The British admiralty’s ‘Eskimaux vocabulary’
On May 30, 1850, aging Arctic explorer Sir John Ross wrote a note to Capt. Charles Codrington Forsyth of the Royal Navy.
Forsyth was about to depart for the Arctic on the Prince Albert on an expedition sponsored by Lady Jane Franklin in search of her missing husband, Sir John Franklin, leader of the doomed Franklin Expedition.
In his note, Ross said, “You are of course familiar with the Esquimaux vocabulary lately published which you will find of good assistance in your communications with any natives you may fall in with.”
This is a reference to a peculiar little book published by the British Admiralty in 1850. Its cover gives the title Eskimaux Vocabulary for the use of the Arctic Expedition, and the inside title page expands that title to Eskimaux and English Vocabulary, for the use of the Arctic Expedition.
In 1847, the British Admiralty began a search for the missing Franklin Expedition. Many ships were involved and the searches continued for a number of years.
This little volume, just six and a half inches by four and a half inches, was bound in black leather, contained 160 pages and was designed to fit in a hip pocket. It was compiled by John Washington, a captain in the Royal Navy who was later hydrographer [producing details maps of seabeds and waterways] to the Navy and at one time secretary to the Royal Geographical Society.
The vocabulary, as the preface explained, was “drawn up in three parallel columns consisting of the dialects as spoken by the Natives in Kotzebue Sound [Alaska], in Melville Peninsula, and on the coast of Labrador.”
Washington intended that every officer carry the volume and use it in their enquiries of the natives as to the fate of Franklin.
The actual vocabulary is followed by five Specimens of Dialogues. When one considers that the Inuit encountered by these expeditions had had little or no previous contact with white men, the dialogues come across as inept, humorous and at times hilarious.
The specimen dialogue called On first meeting Natives, begins, in English and “Labrador Eskimaux,” with:
“Good day to you, friends” – tikki-pogut, kanno-e-kisse.
“We are friends come from England” – ila-karner-mut tikki-pogut taunang-et Eng-e-land-emit.
Enquiries as to Strange Ships begins with:
“Have you seen any large ships lately?” – umiak-soarnik taekkolaung-ilasse im-mane? “How many?” – kapsio-laukaet? or kapsinik?
“How long, or how many moons, since?” – kang-a? tak-kit kapsio-lerkaet? taimang-et?
It continues with such sentences as:
“Are you quite sure you are telling the truth?” – nella-gorto-mik okar-allo-arkisse?
The officers were expected to explain to the Inuit they encountered that there was a reward for news of the missing ships. That section ended with the information:
“Should you meet any white men, treat them kindly, and you shall be rewarded.” – naipi-tau-gupse kabluna-nut, idlu-inia-rasse taipko-nung-a, tagwa akkiller-tauyomar-posse ang-i-yomik, idlu-ing-ikupse.”
Perhaps the most outlandish section was Dialogue with a Sick Man. It contained questions about headaches, bowel movements, vomiting and coughing.
The most frightening statement may well be, “I must bleed you.” – takkai-yoma-wagit.
Sir John Ross took a copy of this volume to Greenland in 1850 and gave it to two Danes, an administrator and a missionary, who translated it into “the Eskimo dialect in use in Greenland, and in use also, it is believed, by the natives as far as the head of Baffin’s Bay.”
The result of their work was published by the admiralty in 1852, entitled Greenland-Eskimo Vocabulary, For the Use of the Arctic Expeditions.
The two volumes were intended to be used together, as the preface says: “The present Vocabulary is supplemental to, and corresponds page for page with, the Labrador-Eskimo Vocabulary printed by the Admiralty, in January, 1850… The reader is requested to refer to the introduction to the former Vocabulary, where also will be found a brief sketch of the Eskimo grammar.”
The admiralty apparently intended the work to be further revised, for they “earnestly requested that every one who has the opportunity will do his best to correct the Vocabulary, and that in doing so he will adopt the same system of orthography, and carefully adhere to it.”
In 1853, the Greenlandic volume was published again, having been further revised the previous summer. Washington worked with Qalaherhuaq, an Inuk from northwestern Greenland known popularly as Kalli, and the revision was completed by Kalli, working with a minister and a professor of Sanskrit!
The preface noted that “every word has now been revised from the lips of a native.”
One can only wonder what use was actually made of this slim volume on any of the expeditions.
References to it are sparse. Capt. Bernier found a copy in a cache left on Dealy Island, near Melville Island, by Capt. Henry Kellett of the Resolute, who wintered there in 1852 to 1853.
Sir John Richardson refers to it under “Vocabularies” in his 1851 Arctic Searching Expeditions, but doesn’t say anything about using it. No information has survived as to how many copies of each edition were printed.
Any edition is rare and valued in a polar library today.
Taissumani is an occasional column that recalls events of historical interest. Kenn Harper is a historian and writer who lived in the Arctic for more than 50 years. He is the author of “Minik: The New York Eskimo” and “Thou Shalt Do No Murder,” among other books. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to [email protected].