Chinook Jargon as a BC Aboriginal language

The following is an argument I wrote up as a grad student, a few years back. It’s keenly relevant now, eh?

[I only have more evidence to add now (2018).–DDR]

Chinook Jargon as a BC aboriginal language

David Robertson

UVic Department of Linguistics / Centre for Studies in Religion and Society

The pidgin Chinook Jargon (CJ) of British Columbia and neighbouring regions of the Pacific Northwest is argued to be primarily ‘Indian’ in nature, not only in terms of historical (sociological and linguistic) facts but also with regard to the concept of which cultural groups ‘own’ it and stand to benefit most from CJ’s maintenance and reintroduction.

A brief note up front: I’ll be using the terms ‘aboriginal’, ‘indigenous’, ‘Native’ and ‘Indian’ in a pretty interchangeable way. My main desire is to be able to clearly refer to the people who were here before Euro-American-Canadians (!) showed up, and to the descendants of these original inhabitants. I don’t intend much political meaning in using any of these terms in a given context—though I’m already thinking about revising this talk to use the label ‘First Nations’ for the ancient languages, cultures and bands as opposed to ‘indigenous’ for Chinook Jargon.

1 Overview

When I was asked to give a talk in the Dean’s Lunchtime Lecture Series, I was told that the theme is “What’s New in Graduate Studies” at UVic. Taking that as my cue, let me lead you along a path of ideas I’ve been following lately. I’m in the Linguistics Department but I should point out that my interests are broad, bringing ideas from history, the study of religion and society, anthropology and more into the work I do.

My program of research as a graduate student in Linguistics involves the Pacific Northwest pidgin1 language Chinook Jargon (which I’ll also refer to as CJ) as used by the aboriginal people of our region. In the terminology that linguistic science uses, a “pidgin” is a language

  • which quite rapidly springs up from the contact of (the languages of) two or more significantly different cultures (in this case, aboriginal and ‘white’),
  • which has a fairly bare-bones grammar and vocabulary (CJ has only about 500 distinct ‘words’, and doesn’t conjugate its verbs or inflect its nouns—much like English!),
  • and which is a foreign language to the community of people who use it (though there are isolated cases on record of kids in BC who grew up speaking Jargon from birth, Arthur Urquhart of Spuzzum for example).2

Let me emphasize, an important characteristic of pidgins—despite the image that that word conjures up for English-speakers—is that they have grammars. That is, there really is a right and a wrong way to talk any given pidgin; it’s not just a “broken” “mongrel” bunch of “jabber”, to use just three of the words often applied to pidgins by the man in the street. We have plenty of documentation of certain people being considered eloquent speakers of beautiful Chinook Jargon, and of others who were seen as butchering the language quite carelessly. Similarly, other pidgins that have existed in BC (such as Chinese Pidgin English, widespread until a few decades ago; also possibly the “French of the Mountains” of northern BC, which I am currently investigating) could also be spoken in ways that other speakers would value as right and understandable, or wrong and nonsensical, or somewhere between those extremes.

CJ, at least in the form of many individual words recorded by crewmembers of exploring and trading vessels, is known from the era of aboriginal people’s earliest contact3 with newcomers of Euro-American origin, such as Captain James Cook’s visit in 1778. CJ is possibly a pre-contact idiom4 (it may have developed out of interactions among aboriginal groups before “whites” ever appeared in the Northwest), yet it is frequently characterized as a “fur-trade lingo” consciously invented by the Hudsons Bay Company or other whites5. I concur with those who find that huge volumes of historical and linguistic evidence disprove this theory6 (arguing convincingly that in British Columbia it was actually the later gold rushes that led to universal use of ‘the Jargon’). I will also say that I feel obligated as a responsible scholar to withhold judgment about the possible pre-contact existence of CJ, because evidence is lacking, either in written form (obviously) or in the form of recorded memory (that is, no aboriginal people are known to have talked about such a pidgin being used in the times before whites appeared). Since pidgins are known to evolve with unusual speed—going through substantial evolution in decades rather than the centuries it usually takes non-pidgin languages to significantly change—I feel comfortable with the idea of Chinook Jargon having formed out of thin air and then reached its present state within say a century.

