Chinook Jargon Asks Taft

Seattle Press Club badge 1909

Seattle Press Club badge, 1909 (Image credit:

It’s useful to distinguish types of Chinuk Wawa texts (and those in any language) by their setting, author, and audience…

Today’s verges on that “fictional Chinook Jargon” that I’ve sometimes warned about.

In favor of its authenticity, it comes from Seattle, Washington, and we easily infer that it was meant to proudly show off Pacific Northwest identity.

Weighing against it, it was addressed to someone who folks in our region would consider an East Coast guy, President William Howard Taft (actually from Ohio!) — not the first U.S. president involved with the Jargon, by the way, but hardly a person expected to make heads or tails of it.

And the grammar of today’s little text, composed in the time of Seattle’s urban maturity when Chinuk Wawa had little use within the city limits, carries detectable traces of less-than-fluent grammar with first-language English influences filling in the writer(‘)s(‘) knowledge gaps. Most of the spellings here come straight out of the tacitly standardized “Chinook dictionaries” of the day, though ticke, lale, and nanetch are new and interesting.

Having noted the pros and cons, I settle on advising you to read this article closely for its historical interest, and for its very last, mysterious, word. As always, I’m adding interpretive information for your benefit.

Chinook Jargon asks Taft


President to be Guest of Seattle Press Club on Visit.

SEATTLE. Wash., Sept. 16, — (Special.) — “Copa tyee Taft” was the unusual address on a document mailed here 10 days ago. It was the Invitation of the Seattle Press Club, written in chinook jargon to President Taft that he become the guest of the club during his visit here. “For Chief Taft” is the translation. On that slender address the document was taken in charge by Postmaster George F. Russell and was delivered promptly at Beverly, Mass. 

The President has accepted the invitation, which was handsomely engrossed, It follows:

“Copa Tyee Copa [1] nesika illahee, Seattle tsum tillicums [2] copa klaska
kʰapa táyí kʰapa nsáyka íliʔi, Seattle t’sə́m-tílixam-s kʰapa ɬáska
To chief in our country, Seattle write-person-Plural to their 
‘To the Chief of our country, the Seattle writers with their 

tyees [3], delate ticke mika chaco [4] copa nesika illahee, tenas lale [5] mika
táyí-s, dlét tíki máyka cháku kʰapa nsáyka íliʔi, tənəs-líli máyka
chief-Plural, really want you come to our place, little-time.span you 
‘chiefs, really want you to come to our place, for a while you’

mitlite yakwa.
míɬayt yakwá.
be.located here.
‘will be here.’

“Conoway [6] copa boston illahee mika nanetch tillicums klaxta [7] ticke 
“Kánawi kʰapa bástən íliʔi máyka nánich tílixam-s ɬáksta tíki
All in American-country you see person-Plural who want 
‘Every[where] in America you meet people who want’

mash copa mika kloshe tumtum pe nesika wawa delate halo mika iskum
másh kʰapa máyka ɬúsh tə́mtəm pi nsáyka wáwa dlét hílu máyka ískam
send to you good heart and we say really not you receive 
‘to send to you good wishes and we say you really won’t receive’

conoway elip hiyu khoma [8].”
kánawi ílip háyú khoma.”
all most many khoma
‘all the most khoma.’

— The Portland Sunday Oregonian, September 17, 1911, page 2


[1] The Swiss-Army-knife preposition copa here reflects the English possessive ‘of’, which is not grammatical in Chinuk Wawa. The opening phrase can only make sense in CW if you take it as ‘To the president in our country’.

[2] tsum tillicums, literally ‘write-people’, is a new coinage for ‘journalists’. It’s somewhat ambiguous, looking like it should mean ‘writers’. Take note of the English-influenced -s plural, and keep reading.

[3] tyees: another English-influenced -s plural.

[4] ticke mika chaco, literally ‘want you (to) come’an English-influenced way of making a subordinate clause, not uncommon among White speakers. More fluent and typical Chinuk Wawa would have tiki pus mayka chaku, ‘want that you come’.

[5] tenas lale is ambiguous here between ‘for a while’ and ‘in a while’. I’ve arbitrarily chosen a translation, but that doesn’t mean I like it. Fluent Jargon would disambiguate by adding pi ‘and’ at the end, if the latter sense was meant: tənəs-lili pi… The unclear usage here is typical of White speakers.

[6] conoway seems intended as ‘everywhere’, which in Jargon is universally kanawi-qʰa ( ~ conoway kah). 

[7] klaxta ‘who’ is most often confined to three usages among fluent Jargon speakers: as a question ‘who?’ or an indefinite pronoun ‘someone/anyone’, and in northern dialects also as a specifier ‘some ___, any ___’. The use of it here to form a relative clause is nonstandard and is typical of White people’s speech, where it’s modeled on English, French, etc. syntax. Typical fluent Jargon usage would be …tilixam Ø tiki… (that is, with no relativizer word at all), or, at Grand Ronde, …tilixam uk tiki…, both meaning ‘people who want’.

[8] conoway elip hiyu khoma is unclear.

  • First off, conoway elip hiyu strictly ought to mean ‘all of the most, all of the greatest quantity of’. But I have a suspicion the Seattle tsum tillicums were reaching for a meaning like ‘the greatest amount of’, which in fluent Jargon is formed starting with these same words but sequenced a bit differently: elip hiyu kopa conoway, the ‘most many among all’.
  • But second, the negation in this sentence — ‘you won’t receive…’ — throws any universal-scope quantification (all, none, etc.) into confusion.
  • And third, the last word khoma is a total mystery. Is it a misprint? Is it from the local Lushootseed Salish, a language that some Seattle pioneers had an acquaintance with and liked to draw from in their Chinook Jargon writing? I find no trace of a similar word in the entire Chinuk Wawa literature.

What do you think?