Capt. John Irving’s BC Chinuk Wawa address

Linguistic archaeology, at a shallow yet navigable depth…

I had to reconstruct the English translation of the following post-frontier Chinuk Wawa speech, because I’ve only gotten access to part of the original page! See my comments afterwards.

capt john irving 1

Captain John Irving read a message of greeting in Chinook, as follows: “Ahnkuttie — delate ahnkuttie — nika chahko okoke illahee kunamoxt hiyu Kintshautsh man pe Boston man. Kopa chahko yahwa delate toketie kloochman. Konaway tikegh iskum chikamin kopa delate siah — Cariboo. Kloshe tumtum kopa mesika, nika ahnkuttie tillicums. Nika tikegh kloshe wawa mesika, okoke tenas polaklie.” The translation is as follows: “Long ago — very long ago — I came to this country along with plenty of Britishers and Americans too. [Dave’s reconstruction takes over here:] Yet to come were the beautiful women. Everyone wanted to make money far away in the Cariboo. [I] have warm feelings for you, my old-time friends. I want to greet you, this evening.”

— Fourth Annual Reports and Proceedings, British Columbia Historical Association (1927?), page 17

Translating this is not a piece of cake, because there’s so little context, and I figure that the speaker (steamship captain John Irving, 1854-1936) was either not the most fluent, or his Jargon was rusty from disuse, or both.

I incline to the “rusty” hypothesis, since he actually uses the “null” preposition that’s in no dictionaries so you had to learn it from experience; that is, to express ‘I came to this country’ he says literally ‘I came this country’, nika chahko okoke illahee. And as a child born in 1850’s Oregon, and growing up in 1850’s-1860’s lower mainland BC, this fella almost certainly could Jargon with the best of them. Being as outgoing and popular as he’s reported to have been, Irving probably spent many an hour doing just that.

Irving’s second sentence is puzzling, probably because it’s literary, and Chinuk Wawa had no commonly understood literary norms. Kopa chahko yahwa… would be odd in spoken Jargon, because you’d hardly ever start a complex sentence with a preposition + verb. But if you think of it with an English-speaking brain, you see it’s a word-for-word calque on “To come there…”, which could make some sense if its abrupt reference to (settler) women, who were vanishingly scarce in early pioneer days, means “Yet to come…” I don’t think it’s a purpose clause, as in “(In order) to come there…”, which sounds absurd since it’s not supported by any further comments by the speaker.

One reason why I’m entertaining the “non-fluent vs. rusty” debate is because Irving uses one or two “dictionary words” that I’ve never detected in actual BC Chinuk Wawa speech. Toketie for ‘pretty’ is so old-fashioned that its known usage dates to before the times when Jargon was brought to BC with the Gold Rushes.

The spellings used by Irving are highly conventionalized, indicating that he composed his address with the help of one of the more popular published Chinook dictionaries. (They match George Gibbs’s 1863 dictionary really well, for example.) This too can be taken as supporting the idea that the speaker felt a bit out of practice with the Jargon, and wanted to “get it right” for his audience, many of whom in 1920s BC would recognize decent Chinook.

Let me be clear in closing: Captain Irving’s short speech in Chinook Jargon is a solid, previously unresearched example of frontier-era speech in this language from BC. If you recognize the couple of literary touches put on it, you can see that the rest is very good stuff indeed.

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