I give the figure of 100 years because CJ reached its greatest extent of use by around 1890. Crucial factors associated with the “closing of the [Western] frontier” as we Americans call it were that whites by then formed a large majority of the population, at last controlled resources and no longer relied upon Indians for help in accessing them, and command of English was becoming widespread among Indian populations. All in all, the need for Chinook Jargon could now only decline steadily. Significant developments in the language did not occur after the 1890s.

Instead of pushing the time-horizon of CJ farther into the past or closer to the present, my concern is to move farther in another, purely social dimension: I propose that a more useful view of CJ than “fur-trade lingo” or the attempted objective linguistic labeling as “pidgin” is to see its nature specifically as an indigenous language, especially in BC. Both linguistic and societal facts support my claim, and I suggest that greater historical insight into the role or roles CJ played in our history will come from such a point of view.

2 Linguistic support

Due to the abundance of evidence of a linguistic nature for understanding Chinook Jargon as a BC aboriginal language, I divide this into three categories.

2.1 Vocabulary

First, the earliest recorded material that we can identify as CJ is purely British Columbia indigenous in its vocabulary, being composed of Nuu-chah-nulth / “Nootkan” words7. (Examples include tayí ‘chief’, mákuk ‘buy or sell’, and łúchmən ‘woman’.) Even the traces of a possibly earlier contact language, pidgin Haida8, likewise show only BC aboriginal vocabulary, some of which (like the word hílu ‘no, not, never’) may in fact have entered the Chinook Jargon which superseded it. We have no indication at these crucial earliest dates of English or any other nonaboriginal language contributing to the contact idiom.

On the same track, a strong trend in the vocabulary of the Jargon is that its terms are clearly based on aboriginal metaphors and ways of seeing the world. The CJ term for ‘God’ is sáχali tayí, literally ‘the above headman’ or ‘chief up high’ – and exactly parallel terms exist in regional languages like Stó:lō (which says chíchelh si7ám) and Thompson (which says xé7-ł-kwúkwpi7). A ‘girl’ in CJ is tə́nəs łúchmən and a ‘boy’ is tə́nəs mán, literally a ‘little woman’ and ‘little man’ just as many Salish and other aboriginal languages express the idea (for example Stó:lō slhali7óllh and swi7qa7óllh). The Jargon word tílixam or <tillicum> can express the idea ‘friend’ but it also includes relatives and members of one’s own band (tribe), and in fact is often used to mean ‘Indians’ as opposed to white people; this range of meaning matches that of its synonyms in various aboriginal languages. Even for items such as guns which didn’t exist here until the whites came, the terminology is more ‘Indian’ than not—and this is why Jargon has a term like kaláytən, literally ‘bow-and-arrow’, for ‘gun’, which then led to actual bows and arrows being called stík kaláytən, literally ‘wooden bow-and-arrow’! I will give more examples like these later in my talk.

Here I should mention that a substantial part of the Jargon’s vocabulary is words that came originally from English or French. I note that this does not detract from my argument for CJ as an aboriginal language. On the one hand, the English items found in CJ are largely traceable to two broad varieties (what appears to have been an Indian Pidgin English, exemplified by washem “to wash”, katshem “to catch”, fiksim “to repair”; and a colloquial English bearing every sign of having been learned “on the street” by nonliterate people, with terms like hai ton “excellent”, shabon “credit”, leydawn “to lie down”). No less aboriginal in character is the French that contributed to CJ, which, other than the religious terms that certain priests introduced to the Jargon, represents the distinct varieties spoken by the Métis people who were the majority of non-locally born users of CJ for its first 50 years; thus there are stories in CJ about Pchiza “Petit-Jean”, a “saddle blanket” is lapishemo with a French definite article + an Ojibwe noun, a “topknotted cap” is lachuk, etc.

And on the other hand, every aboriginal language of the Northwest has borrowed from English and French, on average about 100 words; and any language in the world can borrow from any other, even to such an enormous degree that it’s hard to tell what the borrowing language was like in the first place.

A great example is Chamorro, the language of my wife’s ancestors from the Marianas Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Chamorro has borrowed thousands of words from Spanish, the old colonial language, such a crowd of verbiage that whole segments of native Chamorro vocabulary have been pushed aside—the native numbers had already been forgotten two centuries ago, for example—and many observers including linguists have wondered whether Chamorro is now a kind of pidgin or mixed variety of Spanish. But the fact remains that Chamorro still has its own grammar, sounds, native vocabulary, and a distinct culture which are utterly different from those of Spanish, and which make it easy to identify Chamorro as a member of the Malayo-Polynesian language family.

