1903: Among the People of British Columbia

Today I’d like to introduce you to an unfairly overlooked book, “Among the People of British Columbia: Red, White, Yellow, and Brown” by Frances Elizabeth Herring (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1903)…

among the people of british columbia

(Image credit: Abebooks)

…This is said to be a work of fiction by Mrs. Herring (who lived from 1851-1916, moving to British Columbia in mid-frontier times, 1874).

I point this out because John Reinecke’s very good 1975 bibliography of Chinook Jargon includes it seemingly as a factual resource.

However, I very strongly suspect that what we have here is just barely fiction, and is actually very slightly dressed-up personal experiences.

For example, the narrative doesn’t make for much of a strong dramatic arc — no offense to the author, as it’s really interesting material that she presents as a British immigrant’s introduction by relatives to the picturesque scenes of BC.

And the linguistic material embedded in this book is highly naturalistic, suggesting that Mrs. Herring had plenty of exposure, and paid plenty close attention, to the speech of non-white people she lived among.

One clear impression that I get is that she, like many of European descent who had economic dealings with East Asians on the West Coast, spoke quite good Chinese Pidgin English.

(But there’s no indication she had very good Chinuk Wawa at her command.)

So let’s have a look at some extremely interesting stuff preserved in her novel…

Page 8, at a Chinese immigrant’s funeral, some normal West Coast Chinese Pidgin English: “China lady heap muchee cly! Allee time cly!Stick with me till the end, because we’re going to see a different kind of CPE in a while…

Page 16: “Oh yes, cost heap muchee money; that alright; he boy, work plenty hard, pay bimeby. Nis [this] man he say he likee big funeral: likee all he fliend catchee heap good time!

Pages 25-26: BC Indians call the jail the ” ‘skookum-house‘ [which] means strong house.” (In Chinook Jargon.)

Page 30, Ah Shune negotiates with his employer: ” [‘]You pay me?’ He knew he was very incompetent, and remarked to me tentatively, ‘Me no come to-moller.’ [¶] ‘What for you no come?’ I asked him. [¶] ‘I tink you no likee me!’ [¶] ‘Oh, yes; me heap likee you…you come to-moller.’ ” (I notice the alternation between the first-person singular “I” in “I tink” and the “me” elsewhere; this parallels developments in other Pacific Pidgin Englishes, such as Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea.)

Page 31, Ah Shune speaks to the same employer before leaving for China: ” ‘Me come back tree months; me likee you, you no too muchee talkee.’ 

Page 33, on his return to BC: ” ‘China lady small feet; he no likee leave China.’ 

Page 35, meeting Ah Shune’s lady: ” ‘You likee see him? Come this way.’ 

Page 38, on Chinese fathers’ attitude about the disadvantage of a daughter getting married: ” ‘[N]o belong to him any more, he workee nodder man.’ 

Page 39, the sales pitch of a certain tea merchant: ” ‘Heap good sugar, stop my store; heap good!’ The word “stop” means ‘be located; is at’, and it also appears in BC Chinuk Wawa as spoken by Indigenous people. 

Page 41, Sing talks about the self-contradictory economic ideas of Canadian Whites: ” ‘If no Chinamen he work cheap, what can cannery-man or farmer do? You pay white man Saturday night, s’pose Monday morning him heap dlunk, what cannery-man do he fish? he allee spoil; oh, too muchee losee money he. I no sabee; allee man go big house talkee, talkee; ‘no more Chinaman,’ he say, but dat man he allee time keep China cook — Chinaman work he garden, I no know what for!’ 

Page 50, a letter tells of the author’s relative Dunston, who has gone missing on the north coast: “…the Indian noticed the marks of an old trail…He followed it, and after a few minutes returned, saying laconically ‘Mica Charco!‘ (You come.)…[A skeleton is found:] ‘White-man,’ announced the Indian…” The phrase “white man” is amply documented in BC Chinuk Wawa, alongside “Boston” etc.

Page 53, the dying Dunston was evidently writing about Lingít (Tlingit) people in southeast Alaska: “They admired me and called me ‘Skookum-man.’ ” [Footnoted with a translation “Strong man”.]

Page 91, quoting Native men who don’t feel like wage labour at the moment: “…Mr Loo will say simply and unconcernedly, ‘Nica lazy‘ — that is, ‘I didn’t want to work,’ and considers it an all-sufficient reason.” This is accurate BC Chinuk Wawa, where “lazy” is typically used in a meaning ‘too lazy; not energetic enough’.

Page 94, a photo of an Indian encampment; this group had “just arrived from [Port?] Douglas” (page 113)…

indian encampment

Page 109-113, a negotiation with a Native woman who comes by the house selling blackberries, calling: ” ‘Olallies! Nica [sic] tickee olallies!‘ … [‘Berries! Do you want berries?’; her baby is carried in a] papoose basket … ‘How old?’ inquired Mina. ‘Mox moon,’ [2 months] she said sadly, holding up two fingers … Aunt came out with a brightly coloured breakfast shawl in her hand, and making a gesture with it towards the papoose, said: ‘Nica potlatch‘ (I give) … [more bargaining occurs, then another Native woman] objected that the clothing was too old … and that they had walked many miles since the morning was ‘very small,’ in order to get good berries … All this was carried on in Chinook, the language or jargon exchange between whites and Indians, which had been introduced by the Hudson Bay Company, and is often the medium of communication between the different tribes, who would otherwise be unable to understand each other.”

papoose basket.PNG

(Image credit: The Canadian Magazine), March 1907, page 422)

Page 115, the author’s aunt speaking: “The Indians … will tell you how many a certain tribe numbered ‘mox-tot-lum snaw‘ (twenty years ago), and how few are left of it now.”

