1892: “The Approach of Spring” poem

Ah, that rarest of creatures, a poem in Chinuk Wawa that rhymes! (Scroll to the end for an extraordinary “back-translation” challenge.)


“The Approach of Spring” (1903) by Björn Ahlgrenson (image credit: Fine Art America)

wə́x̣t nayka munk-láx̣ nayka siyápuɬ kʰapa uk (I once again tip my hat to) Alex Code, curator and researcher extraordinaire, for sending a nice find to us. hayu masi alik!

I won’t repeat my explanation here of why it’s devilishly hard to make the Jargon rhyme. This time I’m just going to say it’s a Pacific Northwest language, not a European one…and poetry as we know it is a European genre. (Here are 3 possible inspirations for today’s poem, all having basically the same title.)

And now, for the literary criticism part of the programme.

The author is credited only as “an Early Settler”. I think that’s probably a true description, as the spellings used are individualistic ones that suggest someone writing the way they genuinely know how to talk. 

E.S. in fact cheats to achieve the effect. He (it’s always a he in the 1800s White world, and us White folks are known for our cheating)…

  • uses monosyllabic English words (“done”, “say”, “day”) at the end of some lines, because the Chinook word is 2 or more syllables, and using disyllabic English words when the Jargon one would’ve been 1 syllable (“coldness”); 
  • pairs illihee with Sock’ly Tyhee;
  • and rhymes “klosh” with itself 😫;
  • there’s also the headscratcher where killapi is supposed to rhyme with the ?nonsense expression hia he 😏

Credit, though, for such success as E.S. attains in these 5 stanzas. He even manages a pretty creditable trochaic tetrameter — and I guarantee that’s an intentional homage to / play on the smash hit “Song of Hiawatha“. That’s actually not hard to do in Chinook Jargon, tho’, because most words have stress on their first syllable, and words average about 2 syllables long. The definite metrical slip-ups are: verse 1 line 3 délate (CW d(ə)léyt), and the whole final line, Klósh naních konáway dáy (CW ɬúsh nánich kánawi sán). There’s also the minor meter deviation where íllihèe is made to rhyme with Sóck’ly Týhee, if you see my point that primary stresses ought to rhyme with primary stresses, rather than secondary ones rhyming with unstressed syllables… 

Also worth noting is how the author uses a trick that we see in another Settler genre, Christian missionary hymns in Chinook, which is to choose a well-known shorter pronunciation of certain words (kon’way; quansum) to preserve the meter. 

Other than the substitution of some English words for CW ones (and still sounding “Native”, as numerous Indigenous people of BC already knew English in 1892), the one mildly unusual lexical choice is that of Bostons, with its English noun-plural suffix -s, for the normal CW bástən. The reason for the choice is to force the Settler reader to take this noun (‘Americans’; ‘White people’) as a plural…but E.S. goes on to co-index this word with yaka, which for Settlers was uniformly a singular pronoun ‘he; she’!

I’m going to go ahead & classify today’s poem as “doggerel”. It’s about the same literary quality as the other rough verses we’ve discovered over the years, always written by Settlers, never by Native people, and usually flippant and racist in content. Note that by commenting on the ways of White folks, it’s implicitly set in the voice of an Indigenous narrator, which is yet another standard convention of Settlers’ creative writing in Chinuk Wawa.

This is one hell of an interesting and un-researched PNW literary genre, though!

I always like to point out when a newspaper editor decides not to provide an English translation of Jargon for his readers. This is one of those occasions. Most readers, or enough to make publishing the poem worthwhile, already understood the language. And an English translation would be harder to create, I think, as well as ruining the whole “playing Indian” effect.

See what you think: 

the approach of spring


Karta Bostons quansum tumtum
coldness “New Year” sun,
Delate warm sun hyak chaco,
Oakuk cold sun kon’way

Nika tumtum yaka halo
Kumtux oakuk illihee.
Nika kumtux yaka tumtum
Yaka ellep Sock’ly Tyhee.

Nanich coldness chaco alta,
Klonas mox moon killapi!
Alki klosh wake wawa nika,
Quansum Bostons hia he!

Nika tumtum klasha [sic] pilton,
Siwash tumtum ellep klosh,
Iscum karta ikta chaco,
Yaka Quonsum wawa “klosh.”

Sock’ly Tyhee, yaka kumtux
Kultis ikta klaxter
Yaka marsh spose yaka tikka
[sic] nanich konaway day.

— By an Early Settler.

— from the Victoria (BC) Daily Colonist of February 20, 1892, page 2, column 2

Care to test my claim that an English version of this poem would be hard to create? I challenge you to replicate the meter and the rhyme scheme!

Karta mika tumtum?
What do you think?