The “Chinook lingo”

With a pidgin language, it’s perhaps more important than elsewhere to explicitly recognize the basilect.

Pidgins hardly have ‘high’ forms.

And they’re used in what the highfalutin folks see as pretty low places.  Trading.  Gambling.  First contacts with The Natives.

A sign of pidgins’ endearing and infuriating lack of prestige is what they get called.

For one thing, there often isn’t a name for the pidgin in the pidgin.  Most of the languages that a reasonably exhaustive source like Ethnologue lists are labeled in relation to whatever language pitched in most of their words.

(The omnipresent “Pidgin English” comes to mind.)

Pidgins also tend to be bestowed handles that point to whoever uses them; “Hiri Motu” is traders’ Motu, and “Yimas-Alamblak Pidgin” or “Ndyuka-Tirio Pidgin” are complete stories in 3 words each.

Otherwise, they seem to be just plain insulted.  People have dismissed pidgins a millions times over as “broken” or “bastard tongues”, “jargon” [in lowercase] in a period when that term meant gibberish, and “gibberish” when a slap in the face was intended.

Plenty of commentators in the past tried to bring Chinook Jargon down a peg, or redundantly emphasize its humble origin, with the epithet “Chinook lingo“.  The joke’s on them, as a pidgin can’t sink any lower than it started.

In today’s post I’ll embrace “Chinook lingo” through some instructive quotations…

  • Jack London’s “Cruise of the Snark“, chapter XVI, begins “Given a number of white traders, a wide area of land, and scores of savage languages and dialects, the result will be that the traders will manufacture a totally new, unscientific, but perfectly adequate, language. This the traders did when they invented the Chinook lingo for use over British Columbia, Alaska, and the Northwest Territory. So with the lingo of the Kroo-boys of Africa, the pigeon English of the Far East, and the beche de mer of the westerly portion of the South Seas. This latter is often called pigeon English, but pigeon English it certainly is not. To show how totally different it is, mention need be made only of the fact that the classic piecee of China has no place in it.”
  • Art McKellips describes one of his artistic woodcarvings this way: “Oolaken Oil—This was a term in Chinook Lingo depicting the oil gleaned from a small fish we call Smelt, or Candle Fish.”
  • Devon Monk mentions a pleasantly cluttered home space festooned with, among other things, “odd little notes like, “kitswee”=Chinook lingo for “money””.  [That’s new to me.  My daughter says it reminds her of when her little brother used to call shiny things “spawtwee”.]
  • An antique trade paper sports this letter to the editor:
    “TO THE HOMOEOPATHIC RECORDER:
    Skookum Again. — Dr. Gentry’s article is very laughable to us Washingtonians on the Skookum Chuck.  There is no such lake; the lake is simply known as Medical Lake.  Skookum in Chinook means “good,” “strong,” “strength.”  Chuck means “water,” “food,” “river,” “stream,” according to the inflexion of the word.  Skookum Chuck means “rapid current.”  The salt is known all over this country as “Medical Lake Salt.”  If I knew Dr. Gentry’s address I would send him a dictionary of Chinook jargon.  Don’t publish any more “Skookum Chuck” articles.  It is easier to correct it now than after awhile.
    Respectfully yours,
    W.A. Egbert, M.D.
    WALLA WALLA, January 24, 1890.
    [Even Dr. Gentry may be pardoned for not being familiar with the Chinook lingo, but it certainly seems that barbarous “Skookum Chuck” is a more distinctive name than “Medical Lake.”  However that is a matter of taste.  No doubt Dr. Gentry will be happy to receive a dictionary of Chinook.  It may be addressed to him at Rodgers Park, Chicago, Ill. — RECORDER]”

These are surely enough to give you the ring of “Chinook lingo”.   If you’re moved to Google, leave more cites in the Comments section here!

–David Douglas Robertson, PhD–

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