1894, Yakima: Hiyu hum humor

Today, some Chinook Jargon humor from eastern Washington on the cusp of the frontier period’s end…


I bet if they’d been grilling lamprey, there’d be no complaints! (Image credit: Yakima Herald)

And I like how this newspaper editor gets into a linguistic analysis that I myself would be proud of! 

They are telling a good story on a local real estate dealer. It seems that, in company with Joseph Baxter, he watched the Indians at the barbecue last week. Some of the meat was anything but fresh and was distinctively aromatic. A squaw standing near the above named gentleman plaintively remarked: “Hiyu hum,” as she pointed to the piles of defunct bovine. On the following day our real estate man saw another squaw on Yakima avenue, and remembered having noticed her at the barbecue, making faces at the meat. So, thinking to show his friendliness for his red brothers and sisters and at the same time air his chinook, he remarked, “Meat mika hiyu hum;” and was surprised when the squaw chased him half a block with a hastily picked up rock. The trouble arose from his lack of knowledge of chinook. “Nika,” means “I,” whereas he thought “mika” did; it means “you.” He forgot to use “tum-tum,” meaning in that case “think.” Had he said “nika tum-tum” instead of “mika” without the “tum-tum,” and had added a chinook phrase for meat or other edible “muck-a-muck,” he would have been all right. But the squaw didn’t understand the English “meat.” So when he said “Meat mika hiyu hum” she only caught the significance of the last three words. They mean “You smell pretty bad.” And still he wonders whey she got mad.

— from the Yakima (WA) Herald of October 11, 1894, page 1, column 5

To me, hiyu hum (hayu-hə́m) ought to mean ‘(actively) stinking/smelling’. As the Grand Ronde Tribes accurately teach us, the prefix hayu- carries an implication of conscious control by a living, sentient being. That dynamic is not present when the subject of the verb is a heap of dead meat.

Another possible way to think of what’s written here as hiyu hum is as háyú hə́m, ‘lots of smell’. Well, hə́m indeed gets used as a noun sometimes, throughout Chinuk Wawa. But with the word for ‘lots of’, the phrase connotes ‘many smells’ to me. But I haven’t seen hə́m used as a “count noun”, a thing that you could point out “many of”.

What we likely have here instead (assuming it’s an accurate quotation) is an example of the northern dialect’s tendency of confusing hayu- ‘Ongoing Action’ with hayas(h)- ‘very’ and/or háyás(h) ‘big’.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?