1866: “A Songish Legend” poem (the Chinook original)

Praise where praise is due: this early PNW doggerel poem manages to rhyme in Chinook Jargon!


Antique eyebaths (image credit: Peoria Magazine)

That said, it’s still doggerel 😁

What do you expect? A genuine street language, even if folks kept calling it “the classical Chinook”, is going to take some time to produce a staggering epic that joins the canon.

The Songish people are the Lekwungen Salish-speaking tribes of what’s now the Victoria, BC area. The Settler poetic narrator is taking on the popular pose of “playing Indian”, and readers were expected to understand the Chinuk Wawa in the frontier year of 1866.

That’s your first clue as you read the following. I’ll add commentary after — and my next post will show you the same newspaper’s published English translation of the following.

songishl 1

songishl 2

A Songish Legend.

Copa longstick blidge,
Mox man yaka wawa,
Icht man hias long,
Pe mitleid chaco yawa.

Long man iskum stick,
Pe cockshit glass siechos,
Glease man yacha sullux,
Pe potlach klail siechos.

“Hieyou siwash he-he!
“Hieyou shipman shame!
“Kahkwa mamuk dirt,”
“Mesicka Tyhee name?”

Kahkwa nicka wawa,
Kapet nicka Siwash,
Pe longman nicka potlatch,
Ich bottle skukum “eyewash.”

“Mesika halo shame!”
“Tilikum spose nannich?”
“Klosh mesika mash —
“Pe mitleid copa Sannich!”

                                NIKA NANICH.

— from the Victoria (BC) Daily Chronicle of April 10, 1866, page 3, column 2

How do you feel you understood those verses?

Let me apply the patented Robertson treatment to them now, “fixing” punctuation as needed:


Copa longstick blidge,
kʰupa lón*-stìk-blídj*, [1]
at long-timber bridge,
‘At the tall-trees bridge,’

Mox man yaka wawa,
mákwst mán yaka wáwa, [2]
two man (t)he(y) talk,
‘Two men were talking,’

Icht man hias long,
íxt mán hayas-lón*,
one man very-tall,
‘The one fellow was real tall,’

Pe mitleid chaco yawa.
pi míɬayt(-)cháku yáwá. [3]
and stand(-)come there.
‘And came along there walking’


Long man iskum stick,
lón* mán ískam stík,
tall man pick.up stick,
‘The tall guy picked up a stick,’

Pe cockshit glass siechos,
pi kákshət glás*-siyáxus, [4]
and break glass-eye,
‘And broke out a window*,’

Glease man yacha sullux,
glís mán yaka sáliks,
fat man he angry,
‘The fat man he was ticked,’

Pe potlach klail siechos.
pi pá(t)ɬach ɬíʔil siyáxus. [5]
and give black eye.
‘And gave (him) a black eye.’


“Hieyou siwash he-he!
háyú sáwásh híhi! [6]
much Native fun!
‘So much Native humour!’

“Hieyou shipman shame!
háyú shíp-màn shím!
much ship-man shame!
‘So much sailor shame!’

“Kahkwa mamuk dirt,”
kákwa mámuk də́t* [7]
thus make dirt
‘(Are you) going to do dirt like that’

“Mesicka Tyhee name?”
msayka táyí ním? [8]
you.folks’ chief name?
‘On you folks’ chief’s name?’


Kahkwa nicka wawa,
kákwa nayka wáwa,
so I say,
‘That’s all that I’ll say,’

Kapet nicka Siwash,
kʰəpít nayka sáwásh,
only I Native,
‘I’m just a Native, boss,’

Pe longman nicka potlatch,
pi lón* mán nayka pá(t)ɬach
and tall man I give
‘And to the tall guy I will gift’

Ich bottle skukum eyewash.”
ixt bátəl* skúkum áy-wàsh. [9]
one bottle strong eye*-wash.
‘One bottle of strong eye-wash.’


“Mesika halo shame!”
msayka hílu shím!
you.folks no(ne) shame!
‘Mind yourselves, you guys!’

