Re-evaluating Boas’s 1888 “Chinook Songs” (Part 1)

chinook sweetheart

Chinook ‘sweetheart’ (image credit: ebay)

I don’t lightly question the monumentally important Pacific Northwest work of early anthropologist/linguist Franz Boas…

…But after 20 years of diligent research on Chinuk Wawa, including writing my dissertation describing the grammar and unique alphabet of the Kamloops variety, I look at Boas’s paper on “Chinook Songs” with different, and more questioning, eyes. I’ll name some reasons:

1. I now realize that the 1888 paper (from data he collected in 1886) represents quite an early stage in Dr. Boas’s acquaintance with “the Jargon”. It’s possible he didn’t yet have a strong grasp of its nuances.

2. I’ve also come to find that Boas’s Chinook Jargon work in general has a significant degree of shaky comprehension — I’d hate the alternative of calling it misrepresentation of the language. (German-born, Boas spoke and wrote excellent English, so I don’t think the issue will be with his use of the latter.) I’ll be sharing my work on his unpublished CJ story texts in separate posts here and/or publications. (“Chinook Songs” is the only textual material in the language that he published in his long career.)

3. Boas’s reputation is so strong in the research community — and we owe him such a debt as a founder of our scholarly discipline(s) — that I feel there’s been a persistent element of folks citing whatever he happened to say about a given topic without quite interrogating his thinking.

It seems fair to now take a look at his influential (cited by 23 other studies, according to Google Scholar) “Chinook Songs” document, with a simple question in mind:

Do these 38 ultra-short Jargon texts all get an accurate translation by Boas?

Our knowledge of Chinuk Wawa has grown enormous since 1888, especially since Henry Zenk began working closely with Grand Ronde elders about 40 years ago.

We should be able to comment meaningfully and conclusively, I expect, on what Boas says about Victoria, BC Jargon in the late-to-post-frontier era.

And we should be able to make any corrective commentary, if needed.

So let’s see.

In the presentations that follow, I’ll show Boas’s spellings of Jargon and his English translations. I’ll make my usual addition of Grand Ronde-style pronunciation guide & ‘glossing’ of the meaning of each individual word/morpheme, plus a line marked DDR: showing my understanding of the Jargon line.

Here I won’t bother reproducing any special characters Boas uses.

As usual, I’ll place my footnoted comments after each Chinuk Wawa text.

My readers know that it takes up a good deal of space to examine a Jargon text in detail, so today’s post is the first in a mini-series…


chinook songs 01

Tlaksta sweetheart haiu patlem?
łáksta < sweetheart > hayu-

whose sweetheart Progressive.Aspect-full-alcohol
‘Whose sweetheart is very drunk?’
DDR: ‘Whose sweetheart keeps getting drunk?’

Naika sweetheart haiu patlem!
náyka < sweetheart > hayu-pʰáł[-]lam!
my sweetheart Progressive.Aspect-full-alcohol
‘My sweetheart is very drunk!’
DDR: ‘My sweetheart keeps getting drunk!’

Wek maika yutl kopa naika,
wík máyka yútłił
[2] kʰupa náyka, 

not you glad about me
‘You do not like me,’
DDR: ‘You aren’t happy with me,’

Wek maika yutl kopa naika,
wík máyka yútłił kʰupa náyka, 

not you glad about me
‘You do not like me,’
DDR: ‘You aren’t happy with me,’

Wek maika yutl kopa naika,
wík máyka yútłił kʰupa náyka, 

not you glad about me
‘You do not like me,’
DDR: ‘You aren’t happy with me,’

Naika kumtuks kada maika!

náyka kə́mtəks qʰáta [3] máyka!
I know how you
‘I know you!’ 

DDR: ‘I know how you are!

Comments on #1:

hayu-[1]pʰáł[-]lam uses the Progressive Aspect marker hayu- rather than the Intensive marker hayas(h)- ‘very’, so I understand this verbal inflection as ‘keeps getting drunk; is getting drunk’. Note that the Glossary to Boas’s paper defines < haiu > as ‘many’, and the Intensive < haias > is present in other songs, e.g. #9, #11, #14. 

yútłił [2] means ‘happy; glad; proud’, whereas ‘to like’ in Jargon is rendered by the verb tíki (literally ‘to want’).

qʰáta [3] ‘how’ has been ignored in Boas’s translation. We will see that this word becomes an issue in other song lyrics in the collection.

Summary of #1:

Boas’s translation of #1 captures the dynamic of a lovers’ quarrel, but there are aspectual, lexical, and prepositional nuances present in the Chinuk Wawa song that he does not convey.


chinook songs 02

Kanowe sun naika kelai!
kánawi-sán [1] náyka kʰiláy!

all/every-day I weep
‘I cry always.’
DDR: ‘I cry all day!’

Saia eli naika mitlait alta.
Ø [2] sayá-íliʔi náyka [3] míłayt álta.

in far-country I be.located now
‘Far away is my country now.’ 
DDR: ‘It’s a far-away country that I’m in now.’

Comments on #2:

kánawi-sán [1] is the normal and frequent expression for ‘all day’ or ‘every day’; without further context, we don’t know which was on the singer’s mind. ‘Always’ would be expressed by the common word kwánisəm.  ‘All day’ occurs in English in another of these songs, #34, possibly strengthening the case that it’s the more genre-appropriate translation of kánawi-sán

Ø [2] sayá-íliʔi — ‘in a far-away country’ — uses the “null” preposition that I’ve so often point out in Chinuk Wawa, from my dissertation onwards. My claim that this is not the subject of the sentence but instead a prepositional phrase, “fronted” for emphasis, is strengthened by what we see in note 3.

náyka [3] míłayt is transparently ‘I am (located)’, showing that the sentence’s subject is not the ‘country’ but the singer.

Summary of #2:

Boas again gets the gist of the lyrics, but without a translation of the scene-setting details.

SONG #3:

chinook songs 03

Kakoa naika telhum memalos 
kákwa [1] náyka tílixam míməlus 
like my people die
‘Because my relations are dead,’ 
DDR: ‘It’s like my relations have died[:]’

Steamboat tlatowa, naika kelai. 
stín[-]pút łátwa, náyka kiláy. 
steam-boat go, I cry.
‘(When) [2] the steamboat leaves, I cry.’
DDR: ‘The steamboat is leaving, (and) I’m crying.’

Comments to #3:

kákwa [1] (like; as), unlike some of its equivalents in European languages like German or English, just doesn’t ‘whereas; because’ in Chinuk Wawa.

The subordinating ‘(when)’ [2] need not be inferred here to make the lyrics more sensible — although it would have been helpful if Boas’s preceding ‘because’ interpretation were valid.

Summary of #3:

Once again Boas gets the gist of the Jargon text, but he misses nuances at the level of inter-clausal foregrounding and backgrounding.

I’ll continue this mini-series until we’ve looked at Boas’s entire collection of Jargon songs, at which point I’ll give a more complete summary of what I think we’ve found.

What have you learned?
íkta máyka chaku-kə́mtəks?