Puzzles in the First Coosan Wordlist, 1856

In autumn of 1856, physician John J. Milhau was stationed at Fort Umpqua. At the time he was a young man of 28, and had been raised and educated in New York City. He wrote down word lists of what he thought were two dialects of Coos, one list of Lower Umpqua, and Alsea. For the Coosan and Siuslaw/Umpqua languages this was the first time, so far as we know, that they were written down.

Unfortunately, Dr. Milhau did not name his two Coos informants, nor his Lower Umpqua one. Dr. Anthony Grant wrote about Milhau’s Coos wordlist, and gives a good background on it.  It isn’t even entirely clear which villages the two Coos speakers came from. In Milhau’s correspondence, there are multiple sheets with wordlists – one only has words from a dialect he he labeled “An A Sitch” (certainly Hanisich, the village at Empire), the other “Coos Bay 2”. Then he made a compilation with both dialects listed in two columns; the left column labelled ‘Coos Bay”, the right column is unlabelled. To make things more confusing, he changed how he wrote down some of the words between these lists (for instance changing things he wrote initially with kw- as qu-; and in English orthography qu- almost always stands for the kw- sound) and the unlabelled column appears to be what he initially labelled the An A Sitch wordlist.  Perhaps the weirdest (to me) aspect of Milhau’s orthography is his wide use of /r/ – for a language that does not have /r/. Dr. Grant speculated Milhau came from the eastern US, and grew up with a “form of English which lacked word-final or preconsonantal /r/…” Which was indeed true for Milhau. In spite of these orthographic quirks, I can recognize most of the words. There are a few interesting puzzles and quirks, however.

One thing I noticed is that there was some sort of communication problem between himself and his informants. That isn’t surprising – in 1856 few to none of the Coos Bay and Lower Umpqua people could speak English (the one possible exception might have been people from Ts’alila who traded a lot with the HBC Fort Umpqua) and Milhau obviously could not speak Hanis (or Milluk, Siuslaw/Umpqua or Alsea). Milhau had appeared to learn at least a few words of Chinook wawa – and so he either interviewed his informants in Chinook wawa, or he had an interpreter who spoke it. Either way, there seemed to be the occasional misunderstanding. For instance, for ‘ocean’ he wrote down mit-sis and mit-slis, which look like the word mits’lis, salt. (Ocean is baldiimis). Another one is that for ‘sky’ he wrote kyse and tackt-nitz. Kyse is probably qais, a Hanis word that can mean (depending on context) sky or universe. Tackt-nitz may be taqnis, cloud. Apparently this informant misunderstood what Milhau was asking and gave him the word for cloud instead of sky. Another funny one is ‘turtle’ – Milhau recorded pō-ti-ke and ne-kun. ‘Turtle’ was later recorded for both Hanis and Siuslaw/Umpqua as nikan – recognizable in ne-kun. Dr. Grant thought pō-ti-ke might be bátki, bobcat. It is possible, though odd that the one informant thought Milhau was asking about bobcat when he meant turtle. Out of curiousity – assuming Chinook wawa was the medium of communication – I looked up ‘bobcat’ and ‘turtle’ in my handy dandy dictionary of the language from Grand Ronde. Turtle is iɫaqwa (ihlaqwa) and bobcat is lumulo-pus (wild-cat), shawash pus (Indian cat) or yutskat upuch (short tail). How one could confuse turtle and bobcat, I don’t know…but it could have happened. For ‘pine’ he got tsup-oock (which does resemble Hanis tsipkw, shore pine) and po-who-ya which…looks to me like the word baxwiya, which is kinnikinnick. I am thinking Dr. Milhau either needed a better command of Chinook himself, or a better interpreter. Although I do not mean to be too hard on him – all in all, he did pretty well for someone not trained in linguistics, trying to communicate with people he did not appear to share a common language with (I know how hard that is – once in southern Italy at a party, I was trying to talk to people who only spoke Italian, and the closest I could get was using my very primitive Spanish. It was quite funny, really, and needless to say conversation was limited-but at least there was wine and good food).