Chinook Jargon might similarly be viewed as a member of say the Chinookan language family—not as a kind of pidgin English, or as some bastard orphan of a language. Here I’m jumping into one of the great debates in pidgin-creole linguistics nowadays: whether there’s any compelling reason for excluding say Haitian French Creole from the family tree of its ‘mother language’, in this case French. Such an exclusion has become traditional but we linguists haven’t been able to justify it on theoretical grounds even after 50 years of intensive study of these languages.

(I admit that I’m tempted to compare CJ with the ‘country sons and daughters’ of the old-time white fur-trade employees who married Northwest aboriginal women ‘after the fashion of the country’, i.e. without the sanction of law or church. Frequently, these families were eventually abandoned when the opportunity arose for their heads to return to ‘civilization’. The mixed-blood children of those marriages were in most instances taken in by their Indian relatives, the rest of their lives and their descendants’ being lived as Indians. There were in any case vanishingly few whites in the region, and even fewer who might be blood relations of these children or want to adopt them. If I were going to pursue the metaphor further, I might discuss how English- and French-speakers, despite having contributed so much to CJ, on the whole disdained it and distanced themselves from it as an inferior lingo to be used only with Indians, and generally referring to CJ with the sort of negative labels I’ve already mentioned.)

2.2 Pronunciation

Second, throughout its history CJ has demonstrably modeled aboriginal people’s pronunciation. That is, the “difficult Indian sounds” of the Jargon’s donor languages are exactly what all speakers, indigenous and newcomer, have striven to replicate9. The brilliantly profuse written documentation of CJ over the last two centuries is testament to non-aboriginal people’s efforts at accurate “Indianness” in their own use of the Jargon.

One illustration is the way that English speakers have always tended to write the Jargon in their own alphabet: unfamiliar combinations of letters as in pahtl ‘full’ /páł/, saghalie ‘above’ /sáχali/, and tzum ‘writing’ /ts’∂́m/ are very frequent, and linguists generally agree that these are attempts to accurately represent the relatively exotic-seeming Indian sounds of CJ (as opposed, for example, to simply making these words look and sound as English-like as possible). And French speakers such as numerous Catholic missionaries in BC usually wrote CJ in ways based on conventions of written French, but equally clearly were trying to represent the indigenous sounds rather than bring them into line with French ones. Examples that come to mind include kro ‘to arrive’ /q’ú7/, iHt ‘one’ /íxt/, and klaraouiam ‘hello’ /łaχáwyam/. Overall, speakers of European languages did about the best they could with their inadequate alphabets to note down the actually spoken sounds of the Jargon.

Similarly, the countless loanwords from CJ into our region’s aboriginal languages show the distinctive non-European sounds accurately preserved in Jargon as taught by Native people to other Native people. As far north as the Queen Charlotte Islands and southeastern Alaska, we find that the Haida language has borrowed a Jargon word for ‘fence’ and that it is pronounced in the ‘real Indian way’ there, /q’∂láχ∂n/. Another widespread loan from CJ into many BC native languages is /l∂tám/ for ‘table’. This originally came from French (la table) but was certainly filtered through the pronunciation habits of the aboriginal people. This is easy to spot since the aboriginal languages rarely have a /b/ sound, which is therefore changed to the reasonably similar sound /m/. (Another example of the same process is the CJ word for ‘dime’, which comes from English bit but is generally pronounced /mít/ in the languages that have borrowed it.) Overall it is clear that the pronunciation of Chinook Jargon which was understood by everyone to be the ‘best’ was that of the indigenous people.

2.3 Grammar

Third, CJ has always had its own distinct grammar, which differs markedly from those of European languages widely spoken in the Northwest’s history.

For example, while neither English nor French prefer constructions like “A man am I”, this is the usual word order for CJ. It is hard to imagine the Hudsons Bay Company consciously inventing a ‘fur-trade lingo’ that made use of structures that are so strange to speakers of these European languages!

