A Yukon pidgin: Slavey Jargon

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From between pages 202 and 203 of Petitot’s “Quinze ans…”

We’re forced to rely on a strange character for nearly all we know of an 1800s Far North pidgin (some think it may have been 2 pidgins) called “Slavey Jargon / Jargon Loucheux / Broken Slavey / Yukon Jargon” etc.

The Catholic missionary Emile-Fortuné-Stanislas-Joseph Petitot (1838-1916) was a gifted but odd person, erratic — at times clearly mentally ill and a danger to others — as well as a best-selling author back home in France.

Petitot had at least one connection with Chinook Jargon (probably more); for instance, he dedicated his “Dictionnaire de la langue Dènè-Dindjié” to Alphonse Pinart, whom we know via Rena V. Grant’s 1946 study as the compiler of a manuscript vocabulary of C.J.

P’s writings are the main source of information on a little-known pidgin or pidgins of Canada’s Mackenzie River (North West Territories) and Yukon River (Yukon Territory), a mixture of Cree, Dene language(s), French, and English. You’ll get a rough idea of the language from what follows.

Foe example, a 2-volume travelogue of his begins with book 1, Quinze ans sous le cercle polaire [Fifteen Years under the Arctic Circle](Paris: E. Dentu, 1889). Here are some informative selections…

Page 283:

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Une fois, dans l’après-midi, après avoir longtemps essayé de m’agacer et de me faire sortir de mes gonds par des insultes, voyant que je ne comprenais absolument rien à la raison qui le faisait agir, Méphistophélès se leva tout à coup et se mit à crier en jargon du Youkon:

« — Allons, nos gens, dji dindjié jette à l’eau, après çà tikké anl’a nipaa walili. Esdiniyé djan apiy, esdiniyé djan nènè kkè bépaenda. Allons, à cette heure (1) ….»

(1) _ « Allons, nos gens., jetez cet homme à l’eau, puis vous l’y tuerez à coups de fusils. Il est inutile ici, il est inutile qu’il visite le pays. Allons maintenant!

Once, in the afternoon, after having tried for a long time to annoy me and get me out of my hinges by insults, seeing that I did not understand anything about the reason that made him act, Mephistopheles rose to his feet suddenly and began to shout in Yukon jargon:

“Allons, nos gens, dji dindjié jette à l’eau, après çà tikké anl’a nipaa walili. Esdiniyé djan apiy, esdiniyé djan nènè kkè bépaenda. Allons, à cette heure (1)….”

(1) “Come, our people, throw this man into the water, and then you will kill him there.” It is useless here, it is useless for him to visit the country. Let’s go now!”

Page 285:

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Seuls, un jeune Écossais et un homme van-ta-kuttchin, du même âge, veillaient à la direction de la barque. J’entendis leur conversation. L’Ecossais disait en jargon au Loucheux:

« — Si ces gens font ce qu’ils se proposent, ce sera le troisième qu’ils auront expédié, à Youkon. Il est bien terrible d’être aussi mauvais que ces gens-ci. Ce pauvre prêtre, j’ai pitié de lui et je désapprouve fort le traitement qu’ils veulent lui faire subir. Toi, qu’en penses-tu?

« — Je ne sais qu’en penser, répliqua l’Indien. Je doute qu’ils lui fassent du mal; car il est, paraît-il, porteur d’un écrit du gouverneur. Sans cela ils l’auraient expédié. »

Tout cela était bien incompréhensible pour moi.

L’instant d’après, le jeune Dindjié s’approcha de moi pendant que je récitais mes heures et me dit, en désignant mon bréviaire:

« — Est-ce cela, l’écrit du gouverneur dont tu es porteur?

« — Non mon ami, lui répondis-je, ceci est le livre du bon Dieu, qui est bien plus fort et plus puissant que tous les gouverneurs du monde.»

Only a young Scotsman and a Van-ta-Kuttchin [Vuntut Gwich’in] man, of the same age, watched over the direction of the boat. I heard their conversation. The Scotsman said in jargon to the Loucheux [Dene man] [translated here]:

“If these people do what they propose, it will be the third they send to Yukon. It is very terrible to be as bad as these people. This poor priest, I have pity on him, and I very much disapprove of the treatment they want him to undergo. What do you think?

“I do not know what to think of it,” replied the Indian. I doubt they will hurt him; for he is, it seems, the bearer of a writ of the governor. Otherwise they would have shipped it. ”

All this was quite incomprehensible to me.

The next moment, the young Dindjie [Indian] approached me while I recited my hours and said to me, pointing to my breviary:

“Is this the writing of the governor you are carrying?

“No, my friend,” I replied, “this is the book of God, who is much stronger and more powerful than all the governors of the world.”

