic for me, though, is the practice exemplified by writers of history in what I take as a now-disfavored style, enlivening mere facts by providing imagined dialogue for their subjects to speak. When that imputed speech is in a language that the historian doesn’t even speak…Igottaproblemwiddat. HIRE A LINGUIST!

(The very worst such liberties are the ones that have been taken by people employed as experts by the powers that be. Ugh. HIRE A LINGUIST!)

M.O. Skarsten’s book “George Drouillard: Hunter and Interpreter for Lewis and Clark and Fur Trader, 1807-1810” is published by the productive and well-respected University of Nebraska Press (2005, originally 1964, which explains the “putting words in other folks’ mouth” approach). The introduction is by Robert Carriker, who has contributed much to our understanding of Western history. And Carriker shows that Skarsten had solid academic credentials.

All of this tends to instill confidence in readers who seek better knowledge of early contact times in the Pacific Northwest.

I’m on board with that. I think Skarsten did a wonderful job of making sense out of history’s various references to Drouillard. The very big drawback, in my view, is how he makes up Chinuk Wawa quotations — ones that aren’t even grammatical Chinuk Wawa!

On pages 174 and 175, Skarsten slides from quoting previous authorities about the Jargon, to citing individual words of it that Lewis & Clark and the Native people might have used with one another, into totally imaginary full sentences. The following is not plausible because it’s not grammatical in anyone’s Chinook Jargon ever documented:

The Clatsop Cob-o-way, for example, in introducing himself, might have said: “Nika atle Cob-o-way, tyee konoway Clatsop (I am Cob-o-way, Chief of the Clatsops[)].”

I can’t find a word atle in any Chinook Jargon dictionaries. One has attle — a typographical error for uttle — for ‘glad’. In any event, I infer that Skarsten’s atle is intended as a copula (a “be” verb), but in Chinook Jargon all the way back to the earliest documents of it, the way to express “I am X” is nayka X or X nayka. Without any copula.

Tyee konoway Clatsop is almost as nonsensical. It’s obviously intended as a genitive expression, but at minimum, it needs a preposition added to approach that sense: tyee kopa konoway Clatsop. 

I’m going to leave it there, although there’s more made-up Chinuk Wawa nonsense in this otherwise decent book. Read it at your own peril.