New words for trapping: a 1903 ad


Chinook Jargon’s connection with the Northwest fur trade is proverbial.  But until now, we’ve had extremely little documentation of how people talked in CJ about the trapping side of that equation.


Trap (credit: Wikipedia)

Today I’m showing you a bilingual 1903 ad from British Columbia.  Interestingly its text, especially the Jargon version, was aimed at Indigenous readers, so it occurs in Chinook Jargon.  This ad sheds new light on how certain ideas important in the fur industry were expressed, and how they came to be put the way they were.

< Chas. V. Smith

     17. Water St.

          Vancouver, B.C. >


     Naika piii ilip ayu chikmin kopa skins, bir,
I pay more money for skins ( = furs), bear, 

bivir, martin pi kanawi skins.
beaver, marten and all kinds of skins.  

Wiht naika sil traps, pi kanawi ikta
I also sell traps, and all kinds of 

lamidsin pus chako kaltash mawich kopa traps.
medicine for the smaller animals to come to the traps ( = bait).  


< Highest prices paid for furs & skins.

     Traps for sale. Also baits for

attracting all kinds of Animals to traps. >


Kamloops Wawa #207 (December 1903), page 128

Like other fur-related Chinook Jargon advertisements in this newspaper, this one teaches us in a couple of sentences what 200 years of heavily-circulated word lists never did.

In those previous ads, we already learned the word martin “marten”, as well as the novel English loans — a strong trend in this dialect — for “bear” and “beaver”, replacing the venerable old CJ tsx̣ut and ína.  Those earlier ads have also shown us that skin(s) was the word for the “furs, pelts” that were traded.

What’s new here is traps, again a typical new borrowing from English.  This word takes the place of the formerly well-established lapiésh (from French la piège).

Why, you must ask yourself at some point, does this keep happening?  Why did perfectly good existing CJ vocabulary keep getting replaced up at Kamloops?

It wasn’t that the people of BC were learning Jargon poorly.  The opposite is true.  It’s in BC that we find by far the gigantic majority of all documented complete sentences in the pidgin.  Here I’m acknowledging that there were dozens — hundreds! — of CJ publications…but almost all of them were mere lists of vocabulary words, not the connected texts that we find spilling out of Kamloops in the Chinuk pipa shorthand.  Now that someone (that’s me) is decoding and researching that shorthand, we’re becoming aware of how very expressive, how fluent, was the CJ spoken around Kamloops.

Instead, I pin it on a kind of “punctuated equilibrium“.  That’s the biological theory that evolutionary change happens in sudden fits and starts.  I’ve observed that as Chinook Jargon spread over an ever greater geographical expanse, repeatedly being brought by existing speakers to areas where it hadn’t been used before, it got stripped down every time.  This is why CJ, as we now find its relics on paper, is rich in words that quickly became antiquated, many of them synonyms of each other.

This makes sense, doesn’t it?  Thought-experiment time: If you were the only speaker of English to have visited some certain tributary of the Amazon or planet of Alpha Centauri, guess how much of the English language you’d have brought with you to share with the locals.  Really, do you have the Oxford English Dictionary complete in your mind, and even if you do, do you really use all of those previously known words of English when you talk?  Nope, you rely on a smallish subset of that potential vocabulary.  And in the absence of anybody for you to have deep conversations with in this language, you’ll find yourself exercising your English muscles quite minimally.

You can see now how such a “founder effect” (another biology metaphor! — we pidgin & creole linguists love us some “ecology“!) would play out for a pidgin contact language like the Jargon.  For one thing, all of its speakers, at least until say the 1860s or 1870s when there were a few adults who had grown up with it, had only recently learned it.

That right there is a bottleneck, isn’t it?  Think about any foreign language whatsoever that you’ve learned.  Unless and until you reach nativelike fluency, it’s certain that you’ve taken in only a restricted subset of existing words and phrases of that language.


Turtles all the way down (credit: Wikipedia)

And CJ kept being funneled through bottleneck upon bottleneck.  (It’s “turtles all the way down“).  Chinook Jargon in mainland British Columbia pretty much owes its existence to having been suddenly imported by white folks who hurried in scouting for gold, from about 1858 onwards.  Few of them were reputed expert speakers (there was such a thing, as we know from the reputations of an astonishingly few people in the frontier era).  And effectively no one who already lived in BC knew this pidgin until the gold rushes.

Put it all together, and you get acceptably fluent, but only partial, transmission of CJ lexicon to new territories.

In some of those territories, the Kamloops region being the finest example of all, CJ wound up taking hold and being used a lot.  People spoke “Chinook” to express ever more concepts and topics.  As the need arose, new solutions were found for communicative issues that in many instances had been solved long ago, but left behind in older CJ-speaking areas.  What resource was the most ubiquitous and the most widely understood in this new territory?  English.

Of course, not all of the newly -discovered terms in Kamloops CJ were recent English loans.  Take kaltash mawich, a purely CJ expression for “fur-bearing animals” concocted to distinguish literally “worthless [non-edible] deer” from game animals (“deer” being also the generic word for “animal”).  And expanding on this phrase, for the “bait” that trappers use, instead of an English borrowing, there’s lamidsin pus chako kaltash mawich kopa traps — literally “medicine so that worthless deer come to the traps”.

There you have a little lesson on the introduction of new CJ words and phrases like those we’re looking at today.

A final brief historical note: Charles V. Smith surely is the merchant who a short time later relocated to Hazelton, BC.  The newspaper record shows that he was active in local politics, and recounts how both the home and entire stock of furs of this “old-time merchant of the Skeena country” went up in flames in 1914.