Eats Shoots & Leaves, Chinook Edition

One example sentence in an old Chinook Jargon dictionary made me look twice…

bargain basement chinook

Bargain-basement Chinook (image credit: Project Gutenberg)

Here it is, illustrating the usage of the verb míłayt

mitlite nika

… Ex. Mitlite nika hyiu salmon kopa, sit down I have you plenty of salmon. …

— from page 169 of Appendix CC to Sir Hector Langevin’s “British Columbia” (1872)

First off, this is a classic case of punctuation getting screwed up somewhere between the author’s manuscript and the printed page. Judging by the provided translation, a comma was intended after < Mitlite >, which would clarify that that word’s a command.

That would also prevent us from misunderstanding this sentence, garden-path style, as starting with *’I have lots of salmon’*, *míłayt (kʰupa) nayka háyú sámən* (i.e. literally *’there is with me lots of salmon’*). What we have here instead is the unusual, but just about understandable, nayka háyú sámən, ‘my/mine (is) much salmon’. 

This still leaves the problem of an unfinished sentence. Progressing from an initial imperative, we have here ‘Sit down, I have plenty of salmon at ___’ 148 years later, I’m still waiting to find out where! 

More troubling yet is Langevin’s ‘you’ in the translation. Where did that even come from? From a misunderstanding of < hyiu > ‘many; much’?

The inclusion of a second puzzling example, < Mitlite keekwillie >, translated as ‘put down’, further erodes my confidence in Langevin. I’d actually understand that expression as ‘be located underneath’. You’d have to say mamuk-míłayt kíkwəli to get a meaning similar to ‘put down’ — but even then, I’d understand it more like ‘put beneath’, in the absence of any contextual clues! 

What I’m getting at here is some advice to you all: Caveat lector! Reader beware! Use any dictionary carefully, especially when you’re not a native speaker of the language. Anyone who put too much trust in the Langevin dictionary would be a very bad Jargon speaker indeed.

The blame doesn’t land squarely on Langevin’s shoulders, though.

Put some on T.N. Hibben, the Victoria bookseller whose 1871 dictionary, entered lock, stock & barrel into parliamentary records by Langevin, plagiarized George Gibbs’ highly reputable 1863 publication.

(As SV Johnson’s 1978 PhD dissertation establishes.) 

What do you think?