Share my fire
When “house porn” and Chinuk Wawa collide:
An article at the Curbed San Francisco website tells of a home for sale that was built circa 1912 for an unnamed “Alaskan sea captain”.
It includes this detail:
One example of this effort is the living room‘s conversation pit, flanked on each side by Inuit totem poles and carvings, featuring a redwood header beam engraved with the the words sitkum nika piah six, which, according to the realtor, translates to “share my fire, friend” in Chinook jargon.
Okay, ignoring the “Inuit totem poles” which are a contradiction in terms, and the eerie resemblance to Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood’s “Sand“…
Without the contextualizing remark from the realtor, who must have gotten it from documents of the original owner’s plans, I would interpret that Chinuk Wawa something like ‘(It’s) half my fire, friend’ or ‘half of my fire-friends’.
The differences in translation tell us, in this case, something pertinent to linguistic archaeology.
How did the sea captain arrive at those Jargon words for the intended meaning of his inscription?
- He had to be using a published dictionary.
- And he had to not be really fluent in the Jargon.
To get a verb for ‘sharing’ out of sitkum ‘half; part’, you have to start with the all-purpose Causative formant mamuk (literally ‘make’).
But one — and only one — Jargon dictionary that we know of from 1912 or before has an entry for ‘share’, and it’s sitʹ-kŭm. The noun. As in “my fair share of the pizza”. Portland entrepreneur John Kaye Gill’s 1887 edition, which the sea captain could easily have found to buy in any Pacific Northwest port, is the source.
I should point out that no published dictionary of that era seems to point out the phrase mamook sitkum.
The genuineness of that is shown by pioneer Edwin Eells using it in his fluent Jargon speech to fellow oldtimers in 1905. (I’ll make a separate article out of that excellent text.) We see this usage corroborated in Father Le Jeune’s 1924 “Chinook Rudiments” dictionary, where he translates it as ‘divide’.
This has to be a very old expression in Chinuk Wawa, then. We should never fall completely under the incantatory spell of calling this a “trade language”. Business was never the entire story. We know from abundant evidence that the Jargon became a household language quite early on. And pioneers proudly used it as an in-group code. And people who consider themselves to be “on the same side” share and share alike.
You bet mamook sitkum is the real old deal.
And our anonymous Alaskan sea captain wasn’t. (In terms of the Jargon.)
But his curiosity of a house in San Anselmo, CA, has led us to quite a neat little realization about Chinuk Wawa!
Interesting points. I have wondered about the casual claim that this is a trade language yet it doesn’t have words for many furbearing animals like marten. Some of the most important trade words would be for sharing and dividing. Would you say that ‘mamook sitkum’ could mean either share or divide?
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Definitely yes, mamuk-sitkum means both. I suppose we’d have to say that “to share” is a derived usage, eh?
A very interesting post. As a local historian, I know that there are several things wrong with the documentation on this house. The original owner was a not an Alaskan sea captain. He was George Breck, born 1865/66 in Portland, Oregon. His father, John M. Breck, arrived in Portland in 1851 and was a pioneer merchant there. George Breck trained as a pharmacist, but gave that up when he moved to San Francisco about 1895. This at least places him where the Jargon would have been spoken. I don’t know who would have originally made the translation.
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Judy, thanks for contributing all this valuable information. You really help make this picture more sensible. I appreciate this!