Neither is it plausible that the HBC would have willingly concocted a grammatical rule such as we find in CJ, by which one ordering of words in a sentence is appropriate for intransitive verbs, and a completely different one for transitive verbs. (This may be a trace of what linguists call ergativity, which is common in Pacific Northwest aboriginal languages.) Here is an illustration: Cháku íxt t’síkt’sik ‘A wagon came’ has the intransitive verb cháku ‘to come’ first, then the subject íxt t’síkst’sik ‘a wagon’: literally ‘Came a wagon’. By contrast, a verb which takes an object, i.e. a transitive verb, like nánich ‘to see’, comes after the subject, like náyka ‘I’, as in the words of a song, Náyka nánich łúsh łúchm∂n ‘I saw a pretty woman’.

Other grammatical distinctions which Chinook Jargon has always made that are quite foreign to the English or French native tongues of many CJ speakers are:

  • the two different ways to say ‘maybe’ (t’lúnas meaning ‘maybe but I don’t know enough to judge’ vs. aláxti meaning ‘maybe and I’m pretty sure about it’);
  • the two ways to say ‘a/an’ (íxt meaning ‘a certain one that I have in mind’ vs. null [lack of a word] meaning ‘one that I have no specific idea about’);

and numerous additional structures. All of these have parallels in the aboriginal languages of our region, and are conspicuous by their absence in the non-aboriginal languages. Therefore Chinook Jargon grammar as well as its vocabulary and pronunciation are distinctly ‘Indian’ in nature.

3 Social Evidence

Again there is so much sociological evidence for the Indian nature of Chinook Jargon that I present three categories.

3.1 Indian-to-Indian transmission

First, as already mentioned in passing, CJ was largely learned by aboriginal people from other aboriginals. This Indian-to-Indian transmission was a characteristic and effective channel for the spread of Jargon knowledge. Unlike the newcomers, who tended to learn CJ on an individual (and necessarily distorted) basis from the popular printed phrasebooks of the day10, Native people were the communal repository and authority for knowledge of all things Jargon. Proof for this claim lies in the pronunciations of CJ loanwords found in regional aboriginal languages, as well as in the authentic ‘Indian’ pronunciations, superior control of grammar, greater facility with spontaneous speech, and greater degree of expressiveness found among aboriginal CJ speakers as compared with ‘whites’. In fact, Indians may have heard much more Chinook Jargon spoken than whites during the years of the language’s peak use. This leads into my second point:

3.2 Integration into daily life

Second, it is generally observed that the most fluent speakers, who commanded the widest range of styles in CJ—from speechmaking to letter-writing11, from creation of grave markers12 to a repertoire of songs largely based on aboriginal musical traditions—were Native people. Let me discuss each of these examples in slightly more detail.

We have sound recordings of aboriginal people repeating Jargon speeches they had heard years before at formal events, which they recalled in great detail and with high fluency. Aboriginal people have also been known to extemporaneously deliver CJ speeches of noticeable eloquence. Parallel examples from ‘white’ speakers are unknown to me, with the partial exception that certain missionaries who preached in Jargon became quite fluent at that specific mode of communication. In similar fashion, the large majority of the people we know to have used the Jargon on a daily basis for spontaneous conversation have been aboriginal people, while ‘whites’, on the basis of the documentation we have, were characteristically more restricted to a few relatively formulatic phrases of Jargon, and commanded a smaller active vocabulary of the language than did Indians.

Letters in Chinook Jargon are known to have been written by ‘whites’, and I have personally seen about a dozen of these. The CJ letters of non-aboriginal people have tended to be written for amusement only, very brief, often restricted to a sentence or two on a postcard, and in my evaluation their grammar and choice of words has been less clear than what Indians have written. Aboriginal people’s letters in Jargon are more numerous (I have found over 50 so far), more fluent, more expressive, written in order to communicate important information, and overall a more integral part of Indians’ lives than the whites’ letters were of theirs.

Additionally, British Columbia has the distinction of possessing an alphabet used nowhere else in the world, the so-called Wawa Writing or shorthand, which was developed for and almost exclusively used by aboriginal speakers of CJ. This alphabet was the form that the first literacy took in many southern BC Indian communities. Besides letters, we have many other texts created by aboriginal people in the shorthand: I have found eight ‘want ads’, 20 or more grave markers, and over 100 autographs by Indian people using this alphabet. The strong identification of the Wawa Writing with aboriginal people cannot be overlooked—it was quite rare for whites to master this writing system, and I admit to being amused that whereas it usually took just a few hours for Indians to learn and fluently use Wawa Writing, almost no white people have had much success mastering it! Even in my own profession, linguists, who we might expect to be particularly good at learning languages and writing systems, have shown a great reluctance to get involved with figuring out this shorthand. That is a major reason why the huge amounts of Chinook (and other Indian languages) recorded in the Wawa Writing have gone unread and unresearched for several decades. (Giving me the perfect opportunity to do my dissertation on a very fresh topic.)

