Novel divorce suit (worn-out joke)

As the Northwest moved well past the frontier era, our newspapers featured many versions of a joke where a White person speaks Chinook Jargon to an Indian — who turns out to be pretty much Harvard-educated.

I’ve seen versions of this from the same time period, where a Westerner addresses a Chinese diplomat in Chinese Pidgin English.

My sociolinguist friends will be fascinated with unraveling the assumptions powering this dynamo of pidgin humor.

novel divorce

A novel divorce suit was tried here last week, when Antwine, an Indian, brought an action for divorce from his klootchman says the Ellensburg Capital. Kauffman and Frost represented the plaintiff, and after winning the suit Mr. Frost told the Indian that the law forbade him marrying again within six months, etc., using this simple language: “Eh, six! Okoke law wawwaw mika ticky halo iskum chee klootchman copa taghum moon. Klose mika delate kumtux kopa okole pe halo Mammook law solicks poka moka.” The noble red man listened to him, and when he had finished he paralyzed the attorney by saying “Yes, Mr. Frost, I understand the conditions exactly, as I read the law on divorces carefully before I began this action.[“]

— from the Albany (OR) State Rights Democrat of July 1, 1898, page 4, column 8

What’s amazing to me is how diligently the writer localized this telling of the joke.

  • Kauffman & Frost were a real law firm.
  • “Antwine” is a genuine Inland Northwest Indian (and African-American) pronunciation of “Antoine”; there’s an Antwine Avenue in Tonasket, Washington, and can I imagine there were specific Antwines known to Ellensburg folks.
  • The Chinuk Wawa that’s quoted uses at least one phrase, “poka moka“, that I see as unique to central Washington. There, I’ve seen “Poka Mika” as a nickname for Pokamiakin, a Jargon-speaking Native man; it’s connected with the name Poka Billy as well.

Making the setup so plausible must have strengthened the punchline for the Ellensburg readers!

But it’s definitely not a local story. I’ve even seen a newspaper publish a version featuring a couple of Native people from well outside Chinuk Wawa territory, I think Cheyennes!

On to a closer look at the Jargon involved, ignoring mere typographical errors:

Eh [1], six! Okoke law wawwaw [2] mika ticky [3] halo iskum chee klootchman
(Eh) shíks! Úkuk lá wáwa máyka tíki hílu ískam chxí ɬúchmən
eh friend! this law say you want not take new woman
‘Eh friend! The law says you need to not get a new wife’

copa taghum moon [4]. Klose mika delate kumtux kopa [5] okole pe halo
kʰapa táx̣am mún. £úsh máyka dlét kə́mtəks kʰapa úkuk pi hílu
for six month. Imperative you really hear to this and not
‘for six months. You’d better really listen to this and not’

Mammook law solicks poka moka [6].
mámuk lá sáliks kʰapa máyka.
make law angry at you.
‘make the law mad at you.’


[1] eh is not in your Chinuk Wawa dictionaries, which are often light on the interjections. You’re likely safe in adding it.

[2] …law wawwaw… ‘the law says’: more elegant Jargon style would be to introduce the following subordinate clause with spose (i.e. pus). Or, see footnote 3.

[3] mika ticky ‘you want/need to’ is copying English phrasing; it would be more fluently expressed by klose mika, as the second sentence actually does.

[4] My sense of clear Jargon style would lead me to put the adverbial phrase copa taghum moon ‘for six months’ at the beginning of the sentence. Misunderstandings would be unlikely but placed at the end here, it might tend to suggest a temporary “wife for six months”. And the law abhors ambiguity!

[5] kumtux kopa is intended as ‘listen to’, probably by a White person looking for separate words ‘listen’ and ‘to’ in a Jargon dictionary. That is, it’s absolutely a mimic of English. An example of good Jargon for the intended meaning might be Father St Onge’s mamuk kwolan kopa (as opposed to his (mamuk) kwolan ‘to hear’).

[6] …mammook law solicks poka moka…: here too I think the words are clear enough although a copy of English phrasing. A more fluent Jargon style might be the simpler mammook solicks law (mamuk-sáliks lá, ‘make the law angry’).

My short evaluation of today’s passage is that it’s fairly decent Chinook Jargon, probably because CJ remained in common use later in central Washington, and especially White readers would’ve had little criticism of it because it resembled how they’d speak.