English-influenced Chinuk Wawa is not “acrolectal”


Basilisk (image credit: Wikipedia)

People whose Chinuk Wawa is fit onto English-language sentence frames, or drop lots of English into their Chinuk Wawa, shouldn’t be mistaken for “acrolectal” speakers. Let me demystify…

(Periodic reminder: “CW/Chinuk Wawa” and “CJ/Chinook Jargon” are synonyms. I try to use both, because people like both of them.)

There’s this concept of “acrolect” among us researchers of pidgin-creole languages.

Acro” being a Greek root for “high up”. (Now imagine what “acrobat” literally means.)

Lect” being another Greek root, referring to “speaking”. (It makes “dialect” related to “dialog”.)

Linguists often claim that certain things going on in a creole (or pidgin), if they diverge from the most common ways of speaking that language, are approximations to a “higher language” — “acrolects”.

By that, they typically mean that the creole language is being influenced by continuing contacts with a language that historically provided much of the material to create the creole. (A “lexifier“.)

Acrolects are often assumed to be “prestigious” or “standard”.

This all  has to do with the idea of a “creole continuum”, where you have a range of ways of talking the creole, from “basilect” which is the most divergent from the lexifier, through “mesolects“, and up to “acrolects” that may gradually shade into actually speaking the lexifier.

The key notion being that these “lects” function as a continuous span of ways of talking the lexifier. So if you’re looking at an English creole, like Gullah of the southeast USA or Hawaiian “Pidgin”, the lect view means you’re thinking of a spectrum of Englishes.

Since we know English to have been among the 4 major elements in the formative days of Chinook Jargon, one lexifier of Jargon is in fact English.

— Albeit informal English. As should be said of the other contributor languages to CJ, it was regular working people’s colloquial, on-the-street speech that went into this pidgin-creole. Which makes the concept of Jargon “acrolects” kind of amusing!

Now, folks, we do know that CJ has stayed in contact with English throughout its history. Does that mean that say Grand Ronde’s creole Chinuk Wawa is a “basilect” of English?

Heavens no!

Not even the most contact-language-phobic misinterpretation of early Generativist orthodoxy can…

OK, stop me there.


What I’m wanting to say is this:

No one believes that Chinuk Wawa is or was a variety of English, even though:

  • CW has plenty of English words, and it acquired plenty more with the passage of time.
  • CW grammar contains elements that I analyze as equally influenced by English as by any other languages.
  • CW in some regions seems to have gradually merged with Native people’s pidgin English, and bridged into their eventually using standard English.

All of the above are facts, but they don’t mean the Jargon ever was English.

That’s why the idea of heavily English-influenced Chinook Jargon (which I keep labeling as “fictional CJ” on this website) being dignified by an “acrolect” label, is inappropriate.

  • Whenever we see such Anglicized CJ, it’s coming from native speakers of English, i.e. users of pidgin CJ (pidgins, by definition, are learned as a second language).
  • Tellingly, they’re writing it; they’re not using the pidgin in its natural form, spoken in person.
  • The “setting” for this kind of English-ed Jargon is routinely outside the environmental conditions native to CJ, in that:
    • It’s almost always among White folks only, rather than to folks who aren’t guaranteed to share a mother-tongue with you.
    • And generally it’s written after the era when Jargon knowledge would’ve been necessary for these writers and their audiences.
    • It often comes to us from places far from the Pacific Northwest.
  • Not to mention that a whole lot of fictional-CJ writers have demonstrably not bothered learning the grammar of the Jargon! If I talk terrible French to my waiter, is he supposed to take it as French — or pitiful?

Roughly 95% of my readers will never have troubled themselves with this whole idea of “acrolects” in the first place. Which makes you smarter than a creolist, right there 🙂

But I needed to put this on record, because some of my colleagues (hi guys!) will have enmeshed their minds with such concepts. I think it’s safe to say that in the history of any speech-form that we can identify as Chinuk Wawa, there never were acrolects, basilects, and the like —

— at least no such targets that were external to this language. Within CW, there certainly have been varieties universally acknowledged as “better”, “straighter”, “more fluent Jargon”. Were those acrolects? OK, I guess.

And varieties that were perceived as “worse”. Funnily enough, those came from the same mouths that tended to deride the Jargon as a nonsensical mishmash. Hmm. Basilect? It sounds frightening enough to me, yup.