“Mary Had a Little Lamb”, with a side of linguistic archaeology


(Image credit: DeviantArt)

True story: There was a late-1800s vogue for jokey versions of the kids’ nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb“. 

For fun and profit, people were creating variant versions and parodying this unavoidable verse that’s about a real Massachusetts girl who rescued one of twin lambs, rejected by its mother, in 1806.

In Washington State, naturally this took a regional turn in the form of a Chinuk Wawa translation. The following is a pretty straight translation, rather than sardonic. [I’ll put its literal translation in square brackets.]

mary had a little lamb 1

The Riverside Literary Society managed to gather about thirty-five persons together together last Friday evening notwithstanding the storm. The subject for debate “That the Mexican war conferred more glory on the United States than the war of 1812,’ was decided in the negative. The next debate will be “The usefullness of wealth or knowledge. The Riverside Observer, under its new editor, Miss Mabel Bone, was a decided success. An odd exercise was the reading of eight different versions of “Mary had a little lamb;” three in English and one each in Irish, Dutch, Chinese, Pigeon English, Pigeon French and Chinook jargon. As the latter has never appeared in print, we send it to you with this. By the way did you know that the yarn from one stocking knit from the wool from the lamb, was given to a church in Boston, and sold in bits, amounting to a hundred and forty dollars.

mary had a little lamb 2

Maly yaka mitlite ikt tenas sheep,
Méli yaka mɪłayt íxt tənəs-shíp,
[Mary had a certain lamb,]
‘Mary had a little lamb,’

Yaka tupso t’kope kahkwa snow;
yaka tə́psu tk’úp kákwa snú;
[Its wool was white like snow;]
‘Its fleece was white as snow;’

Konoway kah Maly yaka klatawa,
kʰánawi-qʰá Méli yaka łátwa,

[Everywhere Mary went,]
‘And everywhere that Mary went,’

Okoke tenas sheep yaka kwanesum klatawa.
úkuk tənəs-shíp yaka kwánsəm łátwa.

[That lamb always went.]
‘The lamb was sure to go.’

Yaka klatawa kunamoxt Maly kopa school ikt sun,
yáka łátwa kʰanumákwst Méli kʰapa skúl íxt sán,

[It went with Mary to school one day,]
‘He followed her to school one day,’

Okoke wake kloshe kopa school law;
úkuk wík-łúsh kʰapa skúl-lá;

[This was bad by school rules;]
‘Which was against the rules’

Konoway tenas klaska hiyu heehee,
kʰánawi tənás łaska hayu-híhi,
[All the children kept-laughing,]
‘It made the children laugh and play,’

Spose klaska nanitch tenas sheep kopa school.
spus łáska nánich tənəs-shíp kʰapa skúl.
[When they saw the lamb at school.]

‘To see a lamb at school.’

Yahkwa school man yaka mahsh okoke tenas sheep klakanie,
yakwá skúl-mán yaka másh úkuk tənəs-shíp łáx̣ani,

[Then the teacher put that lamb outside,]
‘And so the teacher turned it out,’

Pe kwanesum yaka mitlite wake siah;
pi kwánsəm yaka míłayt wík-sayá;

[But it stayed close;]
‘But still it lingered near;’

Cultus yaka mitlite,
kʰə́ltəs yáka míłayt,

[It just sat (there),]
‘He waited patiently about,’

Kopa okoke time Maly yaka chako klahanie.
kʰapa úkuk tʰáym Méli yaka cháku łáx̣ani,

[To the time Mary came out.]
”Til Mary did appear.’

Pe kahta okoke tenas sheep kloshe tumtum kopa Maly,
pi qʰáta úkuk tənəs-shíp łúsh-tə́mtəm kʰapa Méli,
[But how is it this lamb likes Mary,]

‘ “Why does the lamb love Mary so?” ‘

Konoway tenas klaska hiyu wawa;
kʰánawi tənás łaska hayu-wáwa;

[All the children were saying;]
‘The eager children cried;’

Oh Maly yaka kloshe tumtum kopa okoke tenas sheep,
ó Méli yaka łúsh-tə́mtəm kʰapa úkuk tənəs-shíp,

[Oh Mary likes this lamb,]
‘ “Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,” ‘

Okoke school man yaka wawa.     S.
úkuk skúl-mán yaka wáwa.
[That teacher said.]
‘The teacher did reply.’

