Just a rumour? Reinterpreting Leechman’s 1910s Chinuk Wawa “songs”

I recently read Stefan Dollinger’s entertaining book “Creating Canadian English: The Professor, the Mountaineer, and a National Variety of English“, and encountered in it an exciting claim…

…Dollinger mentions how one of the co-creators of the landmark 1967 Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, the 1917 English immigrant to Canada Douglas Leechman, had researched Chinuk Wawa in southern interior BC, by collecting songs in the language. Songs — the plural of song.

I’ve read Leechman’s 1926 paper on the “Jargon”, published in the journal “American Speech”. I didn’t recall any trove of CW songs, plural, from it.

So maybe there was an unpublished sheaf of papers containing Leechman’s notes on them?

Well, with some help, I tracked down the John Douglas Leechman (his full name) Fonds. The results weren’t spectacular — really more of a reminder.

But as so often happens, I wound up having a different interpretation of some Chinuk Wawa data from what was expressed by its collector. 

On pages 533-534 of his published article, Leechman summarizes the genre of Jargon popular songs, and presents the one (!) song he says he collected.

I’ll show how he writes it and translates it, as well as giving a pronunciation guide and my interpretation of the lyrics:


Cultus, cultus kopa nika
kʰə́ltəs, kʰə́ltəs kʰupa náyka 
unimportant, unimportant to me
Leechman: ‘I don’t care, don’t care’
DDR: ‘It doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter to me;’

Hiyu klootchmen konaway kah
háyú (t)łúchmən kʰánawi-qʰá 
many woman all-where 
Leechman: ‘If there are many women everywhere’
DDR: ‘There are lots of women everywhere;’

Nika tika cooley kopa Salmon River
nayka tíki kúli kʰupa sámən-rívər 

I want travel to Salmon River
Leechman: ‘I want to go to Salmon River’
DDR: ‘I want to ramble to Salmon River;’

Nika mitlite konamox Qu’enkwa.
nayka míłayt kʰánumáks < Qu’enkwa >.
I live together.with < Qu’enkwa >.
Leechman: ‘And live with Qu’enkwa.’
DDR: ‘I’ll live (there) with Qu’enkwa.’

The differences between Leechman’s and my translations aren’t enormous, but they illustrate the difference between a brief encounter with CW and spending years researching it. For example:

  • My ‘it doesn’t matter’ reflects the fact that < cultus > is a stative verb with a third-person inanimate subject.
  • The second line, I translate without an initial “if”, which just isn’t present or implied in the lyric. 
  • < Cooley > typically had a slangy feel of ‘getting around; rambling’, as opposed to merely ‘go’, which would be something like < klatawa > to Leechman. 
  • < Mitlite > usually carries the sense of ‘be there; live there’, not just plain ‘live’. This is especially likely in a sustained text, where, as we have here with the prior mention of Salmon River, it can be clear where ‘there’ is. (Which also is how the “silent it” pronoun of Chinuk Wawa works…how’s that for an insight?)

These small touches add up to a more nuanced sense of what the singer was expressing, I feel.

Sadly, this is yet another Jargon song whose tune we don’t know. How wonderful it would be if someone from, say, its home territory (Secwepemcúl’ecw, BC) felt like giving it a new melody…!

PS: Leechman is the first writer to publish the good old Chinuk Wawa/English joke about a newcomer who misunderstands an Indigenous woman’s CW “sitkum tolla, hiyu klose” (‘half a dollar will be just fine’) in shock as “sixteen dollars and all my clothes?!” (Page 534.) I first learned that one from Dr. Timothy Montler as an Olympic Peninsula encounter between a S’klallam lady and a traveling salesman; it was the first joke told at the first Chinuk Wawa gathering, in Mission, BC in 1998.

Kata maika tumtum?
What do you think?