1853: “Lettre de monseigneur Demers, eveque de l’Ile de Vancouver”

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(Image credit: Wikivoyage)

(Don’t worry, this post is in English!) Writing a letter from the still-new settlement of Victoria (BC), a very important person in early Chinuk Wawa’s history drops in some precious samples of CW as spoken; some are news to us.

Something that hasn’t been incorporated into previous linguistic research on Chinook Jargon is a focus on how the words and phrases were used. There’s been, historically, such a heavy emphasis on lists of CJ words, that readers have had very little information on the grammar and the culture around speaking Jargon.

Today’s correspondent, Father Modeste Demers OMI (1809-1871), had co-written the earliest excellent document of the Jargon. the “Chinook Dictionary, Catechism, Prayers, and Hymns“.

That reference work was written in the late 1830’s, and although it circulated privately and helped train further generations of fluent Chinook Jargon-speaking missionary priests, it wasn’t published until the year of his death.

In the frontier-era year when today’s letter was published (1855), most readers had scant information about the language.

His Jargon asides remain valuable to us now, as they tend to be that rare item, direct quotations of people’s actual speech in BC (and Klallam) Chinuk Wawa.

Not only that, but when he quotes Native people in French, which he does a good deal of, we can infer and pretty well prove that what he’s doing is translating from actually heard Jargon.

For instance, there’s a good deal of talk in today’s letter about cases when a person loses their “tamanwas” — the demonstrably Indigenous belief in the danger of soul loss.

French, the language Demers wrote this in, is not my best language, so I’ve had to laboriously comb through his letter in search of the Jargon material. Likewise I’ve had to work fairly hard to present the English translation below; if any of my native and/or fluent Francophone readers want to suggest improvements in our understanding of what Demers is saying, by all means “Comment” below!

Here’s the directly quoted CW that I’ve found in Demers’s letter of December 11, 1853; it’s a limited quantity but it’s excellent early Jargon from the Salish Sea area:

Page 108…

demers letter 01

Les qualités de celui qui fait les honneurs du repas n’y sont pas oubliées; on vante surtout sa libéralité et’sa générosité, ses richesses et ses Ekita, ses choses, c’est-à-dire, ses nombreuses couvertes, dont on voit des cassettes remplies.

(The qualities of the one who does the honors of the meal are not forgotten; above all, his liberality and his generosity, his riches and his Ekita [íkta], his things, that is to say, his many covers, of which cassettes are filled, are praised.)

About Ekita: note (1) that this is the older, 3-syllable pronunciation, and (2) that it’s not *íkta-s, a variant already known in more strongly English-influenced areas to the south.

Page 109…

demers letter 02

Chez ces sauvages, la grande médecine, tamanwas, offre des scènes qui ont quelque chose d’effrayant et de diabolique.

(Among these Indians, the great medicine, tamanwas [t’əmánəwas], offers scenes that are scary and devilish.)

Page 111…

demers letter 03

De là vient leur indifférence à la vue d’objets, où l’art doit son mérite au génie et à l’intelligence réunis. Ainsi quand ils voient une montre, une horloge, un vaisseau à vapeur, ils ne savent rien dire autre chose que ayas tlàsh, c’est bien beau. Ça [a] été leur seule remarque à la vue d’un microscope et d’un instrument électro-médical, qui produit l’effet d’une pile galvanique. Chose étonnante sous un autre rapport: ils ne sentaient presque pas les secousses de la machine montée à son plus haut point, tandisque les blancs ne pouvaient y tenir pendant quelques secondes; ils disaient toujours : tlash, c’est bon; tlash mamuk, ça fait du bien. Aussi en considérant ces divers objets avouent-ils humblement que les Français ont plus d’esprit qu’eux: ayas tomtom, ayas Kom toks Passayuks.

(Hence their indifference to the sight of objects, where art owes its merit to genius and intelligence combined. So when they see a watch, a clock, a steamship, they can not say anything else than ayas tlàsh [hayas-(t)łúsh], that’s quite fine. This was their only remark at the sight of a microscope and an electro-medical instrument, which produces the effect of a galvanic battery. Something surprising in another connection: they did not feel the jolts of the machine rise to its highest pitch, while the whites could not hold it for a few seconds; they always said: “Tlash [(t)łúsh], it’s good; tlash mamuk [(t)łúsh mámuk ‘it does good (to me)’], it feels good”. So, in considering these various objects, they humbly admit that the French have more genius than they: ayas tomtom, ayas Kom toks Passayuks [hayas-tə́mtəm, hayas-kə́mtəks pasáyuks ‘very clever, very smart are the French’].)

In the preceding paragraph, I feel pretty sure that the expression for ‘it feels good’ is a new discovery in Chinuk Wawa studies; as simple as it is, it certainly makes intuitive sense. Also, the distinction between ‘clever’ and ‘smart’ is quite nice to find. By the way, I doubt Demers wrote < tlàsh > / < tlash >; we’re probably seeing one of those frequent 19th century typesetter’s mistakes in working from a handwritten manuscript in an unfamiliar language. (That is, I suspect Demers wrote < tlosh >. Thanks to Henry Zenk of the Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa program, I’ve seen some of Demers’ letters, and his handwriting is absolute murder to make out sometimes.)

Page 116…

demers letter 04

Je vous demande pardon d’une distraction qui m’est arrivée ; j’aurais dû vous dire ailleurs, qu’avec peine et patience, nous avons pu préparer au bienfait de la première communion treize des femmes de nos Canadiens et une petite métisse. Non; vous ne sauriez vous faire une juste idée du temps et de la peine qu’il faut employer, pour mettre dans la tête de ces femmes les premiers rudiments de la doctrine chrétienne et les leçons du catéchisme, même en s’astreignant au plus nécessaire. Il faut répéter, et répéter encore tous les jours les mêmes choses; et si vous faites une petite question, il est rare qu’elles ne vous répondent pas par un waik Kamtaks, “je ne sais pas ; ” ou par un tlunas, mot qui ne peut guère se traduire en français. Quelquefois, telle qui répond passablement bien aujourd’hui ne saura plus rien demain.

(I beg your pardon for a distraction that has happened to me; I should have told you elsewhere, that with pain and patience, we were able to prepare for the benefit of the first communion thirteen women of our Canadian and a little Métis girl. No; you will not be able to get a fair idea of ​​the time and trouble that must be used to put in the minds of these women the first rudiments of Christian doctrine and the lessons of the catechism, even when resorting to [only] what is most necessary. It is necessary to repeat, and to repeat again every day the same things; and if you make a small question, it is rare that they do not answer by a Waik Kamtaks [wík kə́mtəks ‘don’t know’], “I do not know,” or by a tlunas [t’łúnás ‘not sure; maybe; I guess’], a word that can hardly be translated into French. Sometimes someone who responds rather well today will no longer know anything tomorrow.)

In the previous paragraph, the subjectless wík kə́mtəks is a common exclamation in Jargon. The spelling < waik > by a French-speaker implies a pronunciation [wεk], that is, with what an English speaker might call the “short E” sound in “neck”. This is unusual in our experience of the Jargon, and I wonder if we have here another misreading by a typesetter. Demers’s handwritten original might have actually read < waïk >, which would sound more like [wayk] or the [wεyk] that we’re accustomed to.

All of the preceding come from Rapport sur les Missions du Diocèse de Québec: Et autres qui en ont ci-devant fait partie. No. 11 (Mars 1855), pages 107-117. Québec: (Typographie D’Augustin Côté te [sic] Cie.)

Qu’as-tu appris?
What have you learned?