— from the Mason County Journal of December 6, 1895, page 3, column 4

A few notes on the underlined words; the last one will lead into a deeper discussion.

shíp for ‘sheep’ is not in most Chinuk Wawa dictionaries, but we know it was used in Jargon.

tə́psu is the neat alternative pronunciation for tipsu ‘hair; grass; leaf; plant’. I won’t go into details but both pronunciations reflect the old Chinookan-language source form t(ə)-ps(h)u.

wík-łúsh, literally ‘not-good’, is important to know as a normal word for ‘bad’ in Jargon. It’s a much better choice here than kʰə́ltəs ‘bad; worthless’ or masháchi ‘bad; evil’.

yakwá, literally ‘here’, is possibly a mistake for yawá ‘there’. In either case this word is being used to connect a sequence of events in the narrative, like the English ‘then’. We often see yawá used this way in certain dialects, such as the one around Kamloops, BC.

school man (skúl-mán) for ‘teacher’ hasn’t previously been documented as an explicitly Chinuk Wawa term, so this is a nice find today. Before now, we only had the indirect evidence of a Tlingit-language borrowing, sgóonwaan. Going into some detail now:

The superb book “Haa Tuwunáagu Yís, for Healing Our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory” by Nora Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990)” contains a footnote on page 356 to one speaker’s inflected use of that last word: “sgóonwaanx’i  is from the English ‘school man.’ The -x’i is plural possessive.” In the text, on page 211, this word is translated as ‘my students’. Because “school man” in English would be an odd expression, whereas it’s normal for Chinuk Wawa, I confidently suggest we see this as another of the many nouns loaned into Tlingit from the Jargon.

If you want more evidence that sgóonwaan reflects Chinook Jargon usage, I refer you to Keri Edwards’ wonderfully well-designed “Dictionary of Tlingit” at the Sealaska website. In it, we find an entry for this word that defines it as ‘student; pupil; scholar’. (The example sentence provided is Sgóonwaan atyátx’i has shayadihéin Yaakwdáatx’ ‘There are a lot of school children in Yakutat.’) Unlike any believable English-language source phrase, the range of meanings ascribed to this word are not specific to any gender or age category. At least in my own native Pacific Northwest English, you can’t refer to kids, and certainly not schoolgirls, as “school men”!

All of this indicates in my view a source phrase in Chinuk Wawa, where skul-man unproblematically can mean ‘teacher’ or ‘student’, singular or plural. Tlingit hasn’t borrowed Jargon expressions for ‘female schoolteacher’ or ‘schoolchild’. Just ‘school-man’.

Note that the Jargon as far as it’s known to have been spoken in Southeast Alaska, like what we find in other regions where it had been introduced late, looks to have been reduced to a smaller vocabulary and a simpler structure.

The comparatively small amount of Chinook Jargon loans into Tlingit and Haida reflect this, I hypothesize. Tsimshian languages are another story…they just plain don’t like new loanwords all that much! Aboriginal languages spoken in regions of heavy CJ use tend to show heavy borrowing from CJ.

Re-pidginization, I call this phenomenon of Chinuk Wawa getting funneled through a narrow bottleneck each time it was suddenly carried to a new geographic region. It’s only paradoxical and unexpected if you’ve been proceeding from an assumption that languages, especially contact languages such as pidgins, have some inevitable tendency to “develop” into “more sophisticated” form as time passes.

In actual fact, Chinuk Wawa’s history, both what’s known and what we can reconstruct via linguistic archaeology, indicates that this contact language developed rapidly and even “creolized” into a mother tongue of some communities very early. But all of that happened while the language was still confined to a pretty limited geography. Additional decades of outsider resource exploitation and settlement led to successive new plantings of Jargon, in each case from a necessarily small subset of the language’s already developed structures.

I say “necessarily” because out of the majority-new-second-language-speaking Chinuk Wawa speech community, only very few speakers at a time (never entire communities) moved into any one new territory and brought CW into use there. No one of those speakers can be expected to have been acquainted with CW’s complete range of expressions and nuances. It would be analogous to establishing a new community of English-language speakers whose knowledge of this language was recently acquired — maybe immigrants, maybe children. (Weird thought experiment, there.) The English you’d wind up hearing would be missing a lot of the features of mother-tongue adult English speech!

So Southeast Alaska, which experienced a signficant influx of Jargon-speaking outsiders only after the Russian handover to the USA in 1867, was at that fairly late stage in its history the site of a re-pidginization as Native people learned enough Chinuk Wawa to communicate with those folks. There’s no reason to expect SE AK Jargon to closely resemble what we find around the lower Columbia River and Grand Ronde, Oregon.

There’s today’s lesson in linguistic archaeology for you. Once again, a single word in a single poem leads to deeper historical insights.

What do you think?