Large numbers of songs were composed in Chinook Jargon during the language’s heyday. Of these, many were translations by white people of currently popular songs into the Jargon, often unsingable as in the case of one Oregon lady’s version13 of the patriotic song “America” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thee…”):

Nika illahee, kah-kwa mika, My country ‘tis of thee

T’see illahee, wake e-li-te, Sweet land of liberty,

Kah-kwa mika, nika shunta. Of thee I sing;

Illahee, kah nika papa mamaloos, Land where my fathers died,

Illahee, klosh tellicum chaco; Land of the pilgrims’ pride;

Kee-kwilla konaway lemoti, From every mountainside,

Mamook wake e-li-te tin-tin. Let freedom ring.

From the records of the Oregon Pioneer Association I’ve learned that ‘white’ CJ songs such as this were sometimes sung as a curiosity at that group’s annual reunions. But the majority of songs that were actually and frequently sung in Chinook Jargon were composed by aboriginal people, for example the 40 or so recorded from Victoria by Franz Boas in his excellent 1888 article. These songs were identifiably Indian in form:

  • They had relatively few words. Often a sentence or two comprised the entire lyric.
  • These lyrics dealt with the real lives of the aboriginal people, often discussing events common on the coast such as a loved one’s departure for a distant place in order to earn money. There’s relatively little use of generalized images in these songs, quite different from the abstract sentimentality of a popular white love song, for example.
  • Vocables’ were commonly used in the Indian CJ songs. This is a term that musicologists and anthropologists use for the supposedly ‘nonsense syllables’ that so frequently appear in North American indigenous music. A rather nicer term is the one that a Makah friend of mine uses—he refers to the ‘doo-wop part’ of the song.
  • CJ songs were composed and sung for distinctly Indian purposes. As opposed to the uses to which white people’s music is put (let’s say formal public performance by an individual; private leisure; hymn singing; etc.), the aboriginal people’s Chinook music frequently was sung at informal gatherings, by groups of people, for purposes that reinforced Indian cultural practices and solidarity such as gambling matches or dancing at a feast.

Summarizing this point, those who have most strongly integrated CJ into their daily lives and their cultural practices (in music and otherwise) are aboriginals. This remains true to the present day: the large majority of those with active, inherited knowledge of CJ speech or music, or indeed knowledge of previous generations in the family having used Jargon, are members of aboriginal communities. I interpret this (certainly controversially) as proving Native ownership of CJ. Let me quote in this connection from Melville Jacobs’ 1929 publication, ‘Northwest Sahaptin Texts, 1. Klikitat’, where he discusses an aboriginal man named Joe Hunt (p.242), who was from Washington State but who seems to illustrate my point well, since it certainly applies beyond BC:

He dwelt for …a few years on the Grand Ronde Reservation in northwest Oregon…Mentally he lives in a closed Klikitat Indian world…Few Christian notions have really touched him, since his powers of English audition [understanding] are slight, and by chance his fluent command of Chinook jargon seems to have been no alternative means of getting experience with the white man’s mind.” (emphasis added)

Joe Hunt, in other words, dealt mainly with other Indians, whether he was speaking in a First Nations language or in Chinook Jargon.

Before I move on to my next point, let me repeat that I have been talking about BC’s pidgin Chinook Jargon, but in one place, the Grand Ronde Indian Reservation in Oregon, CJ became what we linguists call a creole. A creole is essentially a pidgin that comes to be the mother-tongue of an entire generation—a whole community speaks the pidgin from birth, using it for all purposes in their lives. (In fact creole speakers often don’t know any other language; contrast this with the fact that pidgins are always foreign, that is second, languages to their speakers!) In the Grand Ronde situation, we can make the point even more strongly that CJ was integrated into the lives of, and therefore ‘owned’ by, aboriginal people. The dividing line is quite sharp here: only those who considered each other Indians were creole CJ speakers; Whites, as Grand Ronde elders have recalled, could hardly make sense of the creole variety, even though they were accustomed to “talking [pidgin] Chinook” with Indians. Reinforcing the idea of ownership of the Jargon, just a few years ago, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde officially declared Chinook Jargon to be their tribal language, which they now teach to everyone from preschoolers to adults.

