H.M. Ball letter, 1871

claudet family group

The Mrs. Claudet to whom today’s letter was written may be pictured on a French vacation in this “Claudet Family Group, Chateau de la Roche, Amboise” artfully staged by her husband, whose gold-rush-era mineral and chemical knowledge of course extended to the then-arcane realm of professional photography (image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

You’ve seen Henry Maynard Ball recently on this website, as a judge absentmindedly misspeaking in Jargon to an Indigenous lady. Now you can read an entire letter he wrote to another Canadian woman in Chinuk Wawa!

From about this same “oh how I wish springtime would arrive” time of year, but a century and a half ago, we have this gem.

(Thanks to the members of the CHINOOK listserv community, where we discussed it a few years ago, and to Sam’s study group for bringing it back to mind. I have further insights now.)

Datelined fancifully ‘Plenty Gold Land’ because both the writer and the addressee’s husband were involved in the BC government’s regulation of gold mining, this is quite an amusing little document. I believe it’s an exceptional record of the Jargon as actually spoken, with slangy expressions and a pinch of pidgin English in the mix. I wonder if Mrs. Claudet herself understood Chinook Jargon, or if the intent was for her husband to translate for her?

Asterisks in my transcription from the handwritten original show my uncertainties in reading, and my guesses at pronunciations.

HM Ball letter 1871 01.PNG

[PAGE 1:]

Hyhu Chickamin Illahee
‘Plenty Money Land’

Feb. 26th 1871

Nisika hyas kloshe tilicum Mrs. Claudet [née Frances Fleury].
nsáyka hayas-łúsh
[1] tílikam* Mrs. Claudet
‘(To) our excellent friend Mrs. Claudet.’

Nika hyhu sick tumtum mika
náyka hayu-sík [1]-tə́mtəm máyka
‘I’m quite upset that you’

halo mamook paper copa nika, yacka
hílu mamuk-pípa kʰupa náyka, yáka [2]
‘haven’t written to me, it’s’

kluen* moon nika halo kumtux
łún mún náyka hílu kə́mtəks
‘three months that I haven’t heard,’

mika midlight copa mika house,
máyka míłayt kʰupa máyka háws,
‘are you (still) at home,’
or mika mameloose, spose nika

or [3] máyka míməlus, spus náyka
‘or are you dead; if I’
halo kumtux ankuttie mika sick,

hílu kə́mtəks ánqati máyka sík,
‘hadn’t known you had been ill,’
nika chaco hyhu silex delaite.

náyka cháku hayu-sáliks dlét [4]. [5]
‘I’d get quite angry for real.’
Pe alta misika mox tenas-man

pi álta msáyka mákwst tənəs-mán-
‘But now you folks’ two boy-‘
papoose wawa, wake closhe

papús [6] wáwa wík-łúsh
‘children will be saying, “It’s not right’
Ballie chaco silex copa nika
Ballie chaku-sáliks kʰupa náyka
‘for ‘Ballie’ to get mad at my’

mama. Nika tumtum wake
máma. náyka tə́mtəm wik-
‘mama.” I think’
syah capit cold illahee copa

sayá kʰapít kʰúl-ílihi kʰupa
‘winter is almost over at’
New West? Pe mika, pe mika

New West? pi máyka, pi máyka
‘New West[minster]? And you and your’
man clatiwa copa konamok*

mán łátwa kʰupa kʰanumákwst*
‘husband (can) travel by with’
mika papoose, copa canim pe
máyka papús, kʰupa kəním pi
‘your kids by canoe and’

HM Ball letter 1871 02

nanitch yaka tenas Chuck
nánich yáka tənəs*-chə́qw

Brunette, pe mamook muck
Brunette [7], pi mámuk mə́kʰmək,
‘Brunette Creek, and have some food,’
-a-muck, pe muck-a muck
pi mə́kʰmək
‘and drink some’

Blandy pe-pop-chuck.
blándi* pi póp*-chə́qw [8].
‘brandy and soda.’
Nika hy hu sick Tumtum

nayka hayu-sík-tə́mtəm
‘I’m quite upset’
Quanishum quinum pride

kwánsəm qwínəm práyde* [9]
‘(that) it’s always “five Fridays” ‘
snow, pe wake syah nika

snó, pi wik-sayá náyka
‘of snow, and I’m practically’
chaco all-the-same hy as long

cháku all-the-same [10] hayas-lóng*-
‘turning into some kind of’
Ice, pe tenas leelee konaway

áys [11], pi tənəs-lili kánawi
‘icicle, and soon all’
Boston man chaco all the same

bástən-mán cháku all the same
‘the White people will get like’
masatche kamucks.
masáchi kʰámuks.
‘mad dogs.’

