Pâquet on Demers, and me on the recency of Chinuk Wawa

Also thanks to Prof. Peter Bakker: this book excerpt…


(Image credit: AbeBooks)

…from “Fragments de l’histoire religieuse et civile de la Paroisse de Saint-Nicolas” by Etienne Théodore Pâquet ([Saint-Nicolas-de-]Lévis, QC: Mercier, 1894). 

Here’s a passage describing Father, and later Monsignor, Modeste Demers’s late 1838 arrival in the Fort Vancouver and Cowlitz area, and his quick learning of Chinuk Wawa: 


M. Blanchet s’appliqua plus particulièrement au
soin des Canadiens,et M. Demers, qui avait reçu en
apanage le don des langues, s’occupa spécialement
des Sauvages. Mais pour parvenir au succès, il
lui fallait travailler d’abord à se rendre maître



de quelques-uns des dialectes de ces nombreuses
tribus. C’est ce qu’il fit en restant au fort Van-
couver, pendant que M. Blanchet s’éloignait. En
moins de trois mois, il put apprendre le
Tchinouks, jargon parlé ou compris par plusieurs
nations, entr’autres les Tchinouks eux-mêmes, les 
habitants des environs du fort Vancouver, ceux
des Cascades, les Tlikatats,etc, assez bien pour ex-
pliquer le cathéchisme et donner des instructions
sans être obligé d’écrire ce qu’il avait à leur dire.
Dans ce court espace de temps, il traduisit, pour
leurusage, plusieurs prières, en particulier le sym-
bole des Apôtres qu’il avait adapté à un air de
cantique et qu’ils chantaient pendant le Saint-Sa-
crifice. Il s’appliqua ensuite à l’étude de la lan-
gue des Tlikatats, qui pouvait servir à deux ou
trois autres tribus, mais qui, dans la pratique,
présentait une difficulté de prononciation telle que
souvent l’on ne trouvait pas de combinaisons de
caractères pour la représenter.

Avec le jargon Tchinouk, M. Demers pouvait
encore se faire comprendre des Kaous, des Nez-
percés, ou Wallawalla, des gens des Chutes, des
Dalles et des Cascades. En même temps, il pou-



vait se pénétrer un peu du langage de ces der-
niers, et apprendre par là-même à connaître quel-
ques mots des idiomes de ceux avec lesquels ils
étaient en contact. Quant aux autres, il fallait,
en attendant, se servir d’interprètes.

— pages 125-127

Translated into English: 


Mr. Blanchet applied himself more particularly to
care of the [French-]Canadians, and Mr. Demers, who had received in
prerogative of the gift of tongues, busied himself especially
with the Indians. But to achieve success, he
had to work first to make himself master



of some of the dialects of these many
tribes. This is what he did by staying at Fort Van-
couver, while Mr. Blanchet went away. In
less than three months, he was able to learn the
Chinook jargon spoken or understood by many
nations, among others the Tchinouks themselves, the
inhabitants of the vicinity of Fort Vancouver, those
of the Cascades [Dalles area], Klickitats, etc., well enough to ex-
plain the catechism and give instructions
without having to write down what he had to tell them.
In this short space of time, he translated, for
their use, several prayers, in particular the sign
of the Apostles [the Credo] that he had adapted to a hymn 
tune and that they sang during the Holy
Sacrifice. He then applied himself to the study of the
language of the Klickitats, which could serve two or
three other tribes, but which, in practice,
had a pronunciation difficulty such that 
often one did not find combinations of
characters to represent it.

Using Chinook jargon, Mr. Demers could
still make oneself understood by Kaous [Cowlitz?], Nez 
Perce, or Walla Walla, people of Deschutes,
Dalles and Cascades. At the same time, he was



able to penetrate a little of the language of the latter,
and thereby learn to know several 
words of the idioms of those with whom they
were in contact. As for the rest, it was necessary,
in the meantime, to use interpreters.

What this last bit is claiming is that Demers could understand a bit of the Chinookan languages, if not of other tribal speech.

I doubt that it means he could speak Chinookan, a notoriously difficult language family. (Chinookan and Athabaskan/Dene are perhaps the languages that the fewest people have ever learned without growing up with them.) 

But it’s sensible if we take it as his recognizing numerous Chinookan words, which formed a big chunk of Chinuk Wawa’s vocabulary.

Likely it also tells us that the Chinookan speakers themselves consciously simplified their mother tongue when speaking with newcomers; by the time of Demers’s arrival, they had been learning to do so for 40 years, at a conservative estimate. 

And that custom of foreigner-talk must have been well entrenched.

It seems to me that Southwest Washington Salish people, too, probably simplified their speech a bit when dealing with outsiders, originally due not just to the presence of Euro-Americans, but also to a lengthy history of close interaction with Chinookans. 

However, I’m not claiming that any of this is evidence for a so-called “pre-contact” existence of Chinuk Wawa.

The conditions for the emergence of a pidgin-creole language, insofar as we linguists have figured out what those are, aren’t known to have been in place prior to CW’s earliest known occurrence circa 1800. 

Those conditions boil down to a sudden, sustained, intensely important contact between ethno-linguistic groups who had hitherto had no interaction going on that would’ve met all 3 criteria. 

In “pre-contact” times, i.e. for let’s say 98 to 99% of their known history, Indigenous folks in this part of the Pacific Northwest presumably maintained their pattern of strengthening relationships with neighboring groups by intermarriage.

Developing a tool like a “trade language” is beside the point in those circumstances, since you normally have some kinfolk who can interpret for you. 

Some folks not fluent enough to be relied on as interpreters would nonetheless be hearing and recognizing various words, sometimes simplified, in the languages of those outside their village.

There’s lots of evidence for this, in the form of varied repertoires of loan words in essentially all PNW languages. 

Summing up, I infer that ancient communication patterns got enlisted and amplified once Euro-Americans showed up out here. 

What do you think?