3.3 Raison d’être

Finally, a fact so fundamental that it is easy to overlook is this: that without the presence of the aboriginal people in the Northwest, there would not have been an opportunity for CJ to arise. Were it not for the indigenous people, communication in the region would have taken place among European and American nautical and trading personnel, greatly eased by the presence in most instances of some educated polyglots. Social conditions in the Pacific Northwest from the moment of intercultural contact onwards amounted to a situation where the newcomers must necessarily negotiate with the aboriginal people to obtain the necessities of survival, to find the way to a destination, and let us not forget, to obtain safe passage to it. English, French, and for that matter the ancestral languages of the Indians were all poor candidates for achieving the needed communication, as no clear majority of people already spoke any one of these or could easily learn any of them. The Jargon, easily (enough) learned by both whites and Indians, owes its existence to this region’s indigenous people, not only in this sense, but also with reference to its content and structure.

4 Conclusion

I emphasize that CJ was nobody’s tribal language (except later in its history, in only one community, outside of BC) and that it would be offensive to many if we mistook the Jargon, as many non-aboriginals have done, for a heritage idiom of that kind. Indeed, I argue that it is more profitable to view CJ in the light of literary theorist George Lang’s phrase, “Pidgins have cultures,” distinct from their predecessors—in this case, distinct from the ancient tribal cultures as well as from those of the white people. But crucially, CJ is an aboriginal pidgin of the Northwest whose debt to the region’s Native people must not be ignored, and it is the Native people who have maintained the most consistent right of ownership of CJ through usufruct.

If I may finish by turning your attention from the past to the future, I’ll share some facts summarized from the linguistic research done to date, as well as my own suggestions, in considering where Chinook Jargon could go in coming years:

  • Learning a second language gives a person an advantage in perceiving structural patterns and selectively focusing on pertinent information (tuning out useless information). By extension, the present-day experience of learning Chinook Jargon, which is a relatively manageable task and which is already demonstrably relevant to the BC aboriginal context, will make learning other languages (including BC First Nations languages) easier. (Bialystok 2001:134ff.)
  • Acquiring a second language such as CJ will also prime the student for using non-English sounds, concepts, and grammatical structures—which Chinook has abundantly in common with other BC indigenous languages. (op.cit.)
  • By learning Chinook Jargon you are connecting with the actual past of your own BC community, at least on the coast and in the interior areas where CJ was so widely used in the recent past. (This is my opinion.) In fact some BC communities treat the Jargon as a sort of link with their ancestors, who were in most cases quite a multilingual community. (D. Dinwoodie, p.c.) If you know for example that your ancestors spoke a number of languages you might want to pray in as many of those languages as you could, including CJ.
  • Indigenous language teachers in BC (and Washington), as well as linguists whose careers have focused on work with these communities, have more than once proposed teaching kids a ‘pidgin version’ of the aboriginal languages, because sometimes it appears as though the task of assimilating the full complexity of the old languages is beyond both teachers and students. Often the kind of language that kids in these programs actually generate is essentially a pidgin, so there have been initiatives to positively value these varieties as e.g. ‘the kind of [Kwak’wala, Quileute, etc.] that is spoken these days’. In situations like these, my above arguments in favour of teaching another piding, CJ, in the communities may be even stronger. (Goodfellow and Alfred ????; Anonby 1997; J. Powell, p.c.; Montler 1999???)
  • Additionally (my idea here), by learning the endangered language Chinook Jargon, a person is helping to preserve the unique linguistic diversity of our part of the world, as well as preparing oneself well to learn other, equally endangered aboriginal BC languages.
  • Finally, an idea for which I’m indebted to the students in my UVic CJ class: Chinook Jargon could play a role in land-claims cases. Many of the original negotiations between First Nations and Euro-Canadian governmental representatives, as well as subsequent court testimony, were conducted via CJ. It is a matter of real importance to be aware of just how fluently the First Nations (and the white people) were able to communicate in this language. It’s also important to know the structure of Chinook Jargon and follow the clues it can give us when we look at some of the old official documents which are preserved only in the English translation from a CJ original. This is a recent idea for me, so I’m still thinking through some of the ramifications.

I summarize my points by suggesting that it is the First Nations people of BC in particular who have been the caretakers of the Chinook Jargon language, and that they are possibly the people who stand most to benefit from its study, preservation and reintroduction.


