How to read most Chinuk Wawa dictionaries

Donʹt take them literally.

Many of the concepts that they provide Jargon definitions for really werenʹt so conventionalized yet, a hundred years ago.

So there could easily be more than one effective way of communicating an idea like (for example) ʹcourierʹ.  (St Onge has lolo-pepa-man and lolo-wawa-man in a manuscript dictionary of his.  And he gives a synonym for almost every entry.)

And there could be different but valid ways of expressing the same idea in other places.  (You have plie for ‘prayer’ around Fort Vancouver, and styuil in BC.)

And the way of saying that particular idea in Jargon could have changed through time.  That was always happening.  (Ats for ‘sister’ originally; later just ‘sister’ in many places.)

BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY for todayʹs essay — I want to make you understand̂…

Donʹt take most old Chinuk Wawa dictionaries too literally.

Itʹs not that their writers were pulling our leg.  Although there are jokey entries in some of the dictionaries.  Opitsah yaka sikhs, anyone?

The danger instead is that youʹll mechanically grab the first $13.00 phrase you find given as a definition of the wanted word.

Stuff that gets translated by convoluted Chinook phrases is the root of all evil, talking-the-language-wise.  Because you might go on to mechanically drop it into your attempted Chinook sentence.  Without a consideration for how that phrase is going to sound in the context.

And it is this manner in which you most assuredly are going to wind up with dense syntax of a most twisty nature.  

I feel safe in telling you that I know for surethe size of the vocabulary actually used in Jargon speech and written texts is actually much smaller than the (hopefully) treasure-troves that youʹll find in some dictionaries.

No news there.  Good news!

As English speakers, weʹre aware that there is not a human thatʹs ever lived who knew all the words in the dictionary.  You don’t need to know tremendously many ‘words’ (lexical roots really) to start expressing yourself really OK in Jargon.

And much more importantly, you say things one way when you’re giving the answer to “How do you say ___ in Jargon?”  And you say stuff in other ways in actual conversation.

What’s this?  

baseball cap

A baseball cap.

Hey, hand me my hat, will you?  Thanks.


With this in mind, to increase your chance of being understood, youʹre generally safer breaking it down.

Hereʹs how.

When you find that ʹcourierʹ is supposedly lolo-pepa-man (literally a ʹcarry-paper-personʹ), and you want to express ʹhis reply was sent by a courier’, please consider not saying your English thought in Jargon.  (Among the less awful ways to do that: yaka kilapai yaka mash kopa lolo-pepa-man — ‘his answer he sent with a carry-paper-person’.)

I think pretty spontaneous speech in Chinuk Wawa is going to see the idea put more like this (for example) instead — yaka mash man pus wawa ikta yaka kilapai-wawa  (‘he sent a man to tell what he had answered’).  Not a single lolo-pepa-man in sight!

I hope this is an effective, and useful, bit of advice for you.  I can put it another way:


I’ve sent that message again and again, based on what I observe in actual, effective Jargon usage.

With the Jargon, you can convey all kinds of emotion, humour, spiritual feeling, you name it.

But as soon as you find yourself throwing in lots of complicated phrases, for all the chance that anyone catches your drift, you might as well be talking the language of flowers.

language of flowers

(I think this graphic, with a Chinuk Wawa translation, would make an awesome T-shirt!)

Wild roses to you all!