Voyageur French things that made me think of Chinuk Wawa, and think again

james robert anderson

James Robert Anderson (image source: Find A Grave)

James Robert Anderson (1841-1930; son of Chinuk Wawa speaker and HBC official Alexander Caulfield Anderson) told of leaving Fort Alexandria, BC, as a kid in 1848, mentioning the kind of French he grew up speaking with HBC employees…

…And a good deal of it reminds me of the French that’s in Chinook Jargon (as well as what I’ve analyzed as a separate pidgin in central British Columbia, “French of the Mountains”) :

“What James had written of Tout Laid [a Dakelh (Carrier) man who babysat the Anderson kids] is this:

“…My own horse was named Petit Cendre [probably Petit Cendré, ‘Little Ashen’], being a Strawberry roan; an Indian who frequented the post a good deal, on account of his rotund form, was dubbed Gros Ventre [‘Big Belly’], another on account of his physiognomy was called Tout Laid [“All Ugly”]; many other nicknames which I have forgotten were applied to the various persons and animals attached to the Fort [by the Canadiens and Metis].”

Applying unflattering nicknames to everyone and everything thing, was an important part of the Canadien and Metis culture. James’s story continues:

“Now Tout Laid, in his imperfect French jargon, would every now and then, when he thought occasion demanded it, caution Henry in the following terms, “Tiens bien toujours mon Harry,” [‘Always hold on, my Harry’] pronounced in his patois, “Cha ban toujours mon Hallie,” and Harry, always short of temper, would turn upon Tout Laid and say, “Tais toi donc Tout Laid.” [Oh shut up, Tout Laid]

— from ; also at

(I don’t yet know the exact source of this quotation; is the document in the Royal BC Museum?)

One reason the words of Tout Laid seem like French of the Mountains, a Métis French-based lingua franca, is that he is said to be Dakelh. That is, as far as we know, he didn’t grow up natively speaking Métis French. So, like other FOTM users we know of, he would’ve picked up his “imperfect French jargon” as an adult. That’s a typical condition of pidginization…

But my main focus when I read the above is on how similar it sounds to Chinuk Wawa’s selection and pronunciation of Métis French words.

  • Cendré is one of the adjective-used-as-noun bits (no pun intended) of horse terminology that wound up in Chinook Jargon, as sandəli ‘roan (color)’. 
  • Cha for tiens shows the same de-nasalization of vowels that’s normal in CJ words from French. I’ve long imagined that trait is due to lower Columbia River indigenous language influence, but I’m starting to wonder if it was also in Métis French to some degree. 
  • Cha also shows a “T” sound palatalizing to a “CH” sound, a trait we find in CJ French words. 
  • Ban as a simplification of bien calls to mind two words in Grand Ronde CJ:
    • əbə ‘or’, which traces to Canadian French ou bien ‘or indeed; or for that matter’. (The 2012 GR dictionary specifies this word as conveying choices “in the sense of ‘either…or…’ “)
    • aba ‘well then’, which comes from Canadian French eh bien ‘ah well’.
  • Hallie for Harry is interesting as well, with its substituting an “L” sound for an “R”. This too shows up in CJ French words; see sandəli above, as well as words such as limulo ‘wild’.
    • By the way, for limulo, compare Mississippi Valley French le marron‘[gone] wild’. This is a minor correction to the 2012 Grand Ronde dictionary of Chinuk Wawa, which cites only part of George Gibbs’ etymology < le moron > — evidently his spelling of a word he heard from illiterate French-Canadians, but one that modern dictionaries will tell you means ‘the moron’! Gibbs actually goes on:

“…undoubtedly a corruption of Marron, a runaway negro. It applies to men as well as animals, as, for instance, to the tribes which have had no intercourse with the settlements. [Reverend Myron] Eells says it is becoming obsolete, as the word wild is taking its place [in Chinuk Wawa].”

    • As with the denasalization seen in cha, I’m now pondering whether the L-for-R substitution is older than CJ instead of simply due to PNW native people’s pronunciations.

Anderson the younger’s short comments above, taken in historical context, are enough to make me seriously rethink some established analyses of Chinook Jargon features.

What’s called for is a systematic compilation of the many, but scattered, documented scraps of Canadian French in the historical Pacific Northwest. Then we can draw some interesting generalizations…

What do you think?
qʰáta máyka tə́mtəm?