Page 119 refers to the son of a Native couple as a “tenase man(boy).

Chapters XI – XV tell (with accompanying photos) of attending the Indian Passion Play put on under the supervision of the Oblate missionaries, with Chinook Jargon being the main language used there, if not quoted for us. Bishop Dontenwill, Father Chirouse, Father Rohr, Father Marshall [Marchal], Father Le Jacq, and Chief George of the Chilliwack tribe appear and are quoted.

Page 200, an old mistranslation is kept alive: ” ‘Clar ho you tillicum!‘ (How do you do, friend!)”

Page 212, a possibly fictitious but totally pitch-perfect sports cheer for the time and place:

“Allevepore, Allevepore,
Allevepore viper vum.
Bum get a Sockeye
Bigger than a Cohoe
Bigger than a Cohoe,
Hump-back, Hump-back,
Siz-Boom-Bah,
Ooolachans, oolachans,
Rah-Rah-Rah.”

(The above names various local fish species — note that later in the book she also discusses the “qualah or dog salmon”, a local Salish word we’ve seen in Chinook Jargon letters from the same little corner where BC and Washington State meet)

Page 214, the family’s Chinese cook is quoted expressing his opinion of camping: ” ‘Camp? allee same Siwash! … What for? me no likee, too muchee spoil ’em hands!‘ ”

Page 242, amid a sprinkle of isolated Jargon words, an untranslated complete sentence from a Vancouver-area Indian commenting on a nearby child: ” ‘Yarka pappa, white man!‘ ” (‘Her/his father is a white man.’)

Page 253, a Japanese (??) immigrant cook named Ota gives his hung-over response to being asked to cook in the morning: ” ‘My too muchee sick, you gettee blekfas … You mudder sick, he stop bed; ‘spose my sick, my stop bed.‘ ” (Mysteriously, Ota speaks perfect older Pacific-style Chinese Pidgin English — e.g. saying “my” instead of “me” — unlike the Chinese immigrants quoted above.)

Page 255, Ota comments on a flooring that he made in the kitchen out of found boards: ” ‘My too muchee sabbee, my fix him, heap fine floor. Too muchee sabbee my.(Another interesting feature of Ota’s speech is his placement, sometimes, of the subject pronoun at the end of a clause.)

Page 255 also, Ota narrates a dream he’s had: ” ‘My t’ink my see, what you call him? My stop here,‘ seating himself by the stove, ‘man come allee same,‘ standing up with his legs wide apart, eyes rolling, hair standing up, a long knife in his right hand, the left held out in the act of ‘grabbing.’ He took one jerky step forward, his head rolling as though set in a socket, and hissed between his white teeth at every measured step, ‘My killee you! My killee you!! My killee you!!!‘ with a rising inflection at every repetition. [¶] ‘My too scare! nis allee same,’ taking hold of his hair and standing it bolt upright. ‘My too soon get up, no more shleep!‘ Jackie was rolling and laughing till Ota could get no coherent word out of him. He finally coaxed the child to go over his lesson with him, poring earnestly over every word, till suddenly it seemed to occur to him that he was tired, when he closed the book with a snap, saying, ‘My too muchee sabbee, my shleep!‘ and off he went to his little tent.

Pages 256-258: “One tale I heard Ota tell Jackie was like this, only with indescribable gesticulations: ‘Two dogs sit down by cocoa-nut tree, dey catchee one piecee meat. One dog he say, ‘You no cut him, you takee too muchee.’ Nudder dog he say, ‘Spose you cut him meat, you takee allo!’ An’ dey fight ’bout de meat. One monkey he sit in de tree, an’ he say to he selp, ‘My too muchee likee dat meat, heap good meat!’ So he talkee dogs, an’ he say, ‘Good Mister Dogs, you plenty good mans, what for you fight? No good fight! My fixee dat meat allight.’ He come down de tree an’ he catchee dat meat, an’ take him littee way up. He takee stick, makee allee same scale. He cut him meat one piecee too muchee heaby, den he put one piecee on one end de stick, one piecee on udder, an’ he tie bamboo in de middle. ‘Oh,’ he talkee, ‘one piecee too muchee heaby, my, bite him off, makee him allee same udder one.’ Two, free time allee same he do, not muchee meat stop. Dogs, dey sit down on de littee tail, an’ look up at de monkey. He go littee higher up de tree. Now, de dog he see not muchee meat stop, an’ dey talkee monkey, ‘Allight, nice Mister Monkey, you heap good mans, gibbee my de meat now, ‘spose one too muchee heaby allight.’ [¶] ‘Mr Monkey he go littee higher, and he say ‘Oh! you talkee me makee him allee same. My no can gibbee you; my makee him allee same.’ He bite one piecee, he bite nodder piecee. De dogs heap hungly, an’ dey talkee him, ‘Pleasee, Mister Monkey, gibbee now, too muchee hungly my.’ But de monkey bite, an’ de monkey bite; an’ de two dog dey sit on de littee tail, an’ dey look at de monkey, heap muchee solly, him dog. Mr Monkey he eat allee meat, an’ he talkee dog, ‘He piecee meat allee same now, go catchee some more.’ He t’row plenty cocoa-nut an’ hit de dog too muchee hard, an’ dey go home, not fight any more.” [¶] ‘Did they get any more meat when they got home?’ asked Jackie, open-eyed. [¶] ‘Oh! dey catchee some more one piecee. One dog he cut piecee littee too heaby, nudder dog he no talkee, he too muchee hully up eat him piecee.‘ ”

What do you think?