“A River out of Eden”

Chinuk Wawa steadily draws the imagination of novelists…

There’s evidently something about the Chinook Jargon that’s irresistible to storytellers. On this website over the years, I’ve mentioned any number of novels, as well as pieces of short fiction and poetry, that make use of CJ.

I’ve found one of the newest examples.

a river out of eden hockenberry

(Image source: Covering Photography)

John Hockenberry, until recently the host of a National Public Radio show, published his novel “A River out of Eden” in 2015. This is not to be confused with Richard Dawkins’ science book of the same title!

I haven’t read Hockenberry’s novel, beyond some online excerpts. (My book-buying budget is equal parts nonfiction research items and whatever fiction I find in those Little Free Libraries!)

The Goodreads summary tells us:

On a night of torrential rain, a warrior appears near the Colombia [sic] River, where the Chinook people thrived before the hydroelectric dams came and changed their entire way of life. He has come to reclaim the river, to return it to its original majesty.

Soon after, government employees are found murdered with elaborate harpoons. As the body count grows, Francine Smohalla, a government marine biologist of Chinook and white descent, embarks on her own investigation of the bizarre murders. As she desperately tries to find the killer and prevent any other murders, she finds herself spinning in the convergence of ethnic hatreds between Indians and whites, an unlikely relationship with a kindred spirit whose troubled life has led him to contemplate terrorism and apocalypse, an ancient prophecy about the return of her beloved salmon, and the giant dams on the Columbia that loom large and as seemingly immovable as the mountains themselves. A River Out of Eden is a gripping literary thriller straight from today’s headlines set against the uniquely American contradictions of the Pacific Northwest.

What I can spot right away is that we have here another item to file under FICTIONAL CHINUK WAWA. Not just meaning that it’s imagined dialogue. Also meaning “not grammatical”. Mr. Hockenberry, who I was quite a fan of, could’ve hired a linguist (me) as a language fact-checker.

Example: page 101: wawa illihee is dropped into English sentences, and said to mean ‘voice of the earth’.

This is where I get onto one of the lessons I like teaching: different languages work in different ways.

One often-overlooked kind of difference among them is what I call “citation forms”, the things a given language is likely to say in isolation, not in a full sentence.

English can, and does say stuff like “voice of the earth” all by its lonesome, and people understand the intended meaning.

The Jargon can’t, and doesn’t, say such medium-size chunks in isolation. Single words, sure. Sentences, you bet. A phrase whose referent is not immediately obvious, either from your senses or from conventional use in society — nope.

(I’m not even getting into the fact that wawa illihee is ungrammatical here. It’d be more grammatical if it was translated as ‘speaking earth. But I’m just noting that and sticking to today’s main point.)

This is simple. As far as we can prove, Chinuk Wawa is a very young language. And whatever its age, we know Jargon hasn’t yet developed a literary standard.

In English, thanks to a long history of both oral and written literature, you can practically put together any two words, and evoke a vivid image in listeners’ minds. Exhibit A: “Sonic Youth”. “Evergreen State”. “Chinook Jargon”. 🙂

The reality is that there is no convention of referring to the ‘voice of the earth’ in Chinuk Wawa. And you can’t unilaterally declare, in any language of the human species, that “such-and-such hereby means such-and-such”, and expect to be accommodated.

I realize that for Hockeberry’s typical reader, all of this is a non-issue.

And I admit that some of his Jargon is quite okay on all levels, for example mesachie tillikum as an insult toward a “bad person”.

But I think it’s really worthwhile, in our 2018 situation where we’re trying to “bring back” the Jargon into real-life conversation, to draw attention to some guidance that you won’t yet find in any courses or published materials:

Don’t talk flowery! (“Wik mayka tatis-wawa“!?!?)

What do you think? qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm?