How to (mis)use your review copy of a Chinuk Wawa dictionary

What do you do if someone gives you a free dictionary?

This newspaper’s editor may have done right by the donor…I’m just not sure!

how to misuse

A complete dictionary of the Chinook jargon is received from J.K. Gill & Co., publishers at Portland. Yah-ka hi-yu mit-lite kloshe.

— from the Astoria (OR) Daily Morning Astorian of May 25, 1884, page 3, column 1

It was a promotional copy of Gill’s much-reissued dictionary, so a kind word in print was what was expected in return.

That little Jargon sentence at the end gives me pause, though. It’s not just a case of someone using Chinook words in an English arrangement, since

< Yah-ka hi-yu mit-lite kloshe >

means literally ‘it much is good’ — so the writer had some acquaintance with the fact that there were differences between the two languages, importantly that adverbs (like ‘much’) come early in a Jargon sentence.

But…what were these words intended to mean?

Most likely in the context of a promotional notice would be “It’s very good,” with < hi-yu > functioning in one of its well-documented roles, as Intensifier hayu-. (A less-common variant of the usual hayas-.) The catch there is, properly grammatical Chinuk Wawa doesn’t use the “be”-verb with adjectives, such as “good”. This “be”-verb < mit-lite > (míłayt) normally means “be located” or “exist”.

Which raises the paradox — the less likely, but more grammatical, interpretation of the Jargon sentence is the backhanded compliment “It’s sitting safely” (stored away, not being used)! Under that view, < hi-yu > is the Progressive/Imperfect verbal aspect marker of an ongoing situation. That situation would be < mit-lite kloshe > (míłayt łúsh / łúsh-míłayt) ‘be safe, be all right, etc.’

Aside from gleaning clues from context, the only way to resolve this open question would be if we found some overt comment by the editor; that’s mighty unlikely.

Note that both of the uses of < hi-yu > involved here are equally unstressed, so even if we had a time machine to travel to the late-frontier-but-still-Chinuk-Wawa-heavy date of 1884 and could hear the writer saying his sentence aloud, that audio evidence wouldn’t tell us which meaning he had in mind.

What do you think? Was the newspaper editor (J.F. Halloran, maybe) doing his non-fluent best to thank Gill? Or was he for some reason fluently insulting Gill??

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