What’s known & unknown about “Nootka Jargon”?


“Nootka Sound” at the time of first contact with the Drifters (image credit: Times-Colonist)

“Nootka Jargon” is the only widely recognized name for the Nuučaan’uł pidgin, in the linguistic and historical literature.

NJ is known, in virtually as demonstrable a way as exists in linguistics, to have been an early input to the Chinuk Wawa that was taking form around 1800 AD.

Starting from the earliest recognition by linguists (CITES>…) that there’s a NCN component in “Chinook”, the extent of that language’s known influence in the latter pidgin-creole has been limited: only vocabulary contributions have been noted in the published literature.

That limitation has been even more severe, in fact, than I’ve made it sound. Because it’s only single, isolated lexical items (roots, from the CW and perhaps NJ point of reference; fully inflected words in the original NCN) that have been recognized as deriving from the Southern Wakashan languages commonly called Nootka.

I, of course, have further questions 🙂

Here are a few, presented in order to give you an idea of this area of my research work:

Is there general agreement on which early Nuučaan’uł-lexicon documents are pidginized vs. which are straight native-speaker NCN?

A related question: from internal linguistic evidence (as opposed to historical narrative about the intercultural maritime fur trade around Vanouver Island), do we have any understanding of how, and which categories of, inflected NCN words came to be selected for NJ use?

To make this query more clear with reference to other source-languages of CW:

  • The latter’s Canadian/Métis French component can be convincingly shown to involve verbs that are usually in the Imperative mood (from the French standpoint), and nouns in the Definite form that denote items of household material culture (exclamations and discourse markers, and nouns for utensils, horsemanship, and body parts more often referred to by intimate kin are prominent).
  • CW’s Southwest Washington (“Tsamosan”) Salish stratum is typified by 3rd Person Subject verbs in the Indicative mood, suggestive of situations in which non-Indigenous newcomers used a pointing and asking strategy. Many Indigenous metaphors and syntactic constructions appear more plausibly due to Salish than to other influences. All of this would be consistent with the traditionally bilingual “Chinook” people’s established habit of relying on Salish for interactions with outsiders.
  • The CW vocabulary that does trace to Chinookan features a number of body-part nouns in 3rd Person Masculine possessor inflection, also bringing to mind a pointing and asking setting.
  • The English portion of Chinuk Wawa has a core group of lexemes best attributed to nautical usage, among these ‘haul’, ‘sail’, ‘…’.

And, in terms of broadening our knowledge of NJ as a language rather than a mere source of a list of words, what is known or reconstructible about its morphological operations (if any — pidgins are stereotyped as lacking such), syntax, idiomatic expressions, usage in discourse? 

I’ve written on this site from time to time, pointing out possible additions to our understanding of NJ. For example, that it may have contained compound words (verbs for instance), details of its probable grammar, and so forth.

You can expect more about this topic to emerge with passing time and investigation.

What do you think?