1883: Dr. McKay’s pronunciation is our beeswax

My esteemed friend Henry Zenk once wrote a book chapter examining Dr. William C. McKay’s 1892 address on the 100th anniversary of Captain Robert Gray’s (“)discovery(“) of the Columbia River. 

You can read most or all of Henry’s study at that link. Please consider doing so.

I’m kind of enamored of Dr. McKay’s Chinuk Wawa!

With his traits like

  • “quapa” for the preposition you probably know as kʰapa or kopa (and “quaqua” for kakwa),
  • his “Sunday” for what I take as ‘flag’ (otherwise “Sunday sail” in Jargon),
  • his “tigiath” for the old-school pronunciation tq’ix̣ (now tiki ‘want’),
  • etc.,

…this stuff is truly a snapshot of Chinook Jargon as learned by a baby in the 1820s in the world of Fort Vancouver.

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Dr. William Cameron McKay, 1824-1893 (image credit: Oregon Encyclopedia)

So now I want to reproduce an 1890s news article from Dr. McKay’s hometown, where we learn a little more about the Indigenous-phonology orientation of his way of talking:

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Born in Astoria in 1828.

Around the early history of every place cluster old time memories and legends; in the recollections of all pioneers are thoughts of early toils and privations; dwelling in all our cities are those who toiled in the noon of life when the unsubdued wilderness was theirs to hold and occupy; and interesting to all are the narrations of the men and women who once lived in solitude, rarely seeing a neighbor’s face where now the hum of thousands marks the mighty contrast. Often have we sat for hours listening to those who came as come the vanguard of an army, videttes thrown out to mark the ground and note the dangers, and no more honorable badge of service ever glittered on the breast of the brave than the frosty but kindly brown beaming with the light of a well spent life, the eye gleaming with animation as the tale of early privation and adventure is told and the old times narrated.

Washington Irving, the most graceful writer of his day, has in his delightful volumes thrown a romantic halo around the Columbia, and in his work “Astoria” has charmed the tastes of thousands of readers who delightedly hear of the first settlement of this far off western city. Many old people whom we have met here have vivid recollections of events which happened thirty and forty years ago, and their information forms an important fund of contemporaneous history. No settlement is richer in legend and romance than our own state and city, no pioneers have a better record for courage than the brave men and women who laid the foundation of the present commonwealth. It was our good fortune last Wednesday to meet a gentleman who occupies a unique position in the history of Astoria. We refer to Dr. William McKay, of Pendleton, Umatilla Co. Dr. McKay was born in Astoria in 1828. The house in which he was born stood on the same spot now occupied by the residence of Mr. Ed. Taylor. Shortly after the Lewis & Clarke [sic] expedition in 1804, Alexander McKay, a Scotch trader, in company with Sir Wm. Stuart, and a party of explorers started westward from Montreal, discovered the McKenzies river and reached the Pacific coast about Nootkah sound. What most immediately attracted their attention was the immense number of fur bearing animals, and on their return to Montreal two seasons after, they accidentally met John Jacob Astor there and the subject of starting a fur station at the mouth of the Columbia was broached by him. McKay and others came out under contract with Astor, and in 1811 founded Astoria. He was on board the illfated Tonquin when that vessel was taken by the Indians in the Straits of Fuca, and was the first to fall a victim to their savage fury. His son married a daughter of Cumcumly, the great chief of all the Chinook and Chehalis Indians, and in September 1828, was born the subject of this sketch. His earliest recollections are of the coming and going of one Capt. Gray, who occasionally put in with his vessel, a small American bark, and of Admiral Scarborough, who arrived in 1836 with the English vessel Cadb[o]ro. In 1838 young McKay removed with his father and the rest of the family to [Fort] Vancouver, and in 1842 he started overland to the states. While traversing the Yellowstone he met our venerable townsman, W.H. Gray, who then a young man in company with his wife, whom he had just married was enroute for Oregon. The Doctor’s account of the overland trip is exceedingly interesting. Many months were occupied in making the transit, and it was not till the spring of 1843 that they reached St. Louis. From there he went to Fairfield, Herkimer county, New York, where he was educated, and took a collegiate course. His subsequent residence in Canada and various parts of the northwest coast form a chapter of the most intense interest. For the last twenty years Dr. McKay has resided in Pendleton, engaged in the active practice of his profession, and though he could illy spare the time, he concluded as he was attending the Pioneer’s reunion at Salem, he would revisit his birthplace and note a few of the changes that fifty-five years had wrought. His thorough familiarity with all the scenes and incidents, the manners and customs of early life in this country makes his conversation a source of pleasure to the listener, and as he is a man of more than ordinary education and experience, possessed of unusual powers of observation and expression, his statements are of value.

Among the many questions we asked him was one relating to a matter which has frequently puzzled older residents than ourself; — the occasional finding of chunks of beeswax along the shore, especially at Tillamook and this side of Tillamook Head. “Oh, yes,” said the doctor in answer, “I’ll tell you all about that. It was, I think, in 1834, that the Indians first began to bring in large quantities of beautiful china and porcelain ware, jugs, pottery, cups, etc., some of it broken, some intact. Vases, pitchers, etc., of beautiful workmanship and design were daily shown, and in answer to all interrogatives they said they got them on the beach. Sure enough, the shore at Shoalwater bay, and Clatsop beach was lined with this ware, and now and then big blocks and chunks of beeswax came ashore. It seemed to drift down with the current from the north, and when Capt. —– bought the Llama, in 1837, in company with some eastern men he made a trip to Vancouver Island and there found four unfortunate Japanese. It was a Japanese junk that blown off her course had crossed the Pacific only to be wrecked on Vancouver Island, and the crew condemned to slavery. For miles along the beach for years afterward was found at more infrequent intervals, relics of the wreck, and to this day pieces of the ware are preserved. The Captain bought the four Japanese and brought them to Vancouver, where I saw them many times.” This then explains the origin of that mysterious beeswax, which has occasioned so much discussion and surmise in Clatsop and Tillamook counties.

The Doctor has an inexhaustible fund of recollections and his memory is rarely at fault. He spoke of our streets and dwelt with pleasure on the names Skamaquia, Chenamus, and Cumcumly, smiling at our endeavor to correctly pronounce the former, which can only be done by producing an indescribable click on the first and third syllables and prolonging the fourth. All three names were once owned by Indian chiefs, of the Chinook tribe, whose word was law and whose dictum was to be obeyed. Talking with this gentleman one is taken back to the days when a yearly vessel visited the Columbia, when but five cattle were west of the Rocky mountains, and when there were not more than half a dozen whites in what is now known as “the coast.” He in his narrations, can truthfully say “all of which I saw, and part of which I was,” and as the oldest living man who was born in Astoria, is entitled to a prominent place in the annals of our city. He returned to his home in Eastern Oregon yesterday morning.

— from the Astoria (OR) Daily Astorian of June 22, 1883, page 3, columns 1-2

The orange highlighted section is an average English speaker’s description of Native sounds, the “clicks” and/or back-of-the mouth “uvulars”.

It was fair for the reporter to call these “indescribable”; Dr. McKay himself had no special symbols or mechanisms for representing them when he wrote Chinuk Wawa in his own unique spellings.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?