[PAGE 2:]

HM Ball letter 1871 03

Nisika tilicum [Thomas] Elwyn tike mamook
nsáyka tílikam Elwyn tíki mámuk
‘Our friend Elwyn wants to send’

hyas closhe wawa copa mika
hayas-łúsh wáwa kʰupa máyka
‘hearty greetings to you’
pe mika man, and pe

pi máyka mán, and pi
‘and your husband, and and’

nika wawa all-the-same

náyka wáwa all-the-same
‘I say the same’
copa mika man pe mika

kʰupa máyka mán pi máyka
‘to your husband and your’
papoose. Spose mika halo

papús. spús máyka hílu
‘babies. If you don’t’
mamook paper copa nika

mamuk-pípa kʰupa náyka
‘write to me’
delate nika chaco hyhu

dlét náyka chaku-hayu-
‘I’ll surely get quite’
silex pe nika marsh mika

sáliks pi náyka másh máyka
‘angry and I’ll get rid of you’
pe halo midlight misika

pi hílu míłayt [12] msáyka
‘and won’t remain you folks’ ‘

Alta nika wawa
álta náyka wáwa
‘Now I’ll say’

Kla-ha-yu tilicum
łax̣áyu* [13] tílikam
‘Goodbye, friend.’
Nika midlight
náyka míłayt
‘I remain’

HM Ball

Footnotes about that text —

[1] hayas- and hayu- are used interchangeably as Intensifiers by Mr. Ball, in a way that’s typical of those Settlers who also spoke English. Other folks’ Chinuk Wawa, going way back to the early creolization of CW at old Fort Vancouver, just uses hayas- (from the word for ‘big’) for this. (Hayu-, from the word for ‘much’, separately developed as an Imperfective/Progressive Aspect marker.) 

[2] yáka: A 2007 book chapter that I built into my dissertation pointed out that this word in fluent Chinook Jargon is fundamentally “animate” — so it means ‘he; she’ and, in many people’s Jargon, which was fairly insensitive to grammatical number, also ‘they’. So yaka hardly ever means inanimate ‘it’. It’s typically people with a European mother tongue such as English or French who try to use a word for ‘it’ in Jargon. Others use the fluent-speaker’s “null pronoun”, i.e. no pronoun at all! 

[3] or: It’s no mistake that conjunction from English creeps in. We find it at Grand Ronde. I expect or was reasonably frequent in Chinook Jargon, but in line with the custom of leaving recognizably English-sourced CJ words out of the dictionaries, we were bound to wind up with relatively little documentation of its presence. 

[4] hayu-sáliks dlét: Putting the adverb for ‘really’ at the end of the phrase it’s modifying was a reasonably widespread practice. Chalk this feature of H.M. Ball’s Jargon up to genuine fluency. 

[5] We have a nice example here of how “counterfactuals” are expressed in the Jargon: it’s left up to context. This shows us how powerful context is — it’s rarely pointed out in grammatical descriptions of human languages. Here, evidence outside this sentence tells us that Ball is talking about “might have beens”, even though there is no special distinct verb form to specify that viewpoint. 

[6] “Papoose”, well known to us from Western-themed fiction, is a genuine Chinuk Wawa word. Aside from Grand Ronde, we seem to find most of our evidence for it in British Columbia. 

[7] “His creek Brunette” [I originally misread this as “Brusette”, sorry!] — this is a really frequent alternative word-order for possessives. At the time of writing, I reckon Brunette Creek in New Westminster was still strongly associated with Mr. Brunette, an original settler. Folks probably referred to it in English, we can infer, as “Brunette’s Creek”. Likewise, in Jargon, it would be “his creek Brunette” or, with the even more frequent word-order, “Brunette his creek”. 

[8] “Pop water” shows the influence of casual North American English. Before researching Ball’s letter, I hadn’t realized that “pop” as a name for soft drinks goes back about 200 years! Here we find Ball translating an English expression.

[9] “Five Fridays” is another slang English expression translated into Jargon here. In the 1800s it had the sense of ‘grinding, incessant, trying’. 

[10] “All-the-same”, used several times here, was a well-known expression in Chinese Pidgin English. Its use here shows us for the millionth time how pidgins coexisted and influenced each other in the Pacific Northwest

[11] “long ice” for ‘icicle’ — in case you didn’t know it, both “long” and “ice” are Chinook Jargon words known from other sources!

[12] remain: Ball looks to be pretty consistent in using < midlight > for ‘stay, remain, still be’. This is a personal idiosyncrasy of his. It doesn’t reflect known patterns of other people’s Chinuk Wawa use. 

[13] łax̣áyu*: I’m guessing that Ball really did pronounce the well-known Jargon greeting with an “oo” sound at the end. Several other old Settler sources indicate a spelling of it along the lines of < cla-how-you >, probably showing the power of their erroneous linguistic urban legend that the word came from an Indian saying “Clark, how are you?”

Taking the measure of this whole letter, I find it very fluent Chinuk Wawa.

It’s one of the earliest spontaneous communications that we know to have been written down  in the language. (As opposed to attempts at Bible translating, for example, which would be more artificially structured.)

It doesn’t feel forced; instead it reads similarly to casual speech, which was the usual environment for the Jargon in the frontier era.

Even the obviously English-influenced expressions in this letter tend to sound like something that would actually be said in a Jargon context, e.g. asking for a brandy and soda.

Kahta mika tumtum?
What do you think?