At the end of his compilation under the “Coos Bay” column he wrote “Anna-sitch” (Hanisich) for “Coos Bay Indians” and the more enigmatic Te-serch-may-ah-klit-tah under the unlabelled column. The final two syllables are probably his rendering of tl’ta, which means ground, earth or place in both Hanis and Milluk. Perusing the vocabulary, Milhau seemed to interpret the phoneme tl’ as a ‘klick’ sort of sound, and wrote it out as klik, kek, and so forth. It occurs to me, after staring at the rest of it for awhile, it may be tiseich me u tl’ta, meaning “Tiseich person’s place”. There was a village, usually called Ntise’ich or Ntisech but sometimes Tisech, that was a short distance north of Hanisich. It would be rather funny if his two speakers came from these two villages that were so close to each other.

So why do linguists think Milhau somehow missed Milluk entirely, but instead may have gotten 2 slightly different varieties of Hanis? Because while both Coos languages share many nouns, there are a few where they differ quite sharply – words like black bear, face, fire and head:

bear shur-mitl, shi-mitl shximhl pelel
head hwurlu, ki´-lu-sit xwuuluuxw, xwiluuxw sel
face a a, a-a e hel
Fire chu-etl, chu-etz chwehl hemelt’

Milhau’s words seem to be similar to Hanis words, rather than Milluk (the one oddity here is ki-lu-sit from his “Coos Bay” list, which I have not been able to identifiy).

So, Milhau’s wordlist is drawn from two Hanis speakers. And, is appears in a few cases as mentioned above, like getting ‘salt’ for ‘ocean’, there was a little confusion among speaker as to what words Mihau was looking for.

For the most part, other words on the list point to minor differences in pronunciation between the two speakers. There are, however, a few oddities in there that I can not tell are due to different words in different dialects, or misunderstandings I haven’t been able to puzzle out. For instance:

Blood kah-eye (or ka-ai) wer-tin (or wu-tin) Witin, or wi’in and similar forms is all that was recorded for ‘blood’ in later recordings. I have not been able to identify ‘kah-eye’.
Island Kle-var-litz (or kli-var-litz) Itz-kles (or itz-clāce) Tlpalos is consistently given for island in Hanis, dla’a in Milluk. Both of these words are opaque to me.

There is one phonological change Milhau noted that jumped out at me – subtle, and only there with two examples, but because it reminded me of something from the different dialects of Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua it jumped out at me. In the word for ‘wood, stick, tree’, nik’in, Milhau notes that it does have n- in the “Coos Bay” dialect but l- in the unlabelled column. For some Siuslaw words, they used l where Lower Umpqua used n. Some examples are the word for bone (tslawi versus tsnawi) or face (qalni versus qanni). Here’s what I was looking at from Milhau’s list:

tree Tsup-oock nūck-quin On the left, probably tsipkw, shore pine. On the right, nik’in (wood, tree, log, stick) or nuuk’wiin (forest)
Wood Tke-yah lich-ken The word on the left might be k’iiyas, small stick. The word on the right looks like nik’in where the first n is replaced with an l.
100 Ich-high-nick-ken ich-high-lick-ken 100 is literally ‘one stick’, yixai nik’in; and on the right yixai lik’in with that curious l substitution.
1000 Klop-kon-nen-nick-ken klop-kon-ner-lick-ken 1000 is literally ‘ten sticks’ – tlopqanii nik’in, and on the right tlopqanii lik’in, again with the l substitution.

This is the only instance I’ve noticed a switch from n to l in a Hanis word – nik’in (wood, stick, log, tree) was in subsequent sources always recorded with a word initial n (and this word was recorded from many different speakers by many ethnographers). I remember Jim Buchanan once said that all the people from Winchester Bay were bilingual Siuslaw and Hanis speakers – wouldn’t it be funny if Milhau’s second informant was actually from Winchester Bay? Or perhaps had a parent from there (or otherwise spent a lot of time there growing up) and thus had this interesting quirk of speech? Or was there indeed at one time a dialect of Hanis where lik’in was the usual word for wood, etc? And that dialect was soon lost in the collapse of the tribal population and speech community? I suppose at this remove we will never really know, but it is kind of interesting and frustrating, as we know that while a lot of vocabulary and stories were recorded, so many were not, and it leaves us with unanswerable questions.


About shichils

Just sharing some fun on language
This entry was posted in Fort Umpqua, History, Vocabulary comparisons, vocabulary words and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Puzzles in the First Coosan Wordlist, 1856

  1. great essay, sorry I can’t be of help, perhaps asking Loren Bommelyn to take a look would be fruitful

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