About Jargon hymnody & prosody

A study in Papers of the Hymn Society of America, volume 18 (1954), reproduces from Myron Eells’s small 1889 book “Hymns in the Chinook Jargon Language” the following claim:

eells hymns 1889

The chief peculiarity which I have noticed in making hymns in this language is, that a large proportion of the words are often two syllables, and a large majority of these have the accent on the second syllable, which renders it almost impossible to compose any hymns in long, common or short metres.

— page [3]

I’d like to take a moment to examine the accuracy of this claim.

Most of us will be as unfamiliar as I am with this talk of “metres”, so how about some defining?

For “metre” or “meter” generally, I like this explanation from David’s Hymn Blog, with my emphasis added:

Hymn Meters

The meter of a hymn text is not to be confused with the meter of the music. The meter of the music is the arrangement of the rhythm into regular patterns of stress called “measures”, and is signified by the “time signature”, a symbol at the beginning of the staff (e.g. 4/4, 6/8, etc.); the hymn meter is the pattern of syllables and stresses in the text itself. There is obviously going to be a relationship between the two, but they are not the same thing.

The same blog goes on to define the typically used traditional metres by their numbers of syllables per line:

  • Long metre = 8.8.8.8
  • Common metre = 8.6.8.6
  • Short metre = 6.6.8.6

When I shift over to music dictionaries of Eells’ era, I find they are more specific in the same way he is, speaking of “iambic” rhythm, groups of [unstressed syllable + stressed syllable]:

short metre definition

— from “Adams’ New Musical Dictionary…” (1865:207)

Now, I’ve written about the prosodic stress pattern of Chinuk Wawa in this space before. (See “Zenk’s Law“.) What that boiled down to is noticing that the Jargon’s words are on average 2-syllable units, with stress on the first syllable [stressed syllable + unstressed syllable].

Which actually is like English.

And that’s funny, because if Chinuk Wawa’s stress pattern is actually similar to English, it contradicts Eells’s claim that the two languages are so different.

In fact, Eells and other missionaries in the Pacific Northwest composed a remarkably large number of hymns in Chinuk Wawa. It wasn’t all that hard to do, evidently.

But when a person tries to articulate their perception of a language, I feel that they’re usually onto something. They might only lack the exact words.

That’s why I want to suggest that Eells was, more accurately speaking, grappling not with stress patterns but with the unpredictable numbers of syllables that’re required to express ideas in Chinook Jargon.

Some fundamental notions in Jargon are easily put forth in one-syllable words (which by the way are stressed): mán ‘man; person’, sán ‘day; sun’; píl ‘red’; tk’úp ‘white’.

(Extra points if you remembered how I’ve previously pointed out a special pronunciation style in Chinook Jargon hymn singing, where consonant clusters get broken up and a vowel put in the middle. An example of the result is how Kamloops Wawa writes the word for ‘white’ as two syllables, tikóp, in hymns; ‘true’ became the four-syllable nawítikàThose are actual (fairly rare, and artificial) examples of iambic stress in this language, created by the hymn writer for the purpose of fitting words to an existing tune.)

But anyhow, Chinuk Wawa isn’t as monosyllabic as English. Most simple words are a bit longer: two syllables, as I’ve said.

And many, many words — you could fairly guess it’s a majority in actual speech — are compounds and words inflected with the grammatical operators mamuk-, chaku-, tənəs-, hayu-, etc. Each of these adds two syllables to the word they modify.

So, what I’m getting at is that Eells may have been striving towards expressing the frustration of how polysyllabic the Jargon is. That’s its real difference from English, when it comes to writing punchy, short texts like you expect in hymns.

And in fairness to Rev. Eells, many White hymn writers in Jarogn adopted an English-language-inspired strategy for accommodating those essentially unstressed mamuk‘s, etc.: they would turn them into sort of “grace notes”, kind of a “pickup” before the main word that they modify. And that approach tended to give you, guess what — an unstressed first unit (mamuk being sung very quickly) + a stressed second unit — thus an iamb, as he claimed.

That’s my linguistic-archaeological way of explaining his reasoning.

I just have to insist as a language scientist that Chinook Jargon is not the iambic language that Eells says! mamuk (etc.) + a typical 2-syllable main word = still a trochaic pattern, DA-da DA-da.

What do you think?

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