What “tum-tum” sounds like to English-speakers

I always wondered what “rooty-toot-toots and rummy-tum=tums” are…


(Image credit: The Lewiston Tribune)

Those mythical candies in a modern US Christmas carol somewhow evoke Chinook Jargon for me.

A 1943 book out of Idaho, seeking to  explain the CJ origin of the now (2022) enormously influential Potlatch Corporation, a timber company (full disclosure: I have a relative who works for them), gets into this sidelight:

“Iks-clamaka tum-tum?” is a common expression of greeting, meaning “How’s your tummy?” or just plain “How do you do?” 

The answer, if all goes well, is “Hi-yu-de-lea-it tum-tum” or “My belly is fine.”

(From “Hell’s Canyon: A Story of the Deepest Canyon on the North American Continent…” by Robert G. Bailey; Lewiston, Idaho: R.G. Bailey Printing Company, 1943.)

The writer claims to have attended a potlatch on “the north coast” in the past, where he supposedly heard these expressions.

I can’t doubt that.

I do have something to say about what he says about them, though 🙂

  • First, tə́mtəm no doubt sounds like ‘tummy’ to American English speakers, who have many times equated this Jargon word with bellies. But that’s a false etymology. The word in fact means ‘heart’, which in Indigenous tradition was equated with both your feelings and your thoughts.
  • Second, < iks-cla > (íkta) is ‘what’, and it’s an unusual word to use in the greeting expression shown above. I’ve encountered, and in the past as a learner I’ve used, íkta mayka tə́mtəm? for ‘What do you think?’ However, it seems it’s more normal to use the word for ‘how’: qʰata mayka təmtəm? And in saying hello to someone, my experience is that it would be rare for someone to ask ‘how’s your heart?’, as this Chinuk Wawa question invites a detailed, sincere response — really different from just saying ɬax̣áyam to each other.

The interesting thing is that the writer’s unusual spellings, and sounds, suggest that his Chinook comes from personal experience. But it must have been learned by him long before 1943, and may have been poorly remembered. There was very little Jargon spoken anywhere in Idaho at mid-20th century.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?