Clah’s Chinook revisited

clah diaries

A sample from Clah’s journals (image credit: Wellcome Library)

With the help of some friends, I’d like to hark back to a reported Chinuk Wawa conversation.

We once had a good group discussion on the old CHINOOK listserv about a passage from Arthur Wellington Clah‘s diaries, sent in by Chris Roth. It just happens to be more-or-less the earliest Chinuk Wawa written by a Native person that we know of.

Ła’ax or Clah (1831-1916) was a remarkable Tsimshian man from the north coast of British Columbia: he was a hereditary chief, an early Methodist missionary, and he kept journals for decades.

As with the Kamloops Wawa “Chinook Writing” literacy farther south, this early in the contact between Natives and newcomers, literacy for Indigenous people meant writing in a foreign language. Clah wrote an enormous amount of entries in a distinctive second-language English, but he also used sometimes extended that skill to document Chinook Jargon.

The passage I’m reproducing today shows how Clah tried to use English-language spelling conventions to represent the Jargon’s sound structure. After you read this, look below for my best current interpretation. (With thanks to Chris Roth, Scott Tyler, Feri Czobor, Jim Holton, and Leland Bryant Ross for the helpful previous discussion.)

Monday morning the 28 1862. Nicely weather. I get up about early morning. I taking small pox man in my canoe to sent at hom. Clah an Quadlenoh South wind and Clah arrived @ hom about half pass 12 o clock an in the same day an it was Duncan sent letter to with Capt McNeill an about dinner time an I walk oude side Fort and Kithone coming from Nass River. good many person looks me when I walking. Some white people an some Tsimshens an Neshaki spoken to me. Clah I want ask to you. an I hath some good news for you she said. an Clah say very good maam. and Neshaki saying Clah you must not tell lie you tell truth she said. This was Mr Duncan sent letter to Capt Mc Neill you killing 3 whit men. This was letter saying.& I am very near crying and I am astonished for blame to me and Capt McNeill look my face. an he said. Clah weik mieka Nanege Claksth khhmieka Clethoowa. Clah said Naka Nansege Mox the Caname. an Capt Say Closs Nanege Mieka Man of War Ahale-keg. Ja, Co. Capt Say Clah Closs mieka jhehh kallepy Coppah Duncan  eolyhean? an I gone back at night. Clah Arrived on Tuesday morning @ medlekhadle and I give letter with Mr Duncan.

Deciphering the Chinuk Wawa is no picnic. It’s not only in idiosyncratic spellings, but the transcriber may have been unfamiliar with CW. But here goes —

Capt McNeill…said. Clah weik mieka Nanege Claksth khhmieka Clethoowa.
Clah, wík máyka nánich łáksta qʰá(x̣) máyka łátwa?
Clah NEGATIVE you see anyone where you go
‘Clah, didn’t you see anyone where you went?’

Clah said Naka Nansege Mox the Caname.
náyka nánich mákwst kəním.
I see two boat
‘I saw two boats [or canoes]’. 

Capt Say Closs Nanege Mieka Man of War Ahale-keg. Ja, Co.
łúsh nánich máyka mánuwa áłqi cháku.
good watch you man-of-war FUTURE come
‘Be careful, you, a naval ship is coming.’ 

Capt Say Clah Closs mieka jhehh kallepy Coppah Duncan  eolyhean?
łúsh máyka chxí k’íləpay kʰapa Duncan ílihi?
good you newly return to Duncan place
‘(Maybe) you should go back to Duncan’s.’

(Two specific notes: ‘Man-of-war’ is known as a loanword in certain Aboriginal languages of the region, likely from Chinuk Wawa as are other naval terms like ‘shipman’ for ‘sailor’. And Clah’s < jhehh > quite possibly reflects a conservative pronunciation similar to Grand Ronde’s chxi, with an /x/; a couple decades later, Franz Boas documented a similar pronunciation of this Jargon word, also in Tsimshian territory.)

Well, readers, to your eyes, does my proposed interpretation fit with the context of Clah being the subject of rumors that he’d murdered people? (And apparently being sent home with a ‘skookum paper’ attesting to his good character.)

What do you think?

I would love to get access to the 72 volumes of Clah’s diaries at the Wellcome Library, and scout out whatever else of Jargon there might be in there…!

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