Creolization of Chinuk Wawa at Qualicum, BC?

qualicum beach

Qualicum Beach, BC (image credit:

“The only language at Qualicum is Chinook” — Is this a form of creolization?

I suspect it’s a form of exaggeration.

Qualicum is traditionally a Salish-speaking village.

In a governmental report, one paragraph claims the Qualicum First Nation “only” speaks Chinuk Wawa:


At Qualicum, the old chief Mahoy died during the year. At this reserve there are only two families, Mahoy’s and Qualicum Tom’s. Their children are all grown up and married. They are all good workers, and, living on such a dangerous coast, are expert boatmen. A curious teature of the village is that their only language is Chinook; no other language is spoken. The reason is that formerly this village stood between two nations constantly at war, and suffered from both. On one occasion all the children and women were carried away and raised in the Tsimpsian [Tsimshian] country, and years afterwards old Mahoy either bought back or arranged for the return of the survivors. When they did return they could speak only Chinook or Tsimpsian. The latter Mahoy’s family did not understand, so the result is that Chinook became the means of intercourse ever since.

— from Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs: For…1898, page 214 (Ottawa, ON: S.E. Dawson)

But it turns out that another paragraph makes things a bit clearer:

qualicum 2

One peculiarity about this band is that all speak the Chinook jargon. Some of the old people are acquainted with the Cowichan language, and others with the Puntledge, between which tribes their village formed a sort of debateable ground. Some of the present members were raised as slaves by the Tsimpseeans and afterwards claimed by Chief Mahoy; thus the band having no general language, the Chinook has been adopted and the children speak no other.

— page 106

Now that information is helpful. The “Puntledge” or Pentlatch Salish language, spoken in the area of Denman and Hornby Islands and the facing areas of Vancouver Island, was already close to extinction by 1888, due to the kinds of factors this paragraph invokes, not to mention new diseases due to a high level of contact with Whites. You understand, this is essentially the North Nanaimo area, and in frontier times, Whites were quite interested in extracting coal for fuel from the area.

The “Cowichan” language (also called Hulq’umi’num’, Island Halkomelem, etc.) was also spoken in the vicinity. Quite close by, within a day’s canoe paddling, were also speakers of Comox (Ay’ajuthem) and Sechelt, two other Salish languages. Just slightly more effort got you to Kwak’wala and Nuuchahnulth speech territories, these being two of the unrelated Wakashan languages with whom Qualicum would’ve had some interaction.

(On that point, I’m curious whether Chief Mahoy has any connection with his now well-known contemporary of mixed Aboriginal-Hawaiian heritage, “Maria Mahoi of the Islands“. Perhaps not, since his name is said to mean “basket” in Salish, while her surname is said to be Kanaka.)

All in all, this was a locality of really intense contact between cultures and languages. The Pentlatch language’s story has typically been told in terms of the tribe shifting over to one neighbouring tribe’s language, and in fact combining into a single political unit with them. News of Chinuk Wawa’s ubiquity among the Pentlatches brings fresh nuance to our understanding of that history.

Any Qualicum people taken into slavery up north among the linguistically-unrelated Tsimshians would have benefited while there from the well-documented currency of Chinook Jargon in that place and time. CJ was a language that some of them would’ve already heard on Vancouver Island. Since their relatives back home in Qualicum were already speaking an assortment of languages, Chinuk Wawa would’ve remained useful for the returning ex-slaves in talking with a variety of kinfolks. I see no reason to doubt that a generation of kids might indeed have grown up speaking Jargon.

The crucial question is whether Chinook Jargon really replaced the local languages. Did it become, in other words, a home language uniformly passed on to a whole succeeding generation in Qualicum village? That would absolutely be news to linguistic scholars of the region, amounting to another creolization of this pidgin language besides what’s known about circa-1830 Fort Vancouver (WA) and circa-1860 Grand Ronde (OR).

In the absence of positive evidence, I’m inclined to place the most weight on the second paragraph cited. It would seem Chinuk Wawa was known unusually widely in Qualicum, putting it in stark contrast with typical Northwest communities. In the majority of places, it was mostly those segments of the population that routinely dealt with outsiders (thus men more than women; adults more than kids) that knew the Jargon.

I feel fairly confident that had Jargon replaced the local languages, we would’ve heard more about that. It’s actually quite hard to find overt comment on the status of Chinook Jargon in Qualicum, in the historical record and the linguistics literature. As it is, the language that most successfully moved in on Aboriginal speech was of course English, which continues dominating local speech to this day.

What we do have here is news of an unusual hotbed of Jargon knowledge, and an illuminating example of how close you can get to creolizing a pidgin language without actually having that result!

What do you think?