Bialystok, Ellen. 2001. Bilingualism in development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Boas, Franz. 1888. Chinook songs. Journal of American Folk-Lore 1:220-226.

Clark, Ross. 2001. Nootka Jargon. Unpublished ms. in author’s possession.

Downey-Bartlett, Laura Belle. 1914. Chinook-English songs. Portland: Kubli-Miller.

Gibbs, George. 1863. A dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, or, trade language of Oregon. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.

Grant, Anthony. Forthcoming. Haida pidgin or pidgins. To appear in Pidgins: Their nature and significance. London: Battlebridge. (Westminster Creolistics Series.)

Harris, Barbara. 1985. Klahowiam Mr Smis: Context of culture as a factor in the interpretation of a Chinook Jargon text. Anthropological Linguistics 27(3): 303-317.

Hymes, Dell and Virginia Hymes. 1972. Chinook Jargon as ‘mother’s tongue’. International Journal of American Linguistics 3:207.

Jewitt, John. 1987. White slaves of the Nootka. Surrey: Heritage House.

Johnson, Samuel V. 1978. Chinook Jargon: A computer assisted analysis of variation in an American Indian pidgin. PhD thesis, University of Kansas.

Long, Frederick. 1909. Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon. Seattle: Lowman & Hanford.

Meares, John. 1933. The memorial of John Meares to the House of Commons respecting the capture of vessels in Nootka Sound. Portland: Metropolitan.

Moulton, Gary (ed). 1983-2001. The journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.

Moziño, José Mariano. 1970. Noticias de Nutka: An account of Nootka Sound in 1792. Seattle: University of Washington.

Phillips, W.S. 1913. The Chinook book: A descriptive analysis of the Chinook Jargon in plain words, giving instructions for pronunciation, construction, expression and proper speaking of Chinook with all the various shaded meanings of the words. Seattle: R.L. Davis Print Co.

Robertson, David. 2004. ‘Wawa’ graves, and whether to study them. Paper presented at American Society for Ethnohistory conference, Chicago, IL.

Shaw, George. 1909. The Chinook Jargon and how to use it: A complete and exhaustive lexicon of the oldest trade language of the American continent. Seattle: Rainier.

Thomason, Sarah Grey. 1983. Chinook Jargon in areal and historical perspective. Language 59(4):820-870.

Turkel, William. Forthcoming. Chinook Jargon was not a fur trade language in British Columbia. To appear as a chapter in Turkel’s book on Canadian history.

Vrzić, Zvjezdana. 1998. The sounds of Kamloops: The sound system of Chinook Jargon as represented in the transcription systems used by J.-M. R. Le Jeune, the publisher of Kamloops Wawa. Papers for the 33rd International Conference on Salish and Neighboring Languages, Seattle, WA.

Wright, Robin K. 2001. Northern Haida master carvers. Seattle: University of Washington.

Zenk, Henry B. 1984. Chinook Jargon and native cultural persistence in the Grand Ronde Indian community, 1856-1907: A special case of creolization. PhD dissertation, University of Oregon.

1 In a limited area it was a creole, i.e. a mother tongue: Zenk 1984, Hymes and Hymes 1972.
2 BC Studies 112 (Winter 1996-97): Editorial.
3 Cf. Hymes 1980, Jewitt 1987, Moulton 1983-2001.
4 Cf. Thomason 1983.
5 Cf. Boas 1888; oral history among Haida and Tlingit people of southeastern Alaska perpetuates this claim.
6 Turkel (forthcoming), for example.
7 Jewitt 1987, Moziño 1970, Meares 1933, Clark 2001.
8 Grant (forthcoming), Wright (2001).
9 Thomason 1983, Vrzić 1998; cf. Boas 1888 to the effect that whites’ pronunciations do not measure up to an Indian standard.
10 E.g. Gibbs 1863, Long 1909, Shaw 1909, Phillips 1913, among many others in a decades-long tradition of plagiarism and self-promotion that is well-documented in Johnson 1978.
11 In southern interior BC, as evidenced by letters reprinted in the newspaper Kamloops Wawa and those in the Archives Deschâtelets and the National Archives of Canada. For a letter from another region, see also Harris 1983.
12 In St’át’imc territory, cf. Robertson 2004.
13 Downey-Bartlett (1914).