1843: Belcher on “Chenooks”

belcher chenooks illustratino

Chinook baby, perhaps Chief Chenamus’s child (page 307)

Captain Sir Edward Belcher, a British naval commander, left us one of the less well-known memoirs of a late July to mid-September 1839 visit to the Fort Vancouver and Fort George (Astoria) area.

Belcher tells relatively little about of the linguistic situation in the area, but he does marvel at Indigenous people’s skills in that regard:

belcher chenooks language

page 308

As a nation, the first thing that struck us was their facility in picking up our words, even to short sentences, and repeating the whole tolerably correctly. Their pronunciation is also good, though the intonation of our respective languages is widely different.

This has direct relevance to the formation and use of the pidgin-creole Chinuk Wawa. Because folks in this highly multi-lingual region were excellent at picking up new words and phrases, learning to use a new contact language would be particularly easy for them.

A couple more interesting notes — James Douglas, chief factor at Fort Vancouver, sends Belcher’s ship a pilot and a translator (page 289).

belcher burial

A burial island / míməlust-ílihi (page 292)

They pass and observe traditional burial islands (page 292), a subject we’ve touched on in this site.

On pages 295-296, Belcher visits the “Canadian village” a quarter of a mile from Fort Vancouver proper, finding, “It is not a little strange in a community so long established, that the women should still be almost totally unacquainted with the language of their husbands”  — whom he refers to as “Canadian half-castes” (French-speaking Métis). I feel certain many of my fellow contact-linguists will see this as evidence that it’s kids who are the main agents of Chinuk Wawa creolization.

belcher uncaptioned image

pʰuchúch? An uncaptioned image in the Fort George / Fort Vancouver section (between pages 288 & 289)

All of the above is in “Narrative of a Voyage round the World: Vol. I” by Captain Sir Edward Belcher, R.N. (London: Henry Colburn, 1843).

What do you think?