LBDB: prose, not lyrics (Part 1)


Many elks are in our town (image credit: Out There Colorado)

Pioneer baby Laura Belle Downey-Bartlett’s Chinuk Wawa has long interested me…

…She grew up speaking the language on south Puget Sound, and she remained fascinated with it and promoted it throughout her life.

LBDB (born 1853) is perhaps best remembered by us less for her 1924 dictionary than for her unique little book of Jargon songs. Most or all of them are translations from well-known English-language originals. That’s a gigantic task to take on, given how dissimilar the two languages are from each other. I’ve been known to smile at how strange a song like “America the Beautiful” becomes when the Jargon is stretched beyond its capacity to form any sort of recognizable translation.

Because the lyrics in her book can be so bizarrely ungrammatical and ungraceful, the natural question is what relationship their Chinook has to how she actually spoke the Jargon. Did she express herself well in prose?

Luckily, it turns out that we can find examples of her writing to communicate rather than entertain. The same songbook has a bit of commentary by her, for example below her lyrics for what may be the only original composition in it, “Many Elks Are In Our Town”.

The paragraph I’m focusing on today is in Chinook on one page and in English on the facing page.

laura belle prose.PNG

Chee mamook t’zum okoke sante pee konaway mitlite Moo-lok, tikegh klosh chaco kopa tellicum Moo-lok, mitlite hy-iu Moo-lok Hee-Hee, kopa Potlan, Olegon, Sin-na-mox moon, Tah-tlum-twaist Tah-ka-monuk-tah-tlum-mox, pee kimtah mamook kum-tux. Momook t’zum okoke, mitlite okoke klosh tupso, kah-kwa kula-kula town, spose wake tikegh copet kum-tux, okoke ankutta tellicum, yah-ka nem, Charles E. Vivian, klaks-ta ankutta mamook iskum ko-ku-mulh, hee-hee tellicum, pee mamook chaco skookum “Moo-lok Tellicum.”  

This song was originally written, to be used as a welcome to the visiting Elks, to the Elks’ Carnival, which was held in Portland, Oregon, in July, 1912, but too late for use, and was written on the 1st day of July, 1912, in the City of Roses and Birds, and dedicated to the memory of Charles E. Vivian, who years ago, gathered together his theatrical friends and perfected the organization, of what is now the great “Order of Elks.”

— from pages 18 & 19 of “Chinook-English Songs” (Portland, OR: Kubli-Miller Co., 1914)

Now, those two versions aren’t direct translations of each other. So I won’t directly compare them. Instead, I’d like to ask you to keep the above English paragraph in mind, and let me present you with a little analysis of the Chinuk Wawa version:

Chee mamook t’zum okoke sante pee konaway mitlite Moo-lok, tikegh klosh
chxí [1] mamuk-t’sə́m úkuk s(h)ánti pi kʰánawi míłayt múlak [2], tíki łúsh make-written these songs and all be.located elk, want well
‘These songs had just been written and everyone had Elks, wanting well-‘

chaco kopa tellicum Moo-lok, mitlite hy-iu Moo-lok Hee-Hee, kopa Potlan,
cháku [3] kʰapa tílixam múlak [4], míłayt [5] háyú múlak híhi, kʰapa pʰotłən,
come to people elk, have much elk fun, in Portland,
‘coming to human Elks, possessing a lot of Elk fun, in Portland,’ 

Olegon, Sin-na-mox moon, Tah-tlum-twaist Tah-ka-monuk-tah-tlum-mox, pee
óləgən, sínamakwst mún, táłlam k’wáyts [6a] ták’umunaq táłlam mákws(t) [6b], pi
Oregon, seven moon, ten nine hundred ten two, and/but
‘Oregon, July, nineteen-hundred twelve, and’ 

kimtah mamook kum-tux. Momook t’zum okoke, mitlite okoke klosh tupso,
kimt’á mamuk-kə́mtəks [7]. mamuk-t’sə́m úkuk [8], míłayt [Ø] [9] úkuk łúsh típsu,
after make-know. make-written this, exist this good grass,
‘later teaching. Writing this, being in that flower (and)’ 

kah-kwa kula-kula town, spose wake tikegh copet kum-tux, okoke ankutta
kákwa kə́ləkələ tʰáwn, spus [10] wík tíki kapit-kə́mtəks, úkuk ánqati
like bird town, not want finish-know, that old.time
‘birdlike town, to not want to forget that old’

tellicum, yah-ka nem, Charles E. Vivian, klaks-ta ankutta mamook iskum
tílixam, yaka ním, Charles E. Vivian, łáksta [11] ánqati mamuk-ískam
friend, his name, Charles E. Vivian, who long.ago make-get
‘friend named Charles E. Vivian, who long ago collected’ 

ko-ku-mulh, hee-hee tellicum, pee mamook chaco skookum
x̣úqʰuməł [12], híhi tílixam, pi mamuk-cháku skúkum [13]
gather.together, laughter people, and make-come strong
‘together amusing friends, and summoned excellent’

