More about Boas 1916 [Anonymous 1791] “Vocabularies from the Northwest Coast of America”

I haven’t identified which British or USA sailing vessel it’s associated with, yet…

Screenshot 2022-11-30 185909

 American Antiquarian Society, April 1916

(…which is a question that someone can probably successfully narrow down or solve without tremendous effort…)

But the Anonymous 1791 word list published by Franz Boas of four NW Coast languages — Nuuchahnulth, Haida, Lingít/Tlingit, and Sugpiaq/Chilkat “Eskimo” — is very definitely a copy of other folks’ work:

  • British visitor William Beresford’s material [1786-1787, some of it published in 1791] on the latter 3 languages
  • and American mariner Robert Haswell’s [1788-1789] on Nuuchahnulth/”Nootka”.

It has the exact same gaps of documentation, e.g. having no Sugpiaq words for ‘seven’, ‘eight’, and ‘nine’.

It appears to mis-copy much of Beresford’s & Haswell’s stuff, not only in the Native languages but also in English — for example having English ‘those’ for the Sugpiaq word for ‘three’! Such nonsensical translations are most probably due to the 1791 writer having misread those earlier folks’ handwritten pages, perhaps during one of the many short chance encounters known to have happened between Euro-American trading vessels.

It uses those earlier sources’ identical quirky English translations for the Nuuchahnulth material, e.g. the 1st and 2nd person singular pronouns are translated respectively ‘me’ and ‘your’.

Some differences:

The 1791 document tends to use idiosyncratic spellings of English that reflect the writer’s own dialect and education level, e.g. ‘land orter’ (otter), ‘make hast’ (haste), ‘callary’ (celery), ‘cosen’ (cousin), ‘enlet’ (inlet), and countless more instances.

And the 1791 document shows a greater deal of planning before being written, in that it’s carefully alphabetized by English translation. The originals from which it takes are organized more haphazardly, into a blend of semantic themes and what I imagine is the chronological order in which words were learned from Indigenous people.

Bonus fact:

There’s definitely added value for us in Boas’s 1916 presentation of these 1791 vocabularies, as he consulted with latter-day researchers about the probable phonetic forms and morphological analyses of a lot of the entries. A nice illustration of that is the Nuuchahnulth word for ‘yes It Does very much [rain]’, Hyarish. Boas inserts this footnote: “-ic is affirmative suffix”, which I take as what’s now written as -ʔi·̆š ‘Indicative Mood’ (Kyuquot dialect; cited in Stonham’s dictionary). Will this help us out with the persistent question of the etymology of Chinuk Wawa’s hayas(h) ‘big’?

Interesting further questions arise from our tracing the 1791 vocabulary to earlier sources. It’s fairly likely that only a very few, and perhaps essentially one, early visitor collected the great majority of the Indigenous-language data that we find in documents of the “contact” era. So, who was the earliest and presumably most influential documentor of e.g. Nuuchahnulth?

And, do later documents such as Moziño 1792 and Jewett 1815 spring ultimately from the same early source?

I’ve read conflicting claims in the secondary historical literature, some scholars asserting that the early fur-traders jealously guarded their hard-won knowledge of PNW Coast Native languages and tribes, others informing us Indigenous word lists were shared freely. Today’s find would seem to prove that the maritime fur traders were sharing information amongst themselves.

I haven’t detected any influence from Alexander Walker’s 1786 Nuuchahnulth vocabulary; is there any particular explanation for this?

Are you the grad student or PhD who’s going to take on this research project — the genealogical chart of the earliest PNW language documents?

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?