1856: Grand Ronde-style Chinuk Wawa makes friends in Australia


(image credit: today’s article)

Oregon immigrant of 1849, steamboat captain Daniel O’Neill (1826-????), tells of his later adventures in Australia where Grand Ronde-style Chinook Jargon came in handy.


You can find a number of historical connections between the Australian gold rushes of 1851 onwards and both CJ and its speakers. This may be a further illustration of my “Robertson’s Law” 😉 that pidgin (and creole) languages tend to occur together, not in isolation. In the case of Australia, I have in mind the widespread Pidgin English used between Aboriginals, Chinese, and Euro-American newcomers, which went on to form a nucleus of Pacific pidgin Englishes elsewhere such as in New Guinea, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands.

Fittingly, O’Neill was engaged in a stove-selling venture at (The) Ovens (albeit named for a Major John Ovens) in Victoria state, Australia in 1856, when the following events took place. Here he is setting the scene:

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“In the fifties I left Oregon and went to Australia, and in 1856 an American friend, by the name of Osborne, induced me to join him in a little venture in stoves and tinware at a place called the ‘Ovens, about two hundred miles from Melbourne.

…and a few sentences later, he launches into a pair of Jargon anecdotes from Down Under. I’ll toss in a couple of observations afterward…

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On one particular evening, however, I was suffering somewhat from a lame knee, and amused myself by sitting in one corner with my disabled limb resting on an extra stool. Upon the starting up of the music the dancers soon appeared, and the seats were all occupied. One rough-loooking red-shirted chap, pretty well filled with “tangle foot’ came over to where I was sitting and took hold of the stool that J was using as a rest for my knee. I said. “You can’t have that, my friend, I am using it.” He straightened up a moment, looked sharply at me and replied: “Well, I’m a beter man than you are,” He was told that there was no doubt of that. He continued: “I’m a smarter man, better educated, can speak more languages than you can, opening out with “Parlez vous Francais?” [sic] “No,” I said, “I don’t parlez vous” He came back with, “Sprechen sie Deutsche?” [sic] I sook my head, when he followed with, “Hablar usted Espanol?” [sic] Of this I was also ignorant, and he seemed quite disgusted over my lack of lingual abilities, the audience around were amused as well. He stood there hesitating as if in doubt about what he would try me with next, I concluded to try him with a language, not common in that part of the world, and said to him, “Nika cumtux Chinook?[sic] whereupon he gave a startled look for a moment and then burst out with, “Now-witka six, nika cumtux Chinook, nika hyas close wawa,” and more, and all rattled off lively. I said to him “Sit down old fellow, and we will have a talk.” Upon his doing so inquiry was made as to where and how he learned Chinook, and he informed me that he lived in Oregon in the early forties and there learned it. He was employed a portion of the time while here on the Hudson’s Bay Company’s dairy farm located on Wapato (Sauvie’s[)] Island. I acknowledged that he was a smarter man and knew more languages than I did. We afterwards were good friends.

“At another time, while going from the Oven’s to Beechworth, on passing a coach going in an opposite direction, I called out ‘kli-hium-six’ to a friend therein, when a fine soldierly looking man sitting behind me said, ‘You seem to have a knowledge of the Indian jargon or Chinook?’ Upon my telling him that I lived in Oregon, he informed me that he had also lived here. That for several years he had been an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Vancouver, and was there while Peter Skeen [Peter Skene Ogden, 1790-1854] was the chief factor. From these circumstances, I came to the conclusion that it was difficult for me to get very far away from home.

— all from Dan. [sic] O’Neill, “In a Reminiscent Vein”, in The Oregon Native Son and Historical Magazine 1:9 (February 1900), page 474

Notes —

  • Nika cumtux Chinook?[sic] contains a very frequent misspelling of < mika > ‘you (singular)’:máyka kə́mtəks chinúk?
    you understand Chinook
    ‘Do you understand Chinook?’


  • Now-witka six, nika cumtux Chinook, nika hyas close wawa” is indeed remarkably fluent Jargon, with its early-creolized ‘very’ prefix and ‘zero’ third-person inanimate object:nawítka s(h)íks(h), náyka kə́mtəks chinúk, náyka hayas-łúsh wáwa Ø
    indeed friend, I understand Chinook, I very-well speak it
    ‘Yes friend, I understand Chinook, (and) I speak it excellently (too).’


  • kli-hium-six’ is the typical greeting, the first word being presented specifically in its early-creolized/Grand Ronde pronunciation:łax̣áyam s(h)íks(h)
    hello friend
    ‘Hello, friend.’

Notably in today’s connection, Daniel O’Neill’s brother James, immigrant of 1853, was a paid Indian interpreter at Lapwai in Nez Perce territory (Idaho) in 1863, the timing and location of which strongly suggest that he too spoke Chinuk Wawa.

What have you learned?