1901: Telegrams “in unknown tongue” (Chinuk Wawa and Cree)

I betcha the Cree one is more or less pidginized…


Another BC birthday message (image credit: Card Cow)

hayu masi to Professor Peter Bakker for sending me a copy of his & Hein van der Voort’s 2017 article on “Polysynthesis and Language Contact”.

(In The Oxford Handbook of Polysynthesis, ed. / Michael Fortescue; Marianne Mithun; Nicolas Evans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. p. 408-427).

That article includes a section on pages 410-411 examining “Trader Language: Hudson’s Bay Company Cree”. It finds strong evidence that non-Native fur traders used a simplified version of Cree when dealing with Indigenous speakers of that language. Looks like traders must have taught each other this kind of Cree, too.

I mention this because, coincidentally, I was just about to write today’s article about a telegram in trader Cree.

Maybe some of my readers will be able to evaluate and interpret this message?

Wonderfully, today we also have an addition to the genre of Chinook Jargon telegrams!

Read on, my friend; as usual I’ll closely examine the CJ text afterwards:

in unknown tongue


Billy Dickson of the Real Estate Exchange had a birthday the other day and among the greetings he received was one by wire from Dad McNiffe of Victoria which read thus:

“Nika tum-tum koopa mika hiyu kloosh killapi koopa okook sun.”

Those only slightly familiar with Chinook will be able to worry good wishes for a happy celebration out of the sentence, but the answer sent by Mr. Dickson is not so easy. This is how it ran:

“Matoney quiesk keer musinagaw ketchie keesecow kiask skatytin.”

He says it is in the Cree language and means “Thanks for good wishes. Greatest celebration ever known.”

As he is apparently the only man in the city who knows Cree Mr. Dickson’s word must be taken for the translation.

— from the Vancouver (BC) Province of July 16, 1901, page 4, column 3

A look at the Chinuk Wawa portion:

“Nika tum-tum koopa mika hiyu kloosh killapi koopa okook sun.”
nayka tə́mtəm kʰupa mayka háyú (k)ɬúsh k’ílapay kʰupa úkuk sán.
I think to you you many good return on this day.
DDR:                              ~’I’m thinking about you(,) lots of good returning today.’
…or…                              ~’My wish for you is lots of good returning today.’
The intended meaning:  ‘I wish you many happy returns on this day.’

The Jargon here isn’t very good. You may note that the editor landed somewhere between the old-school “Pacific NW readers can figure Chinook out for themselves” and a post-frontier “I’m not real sure what this says, so I’m hedging”!

The message was being thought in English; it was then calqued word by word with a dictionary, and without much active fluency in “Chinook” grammar.

The verb tə́mtəm is normally taken as ‘think (about something)’. ‘Wishing’ something for somebody would be a more complex, and uncommon, expression — in the same dialect (Northern) that’s used here, something like ɬúsh nayka tə́mtəm pus… ‘I’ll be happy if…’, literally ‘my heart will be good if…’ (In the Southern dialect as spoken at Grand Ronde, you might say k’úyʔ pus…

The verb k’ílapay ‘return; turn over’ isn’t known to have been used as a noun. The telegram writer wasn’t paying attention to such details when he used this word like the English noun ‘returns’.

The expression kʰupa úkuk sán is needlessly complicated; we don’t usually include the preposition kʰupa in time expressions, especially with the common phrase úkuk sán ‘today’. 

An indication that Dad McNiffe had real-world exposure to spoken Chinuk Wawa, albeit maybe in the past, is his repeated spelling koopa for that preposition. I don’t find the word written this way in any published dictionary. And we know that plenty of folks used the pronunciation kʰupa, as well as the frequent southern kʰapa and universal “kopa“. 

Bonus fact:

The way I most often hear people say “Happy Birthday” in Jargon now is the informal Grand Ronde expression, ɬúsh t’ɬáp-sàn!” 

This southern neologism derives from the Indigenous metaphor t’ɬáp tənás ‘to give birth’ — literally ‘to (manage to) get a child’.

So, ɬúsh t’ɬáp-sàn!” is literally ‘good getting-day’, but loaded with the all-important cultural context of ‘getting a child’.

I don’t know of a northern-dialect expression for ‘birthday’, but because the speakers typically drafted casual English phrases into service, I presume we’d say ɬúsh bə́rthdi!” 

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?