Nootka Jargon in Haida territory


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Regarding the mists of pre-Chinuk Wawa history, we can just make out that a couple of earlier pidgin languages entered the DNA of our Jargon…

Presumably the pidginized version of Nuuchahnulth that’s typically called Nootka Jargon in the linguistics literature was the earlier forerunner. Because it was Nuuchahnulth territory on Vancouver Island, BC that quickly became the de facto center of Native-European trading contacts after contact in the 1770s.

Sarah Grey Thomason and other linguists have done nice work identifying the presence of Nootka Jargon contributions (as pronounced, specifically, by English-speakers) in early Chinuk Wawa. I won’t rehash that story. It’s enough to say that those words were on the scene from the earliest known identifiable CW. Shipborne traders tried using Nootka Jargon with lots of tribes they came into contact with, just in case it would facilitate transactions, and this is surely why Lower Chinookans in turn used it with Lewis & Clark when they arrived. NJ words were, or rapidly became, core components of the Chinook Jargon.

As I understand it, the fur trade ranged all along the British Columbia coast, but shifted northward shortly after 1800 due to resource depletion, leading to a focus on Haida Gwaii, the Queen Charlotte Islands. With this came a shift to a Haida-based pidgin. Not much is published about this language, although Anthony Grant has written a very good study of it. All things being equal, you could expect whatever pidgin(s) existed by then to have become, in turn, parts of the Haida Jargon.

I want to share one little piece of evidence for this trend of older pidgins getting incorporated into newer pidgins. A possible early beachhead turns up in an article on anonymous 1791 “Vocabularies from the Northwest Coast of America” edited by Franz Boas (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, volume 26, pages 185-202, 1916). Here we have some intriguing word lists collected from speakers of Nuuchahnulth, Haida, Tlingit, and I think Alutiiq (“Prince William Sound language”).

Right at the top of page 201 we find pishuck ‘bad’, with the clarification by Boas’s consultant Edward Sapir: “not a Haida word, Chinook jargon, from Nootka p̓icaqʻ “. That’s approximately p’ishaq in the modern Grand Ronde way of spelling the sounds, although their usual pronunciation is now pʰishak.

So, even before 1800, we have documentation that shows a foreign pidgin word being used by a Haida person to talk with a European. The funny thing is that the same anonymous vocabulary-maker has peshack ‘bad’ already for Nuuchahnulth on page 187! He (we can assume it was a male, in the circumstances) didn’t seem to notice the connection, although I take it that his Nuuchahnulth word list is actually more representative of Nootka Jargon than of the tribal language — and as I said, the White traders would’ve been using NJ wherever they went, including Haida Gwaii.

I wanted to just write a short post today — got some hiking to do and a mom to visit — so, more about such matters soon!