Page 289 (the ‘little old man’ is 32-year-old Petitot):

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« — La barge est trop chargée, God dam! s’écriat-il en tirant sur son impériale comme pour l’arracher. Esdiniyé djan dindjié chlan (1). A l’eau le cafard, l’espion, le Yankee, qui est venu ici de contrebande par le chemin de traverse. Voilà deux nuits que je garde cet homme pour empêcher qu’on le jette à l’eau. A cette heure c’est fini. Tout à l’heure il sera chez le diable. Hourra! boys! lui et ses deux chiens, marche dehors! Ah! il prie, le petit vieux (2), il a peur. Oui, prie fort, car c’est la dernière heure de ta vie. »

(1) Il est inutile qu’il y ait tant de monde ici (jargon).

“The barge is overloaded, God dam! he exclaimed, pulling at his Imperial [overcoat?] as if to tear it away. Esdiniye djan dindjie chlan (1). Into the water the cockroach, the spy, the Yankee, who came here smuggled by the side road. I’ve been keeping this man for two nights to prevent him from being thrown into the water. At this time it’s over. Just now he will be at the devil’s house. Hurray! boys! he and his two dogs, walk outside! Ah! he prays, the little old man (2), he is afraid. Yes, pray hard, because it’s the last hour of your life.”

(1) It is useless to have so many people here (jargon).


sahtu region

Sahut Region (image credit: World Wilflife Fund)

The second volume, “Exploration de la région du Grand Lac des Ours” [Exploration of the Great Bear Lake (Sahtú) Region] by Petitot (Paris: Téqui, 1893) contains at least a couple more mentions of Dene Jargon…

Page 53:

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Le Savanois protestant John Hope, dont j’ai déjà parlé dans mon second volume (1), était l’interprète du fort, mais seulement pour la forme et les émohiments; car il ne savait pas un mot de la langue dènè, ne parlait que le jargon esclave, et avait pour patron un homme qui comprenait parfaitement ses clients sauvages.

The Protestant Savanois John Hope, of whom I have already spoken in my second volume (1), was the interpreter of the fort, but only for form and emotion; for he did not know a word of the Dene language, spoke only Slavey jargon, and had for his boss a man who understood perfectly his Indian clients.

Page 331:

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chawa drafwen 02

Choisi par M. Gaudet, commis du fort Good-Hope, pour son homme de confiance, son chef de langue au milieu de tous ces chawa (1), de ces drafwén(2) moi, l’ancien compagnon de Richardson et de Raë, je devais affirmer ma supériorité. 

(1) Sauvages, en jargon esclave.

(2) Drap fin; terme de mépris des Canadiens pour désigner les Peaux-Rouges dènè; parce qu’ils ne veulent que des étoffes superflues et de première qualité, du drap fin.

Chosen by M. Gaudet, clerk of Fort Good Hope, for his man of confidence, his chief of language in the midst of all these chawa (1), these drafwen, (2) me, the former companion of Richardson and Raë, I had to assert my superiority.

(1) Indians, in Slavey jargon.

(2) Fine sheet; a term of contempt for Canadians to describe the Dènè Redskins; because they want only superfluous and premium fabrics, thin sheets.
[DDR note: I imagine this word should be considered Slavey Jargon, as it may reflect Dene pronunciation habits (Bearlake Slavey has a < wh > sound, I read in K. Rice’s grammar, and it probably shows up in NWT Premier Stephen Kakfwi‘s surname), and not first-language Canadian French speakers’ draps fins [drɑ fɛ͂].]


Also, a brief passing mention, seemingly of the Dene Jargon, occurs at the start of Petitot’s “Vocabulaire français-esquimau” [Eskimo-French Vocabulary] (Paris: Lerou, 1876, page i).

jargon asdf

Quelques mots d’un jargon informe, qui a cours entre les Esquimaux et les Indiens les plus septentrionaux, furent la première clef qui m’ouvrit le sanctuaire fermé d’une langue qui m’était inconnue, et qui, aujourd’hui encore, n’a point d’interpréte dans le Mackenzie, parce qu’il ne s’y trouve pas de métis de provenance esquimaude.

A few words of shapeless jargon, between the Eskimos and the most northerly Indians, were the first key to open to me the closed sanctuary of a language unknown to me, and which still today There is no interpreter in the Mackenzie because there are no half-breeds of Eskimo origin.


All of which I guess can be added to what appears in Peter Bakker’s 1996 paper, “Broken Slavey and Jargon Loucheux: A first exploration”.

Which is just what Bakker predicted; he felt pretty sure that more information on this language would keep turning up.

And I think still more will…

What have you learned?