Re-evaluating Boas’s “Chinook Songs” (Part 11)

little chief

(Image credit: Goodreads)

We’re in the home stretch, folks! One of today’s songs needs a drastic re-interpretation…

…I think you’ll figure out which one I’m talking about.


SONG #31:

chinook songs 31

Spos steamboat tlatowa
spus stím-bút (t)łátwa
if/when steam-boat go
‘When the steamboat leaves,’
DDR: ‘When the steamboat leaves,’


Wawa nesaika good-bye, Jimmy. 

wáwa nsáyka [1] gúd-báy [2], djími. 
say us good-bye, Jimmy.
‘Say good-bye, Jimmy!’
DDR: ‘Tell us goodbye, Jimmy!’


Tlaqauya Billy tumtum. 

(t)łax̣áwya bíli tə́mtəm [3].
pitiful Billy heart.
‘Billy will feel very sad.’
DDR: ‘Billy will feel down in the mouth.’

Comments on song #31:

nsáyka [1] ‘us’ is missed by Boas in the translation, and I think it’s a detail worth highlighting as a first-person plural narrator is quite unusual in the “Chinook Songs”.

gúd-báy [2] is known in BC Chinook Jargon, as I’ve previously noted. In this occurrence of it I’d also like to highlight the word choice — the singer isn’t saying *’tell us < tlaqauya >‘. This has signficance, in that it tends to support my claim in this mini-series that these songs’ < tlaqauya > pretty uniformly means ‘hello’ when used as a greeting. It also avoids any possible confusion with the following line, where < tlaqauya > is used in its adjective sense of ‘pitiful, poor’!

(t)łax̣áwya bíli tə́mtəm [3] : Boas can’t make up his mind what < tlaqauya >, and < tlaqauya tumtum > mean; see the next song, among numerous intances in his article! Anyway, this here’s a tiny 3-word sentence that’s really interesting. It has the fluent Chinuk Wawa word order for an intransitive (including a ‘be’-verb) statement, with the predicate first, then the subject last. And it possibly reflects an exceptional structure that I’ve found in limited occurrence in the Jargon, where a 3rd-person possessive is formed without using yaka ‘his’. (I’m saying we’d normally expect *…bili yaka təmtəm for ‘Billy’s heart’.) I have argued elsewhere that this yaka-less possessive is used for inalienable possession only, first and foremost for body parts.

Summary of song #32:

I barely differ with Boas’s translation, but there are indeed aspects of the lyric that would escape a reader who didn’t know good Jargon.


SONG #32:

chinook songs 32

My dear Annie, 
< my dear Annie, >
my dear Annie,
‘My dear Annie,’
DDR: ‘My dear Annie,’


Spos maika mash Jimmy Star, 

spus [1] máyka másh djími stá*, 
if/when you leave Jimmy Star,
‘If you cast off Jimmy Star,’
DDR: ‘When you leave Jimmy Star,’


Wek maika forget 

wík máyka < forget > 
not you forget
‘Do not forget’
DDR: ‘You won’t forget’ 


Kada yeke tlaqauya tumtum(.) 

qʰáta yáka (t)łax̣áwya-tə́mtəm [2]
how he pitiful-heart
‘How much he likes’
DDR: ‘How broken-hearted he is’


Kopa maika. 

kʰupa [3] máyka. 
about you.
‘You.’
DDR: ‘Over you.’

Comments on song #32:

spus [1] is indeterminate between ‘if’ and ‘when’, except for whatever context you hear it in. Here I see the following clause, which is in normal declarative form (thus ‘you won’t forget’, and not Boas’s command ‘don’t forget’), as evidence that I should read spus here as the factual ‘when’. The distinction is slight, but it’s worth considering what the singer had in their heart. 

(t)łax̣áwya-tə́mtəm [2] really doesn’t mean ‘to like someone’! The –tə́mtəm structure describes a person’s interior mental state, intransitively. Here as in the previous song we’re talking about feeling pitiful in your heart, brokenhearted. 

kʰupa [3] máyka — in line with the previous comment, here we have ‘about you; over you’, not a direct object ‘you’ as Boas translates it. 

Summary of song #32:

There are substantial corrections to be made to Boas’s English version of the lyric.


SONG #33:

chinook songs 33

Kuli, kuli, tenas taii!
kúli [1], kúli, tənəs-táyí [2]!
travel, travel, little-chief!

‘Go, go, little chief!’
DDR: ‘Get along, get along, (you) wanna-be chief!’


Kuli, kuli, tenas taii! 

kúli, kúli, tənəs-táyí!
travel, travel, little-chief!
‘Go, go, little chief!’
DDR: ‘Get along, get along, (you) wanna-be chief!’

Tlaqauya maika, tlaqauya.
(t)łax̣áwya [3] máyka, (t)łax̣áwya, 

pitiful you, pitiful,
‘Fare you well, farewell.’
DDR: ‘You’re pathetic, pathetic,’


Aya, aya, a. 

aya, aya, a [4].
I.don’t.know, I.don’t.know, incredible.
‘Aya, aya, a.’
DDR: ‘For pity’s sakes, for pity’s sakes, for crying out loud.’

Comments on song #33:

kúli [1]as I’ve pointed out many a time, primarily means ‘travel’ or a slangy ‘wander; get around town’ in BC Jargon. It’s neither complimentary nor affectionate, contrary to Boas’s translation, which seems like he’s taking it as a song to a child. I think #33 stays within the heartbreak genre of the rest of the “Chinook Songs”. Read on.

tənəs-táyí [2] is literally ‘little-chief’, but we already know from outside evidence that this is a Jargon expression for a ‘sub-chief’, and more to the point, it’s sometimes used insultingly to mean someone who’s too big for their britches. Read on.

(t)łax̣áwya [3] máyka — this is not a salutation; I haven’t found that folks would conventionally say these two words together as a greeting or a parting. Instead, it’s a normal declarative be-verb clause, ‘you’re pitiful’! Read on. 

aya, aya, a [4] is, yet again, a string of Haida-derived interjections that I’ve proposed throughout this mini-series are sensibly interpretated as the verbal equivalent of the internet abbreviation smh. Or of throwing your hands up in exasperation.

Summary of song #33:

Here I feel that Boas completely missed the point of the lyrics.


Kata maika tomtom?
What do you think?

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