More evidence of Chinuk Wawa as early as Lewis & Clark?


Ecola Creek (image credit: Trip Advisor)

Sometimes you revisit something you’ve read many times, and see it in a fresh way.

Many researchers have read this particular source, but I want to highlight one paragraph and re-discuss it:

Gibbs Chinook language Lewis Clark Ekuli

— from George Gibbs, “Alphabetical Vocabulary of the Chinook Language” (1863: Cramoisy Press, New York), page [20]

This refers to a place on the northwestern Oregon coast. The word is Lower Chinookan for ‘whale’, so it makes total sense for the location to be called that, right?

Nope. The above paragraph appears in a list of place names — and the thing is, this one isn’t formed like a normal toponym in the local area.

Those closest in location to it are noticeably Tillamook Salish, with common formal elements that you can easily spot in “Neahkahnie”, “Neahcoxie”, “Netarts“, and so on. There’s a Salish location prefix in those.

Those a little further afield, towards and on the Columbia River, have their own patterns. You have to distinguish the Lower Chehalis Salish ones that Gibbs lists — these typically start in “No-” or “Nos-” — from the Chinookan ones. This is the Lo Cheh version of the Salish location prefix.

The Chinookan toponyms tend to begin with “Ni-“, “Nai-” (that language’s location prefix), or “Wa-” or “Ka-“…but I’m not noticing any at all starting with the “E-” sound of the Chinookan male noun prefix.

So “Ekuli” / “Ecola” is looking unlike an actual Chinookan place name, in that way.

And if  this (originally) Chinookan word isn’t a Chinookan place name, what it is it?

Well now, the strongest argument then seems to my mind to be: it’s one of the absolutely earliest Chinuk Wawa words recorded by history, having a date of 1805-1806.

Looks to me like a nonnative function for the word, outside Chinookan territory (it’s in Tillamook Salish land), used in communicating with the Johnny-Come-Lately American explorers. Gibbs himself comments that he’s not sure it’s a local Native name for the place.

This sounds mighty pidgin to me. Chinuk Wawa, to be specific.

There has been a recurring discussion among scholars through the last two centuries: did Lewis and Clark encounter and use Chinook Jargon? What survives of their group’s journals preserves scant direct evidence, a few words and certainly a suggestive phrase ~ tayi kamusak ‘chief beads; high-quality/valuable beads’.

For me, on balance it’s consistent with the idea that the Jargon already existed, albeit in an early form that underwent many changes in the next quarter-century. Lewis & Clark’s expedition is in fact the earliest explicit evidence of Chinuk Wawa in the historical record.

I think with today’s fresh look at “Ecola“, we identify one additional likely word of very early Jargon.

qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm?
What do you think?