“Tilikum spose nannich?”
tílixam spus nánich? [10]
people if see?
‘What if people see?’

“Klosh mesika mash —
ɬush msayka másh — [11]
good you.folks leave
‘Now get on out of town’

“Pe mitleid copa Sannich!”
pi mí(t)ɬayt kʰupa sánich*!
and stay in Saanich!
‘And stay in Saanich illahee!’ [12]

                                NIKA NANICH. [author’s pseudonym]
                                nayka nánich
                                I watch


lón*-stìk-blídj* [1] is a little bit hard to figure. The writer uses the genuine n orthern Chinuk Wawa word for ‘long; tall’, and stik can mean ‘tree(s)’ or ‘lumber’. So this phrase could mean the wooden bridge that’s long, or the bridge that’s made of long boards, or the bridge that’s near tall trees! My research indicates no bridges in Victoria in 1866 — only before and after this period — so I’m puzzled.

mákwst mán yaka wáwa [2] is highly fluent, using yaka as a plural! Go read my dissertation

pi míɬayt(-)cháku yáwá [3]: I’m thinking that the writer had in mind the expression mítxwit-ɬátwa (‘stand-go’), which means ‘walking, traveling by foot’. But míɬayt-cháku is literally ‘sit-come’, which could be a local Settler joke for CW sítkum ‘in the middle’! Perhaps it was a stab at expressing ‘loitering around’, but there’s long existed in Jargon the standard expression kʰə́ltəs-míɬayt (for.no.purpose-be.there). 

pi kákshət glás*-siyáxus [4] uses a noun compound (‘glass-eye’) that we’ve not seen elsewhere. From the context provided by the poem, I take it as intended for ‘window’, which was already established in Jargon as simply glas. Could it be ‘eyeglasses’? Well, there existed a widely known expression for that, dála-siyáxus ‘dollar-eyes’. Could it be someone’s ‘glass eye(ball)’? Well, I’d think that would take additional overt explaining within the poem. Synthesizing these thoughts, I say the poet called a window a ‘glass eye’ here solely to create a pun with the following line — see the next footnote.

pi pá(t)ɬach ɬíʔil siyáxus [5] employs another neologism, ‘black eye’, loan-translating from English. See the previous footnote. 

háyú sáwásh híhi! [6] How often I point out that English-speaking Settlers (mis-)understood CW hihi to be a noun, just as ‘fun’ was still only a noun in their first language.

kákwa mámuk də́t* [7] both introduces a new English loanword ‘dirt’ and reaches farther, using it in a direct calque of the informal English phrase ‘do dirt to someone’, i.e. to do wrong by them, mistreat them, etc. All things being equal, mamuk + ‘dirt’ would likely sound like ‘take a shit’ to lots of Chinook Jargon speakers…

msayka táyí ním? [8] This supplies us yet another example of a truly widespread fluent-CW structure that I liken to “inalienable possession”. It leaves out the expected possessive pronoun between the possessor and the thing possessed. 

ixt bátəl* skúkum áy-wàsh [9] “Bottle” from English, nudging out older CW lapotʰay, is a fairly common find in northern-dialect Jargon. “Eyewash” is borrowed straight from locally spoken English. This was a commonly sold product in drugstores. 

tílixam spus nánich? [10] I find this expression kind of unclear, amounting to literally ‘people if see?’ But in the setting of the poetic stanza, it strikes me like ‘What if people see?’

ɬush msayka másh — [11] The intent of this expression seems clear to me (‘you folks should leave’), but I’m obligated to say that mash ought to come with an object expressing the thing/person/place being left.

‘And stay in Saanich illahee!’ [12] I can’t resist making a self-indulgent comment, confessing that I’ve “translated” Sannich (a place I’ve lived in) into English as Saanich illahee. I figured, why not use a Jargon word that became part of Settler English?

In 10 words or less:

Very fluent Jargon poem. Among the earliest and best.


This post took me 4 hours of work to create.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?