Re-evaluating Boas’s 1888 “Chinook Songs” (part 8)


Downtown Victoria, BC, as the 1880s Chinuk Wawa singers would have experienced it (image credit: Wharf Street 1881)

The theme keeps solidifying, of Franz Boas’s excellent skill at making out the gist of an Indigenous text.

He also consistently overlooked a bunch of details, though.

Among other conclusions, I see this pattern as evidence that Chinuk Wawa is more expressive than most scholars have realized, back in the days before we had located and analyzed a large amount of “Jargon” data.

See what you make of my analysis of today’s 3 songs…

SONG #22:


Kaq mesaika tlatowa alta?
qʰáx̣ msáyka [1] (t)łátwa álta?
where you.Plural go now?
‘Where are you going now?’
DDR: ‘Where are you folks going now?’

Potlatch lema!

pátlach líma!
give hand!
‘Shake hands!’
DDR: ‘Shake hands!’

Tlaqauya! George Bell!
(t)łax̣áwya [2]! djórdj bél!

hello! George Bell!
‘Good-bye! George Bell!’
DDR: ‘Hello! George Bell!’

Comments on song #22:

msáyka [1] is the plural ‘you’; if you’d only gone by Boas’s translation into English, you’d probably take it as the singular, addressing George Bell. 

(t)łax̣áwya [2]! seems to be ‘hello’ here, as it clearly is in the majority of the “Chinook Songs”. The preceding ‘shake hands’ is traditionally a greeting, not a farewell, in Indigenous communities as I’ve encountered them through researching the Jargon. Could the singer be introducing himself as George Bell? It can be tricky navigating Boas’s German-style punctuation in these lyrics, which for example includes putting a comma before a subordinate clause. (By the way, thinking that this could be a humorous reference to some well-known person, I did some research, and there’s no obvious George Bell turning up yet in 1880’s Victoria or elsewhere in Canada.)

Summary of song #22:

The translation by Boas succeeds in showing us the context of people giving each other salutations. Incidentally, his careful documentation of these songs also shows us that Native people were preserving phonetic details (like that final consonant in qʰáx̣, and the shift to first-syllable stress in líma) that we know from the earlier lower Columbia River Chinuk Wawa. However, it’s a serious issue that Boas takes the lyric as suddenly shifting from a hello to a parting, whereas I see abundant evidence that the entire text is a greeting. Note, Boas republishes this same song in his 1933 article, with the translation unchanged except for a ‘ye’ instead of ‘you’.

SONG #23:


Haias tlaqauya naika 
hayas-łax̣áwya [1] náyka
very-pitiful I
‘I am very glad’

DDR: ‘I was miserable’

Spos steamboat tchako yakwa. 

spus stím-bút cháko yakwá [2]
when steam-boat come here.
‘When the steamboat comes here.’ 

DDR: ‘When the steamboat arrived.’

Tlonas naika kelai 

t’łúnas náyka kʰiláy 
maybe I cry
‘I think I shall cry’ 

DDR: ‘I think I’m going to cry’

Spos steamboat tlatowa. 

spus stím-bút łátwa.
when steam-boat go.
‘When the steamboat leaves.’ 

DDR: ‘When the steamboat leaves.’

Comments on song #23:

hayas-łax̣áwya [1], as we’ve seen in previous “Chinook Songs”, means the extreme opposite of ‘happy’. It appears that Boas took the word łax̣áwya, which as an interjection can sometimes (albeit infrequently in these Victoria songs) mean ‘hello’ as well as ‘goodbye’, as an indicator of good spirits. In the Glossary at the end of his article, he indeed glosses it as ‘happy, unhappy’. But in all Jargon dialects the word fundamentally means ‘poor, pitiful’, signifying the speaker’s humility! 

cháko yakwá [2] ‘arrived here’, I take from the context as being an event that already occurred, so I translate it with the English past tense. 

Comments on song #23:

The two preceding comments should indicate that I feel Boas’s translation is accurate enough to convey, in a free-floating tenseless way, the situation being sung about. What he has not noted is the emotional detail that’s present in the lyrics, with the singer implying having been relieved from distress when the boat showed up, but plunged back into suffering upon its departure. 

SONG #24:

chinook songs 24 musical


Tawun gud naika tlatowa, 
tʰáwn-Gud [1] náyka łátwa, 
town-to.the.waterfront I go,
‘I went to town,’ 

DDR: ‘I’m going to the waterfront,’

Naika nanitch naika sister, 

náyka nánich náyka sísta [2]
I see my sweetheart,
‘I saw my sister,’ 

DDR: ‘I’ll see my sweetheart,’

Naika tlos tumtum.
náyka (t)łús-tə́mtəm. 
I good-heart.
‘My heart was glad.’ 

DDR: ‘I’m happy.’

Comments on song #24:

tʰáwn-Gud [1]: as Boas rightly observes later in the paper (page 225), the form Gud is from the Haida language. He glosses it as ‘on’ and infers a meaning ‘on the street’. Now, Haida has very few “adpositions” (prepositions or their after-the-word equivalent, pospositions); instead, it tends to place a “relational noun” after e.g. ‘town’, to indicate the desired spatial relationship to the town. So, here I think we’re seeing Haida Gud (the underlined G represents an unaspirated /q/) ‘the part of an island nearest to other land’ — a perfect description of Victoria’s historical downtown heart and the Native quarter. (To give you an idea of the Indigenous metaphors involved there, in Haida Gud also means ‘stern of a boat; one’s buttocks (of a human or a bear); box, trunk, coffin’). 

sísta [2], as we keep seeing in these songs, means ‘(female) sweetheart’ in north coast Chinuk Wawa. 

Summary of song #24:

It’s again possible to add highly significant fine points of meaning to Boas’s translation. One claim I’m not making is that Boas got the verb tenses wrong; being unmarked in the Jargon, they’re often hard to reconstruct in the absence of more words and more context. It’s just that I prefer the optimistic interpretation, seeing this lyric as a happy and optimistic one in contrast to Boas’s somewhat wistful retrospective take, which I’d favour if anything in the song connoted the kind of heartbreak that we see in several of the “Chinook Songs”.

What have you learned?