El Comancho’s Washington, DC newspaper column on Chinook Jargon (3 of 6)

To the list of fun research we can do once Covid-19 restrictions go away, add “find the full archives of the Washington Star“…


Another feature on the same newspaper page

I hope we’ll then have the full run of Walter Shelley “El Comancho” Phillips’s kids-page column on Chinuk Wawa.

I’ve turned up only 6 weekly installments of it, spanning several months, so it’s clear that there are more yet to be found. 

Today we have #3 of those 6…and I’ll add comments afterward.



MAMA. — Exactly the same as the
English word. [1]

MAHKOOK. — Pronounce MAH-
KUCK, with the second syllable stressed. [2]
It stands for Buy, Sell, Exchange,
HOUSE is “Where is the trading
house?” or, literally, “Where is the
buy-and-sell-things house?” [4]

MASAHCHE. — Pronounce MEE-SAH-
TSCHEE, [5] with the accent on the SAH.
This word means Wicked, Evil, Sinful, 
Vicious. CULTAS is plain Bad, or “not
good” in Chinook, but MASAHCHE is
much worse, being about as bad as you
can make it!

MITLITE. —- Accent the first syllable.
Live, Stay, Dwell, Camp. Also Home,
Place-where-you-live, etc. [6] MITLITE! is
“Stop!” in the sense of a command. [7]

— from the Washington (DC) Evening Star of August 19, 1928, page 7, column 5


[1] If mámá is “exactly like the English word”, this could be an interesting clue that it wasn’t known to Comancho in a final-stressed version, which would’ve more clearly reflected the Fort Vancouver-era Canadian French influence that I think is involved in its history. Then again, Comancho wasn’t always the most reliable observer, and he learned his CW fairly late in the frontier era.  

[2] Continuing the theme, I’ve never once heard a fluent CW speaker say *makúk*, with final stress. 

[3] It’s unclear from Comancho’s wording, but surely he means the gloss ‘market’ as a verb, i.e. to do some grocery shopping. The closest that mákuk gets to functioning as a noun, in my experience, is in the quirky but common old expression shown in the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary as hayash-mákuk ‘too expensive’. That phrase seems to be either háyásh mákuk ‘big (Adjective) price (Noun)’, or hayas-mákuk ‘very-expensive’ (Intensifier-Adjective). Either way, it involves mákuk in a function not otherwise documented in the language’s history. 

[4] I sometimes vigorously object to Comancho’s extravagant claims about “Jargon”, and I’m doing so now. This example sentence, qʰá yaka mákuk-háws?, either means something different than he’s telling you (‘Where is her/his store?’), or it just isn’t very fluent CW. In the second case, it’d mean ‘Where is (s)he, the store?’, which is poor Chinooking because this language only likes to use yaka to refer to animate, preferably human, entities! Remove it, though, and you have the usual way of asking what Comancho wants to ask: qʰá mákuk-háws? (‘where buy/sell-house’) works just fine, as would qʰá míɬayt mákuk-háws? (‘where is.located buy/sell-house’). 

[5] I’m going to nonetheless assume the best about Comancho whenever I can. Here I suppose the newspaper’s typesetter misread a handwritten draft of this column, seeing “MEE-SAH-TSCHEE’ where the author had written “MEH-SAH-TSCHEE”, which would more closely approximate the word’s known pronunciation, más(h)áchi. 

[6] ‘Camp’ can and should be understood as a verb, but Comancho’s claim that míɬayt is also a noun contradicts all of my experience of CW conventions. Here’s the thing: I think you would be understood pretty well if you used the word to mean ‘my home’, but this was not customarily done. There are other, clearer words in Jargon to express that — háws and Grand Ronde’s hóm are obvious. It’s therefore remarkable how few instance we know about of anyone trying to express ‘home’ with míɬayt; as Alex Code reminded me the other day, BC’s Mungo Martin seems to do so in a 1950s audio recording. I believe Mungo’s CW was a bit rusty at that late date…

[7] míɬayt as a command ‘stop!’ needs comment. I’ve heard this verb used more as ‘Sit down!’ That’s the literal meaning of it, though indeed it’s also known in use as ‘stop!’ Which is handy to know, because you wouldn’t typically order someone to *kʰəpít!*, a word meaning ‘to stop doing, be finished (doing); to be complete(d)’.

I think you should also know that at our first Chinuk-Wawa Luʔlu, in BC in 1998, the folks from Stó:lō Nation joked with our friend Emmett Chase that his first name means ‘sit down’ in Salish. So every time he stood up, we also called him Míɬáyt! (Emmett’s obituary, not surprisingly, is one of the greats.) 



What do you think?