“Moo-lok Tellicum.”
múlak tílixam.
elk people.
‘ “Elk People”.’


chxí [1] is intended here as ‘originally’, judging by LBDB’s English version, but it really means ‘just now; newly’ in Jargon.

kʰánawi míłayt múlak [2] can with some effort be read as ‘all were there, the Elks’, but that’s a pretty specialized construction used to call renewed effort to a previously mentioned topic. Because this is the start of the Chinook Jargon paragraph, that wouldn’t make sense. This leaves us with a literal and equally nonsensical reading ‘everyone was there Elks’ or ‘everyone had Elks’. 

tíki łúsh cháku [3] is a noticeable “calque” on English — a word-for-word translation of ‘wishing welcome’ (well-come, get it?). It’s terrible Chinuk Wawa, speakers of which wouldn’t understand what’s being said. 

tílixam múlak [4], we can tell, is intended as ‘Elk friends’, so it’s bizarre that the word order has been reversed — compare with the grammatical and understandable < Moo-lok Tellicum > in the last line. 

míłayt [5] … híhi is once again a calque (loan translation) of English: ‘have fun’ makes no sense in Jargon. 

táłlam k’wáyts [6a] … táłlam mákws(t) [6b] again has an obvious meaning if we’re aware of the English version of LBDB’s paragraph: the date ‘1912’. But the writer has a weird way of forming ‘teen’ numbers. We expect ’19’ to be táłlam pi k’wáyts (‘ten and nine’), and ’12’ to be táłlam pi mákws(t) (‘ten and two’).

kimt’á mamuk-kə́mtəks [7] seems to have been meant as ‘it was too late to teach (to them)’. It’s hard in most dialects of Jargon to express ‘too late’, and kimt’á actually means ‘after(ward)’. I doubt fluent speakers would catch the intended sense here. 

mamuk-t’sə́m úkuk [8] appears to have been thought of as ‘this was written’ by LBDB. On the one hand, that would indicate a knowledge of good Jargon grammar, which likes to place the subject of an intransitive verb after that verb. In such a reading, we could see this phrase as literally ‘(was) written(,) this (was)’. The big problem is that the verb isn’t a passive; it’s a causative, ‘writing (it)’. So again we have a phrase that wouldn’t be understood by good speakers of the language. 

míłayt [Ø] [9] úkuk: From the English version it seems sure that LBDB means ‘(being) in that…’ So we can infer that she meant to use the perfectly grammatical “null” preposition (that is, no preposition at all) here. 

spus [10] wík tíki kapit-kə́mtəks: to my ears, the tíki ‘want’ is excess and confusing verbiage. 

Charles E. Vivian, łáksta [11] ánqati…: Most speakers of most Chinuk Wawa dialects didn’t, and don’t, use any word for the relative-clause marker ‘who’. Using the question-word łáksta ‘who?’ is a rare and mostly English-modeled way to talk.

mamuk-ískam x̣úqʰuməł [12] is really very highly redundant, if you read it with a fluent knowledge of Chinuk Wawa, because it’s two words in a row for ‘gather’. Evidently LBDB took the second verb (inaccurately) as an adverb ‘together; gathered together’, whereas it really denotes harvesting, foraging, and so on. (Shout out to Lower Chehalis Salish for this Jargon word.) 

skúkum [13] is being used here in the typical way that Pacific NW English-speakers used it after borrowing it from Jargon: ‘excellent; awesome; rad’. That’s another usage that’s not really typical of fluent use in Chinuk Wawa. 


So what we have here is a surprisingly poor example of Chinook Jargon.

It’s as if LBDB, who was well over 60 years of age at the time, had become rusty at speaking the language in the several decades since the end of the frontier era. I insist on at least as generous a view as this, since she truly spoke CJ from girlhood, and other indications (such as some observations she makes in her dictionary) show that she had very fine firsthand knowledge of how it was actually spoken.

Let me point out — this kind of deep-digging research into Chinook Jargon, evaluating such authorities as we’ve inherited from the past, has never been done before. It changes, and refines, how we use the documents they’ve left us. It makes us wiser.

I’ll show one more example of LBDB’s prose in the second installment of this micro-series. Stay tuned.

What have you learned?