A.N. Armstrong’s 1857 lexicon

One of the earliest published vocabularies of Chinuk Wawa is a frustrating mess…

A.N. Armstrong’s book “Oregon: Comprising a Brief History and Full Description of the Territories of Oregon and Washington…” (Chicago, IL: Chas. Scott & Co.) relates his observations of times just before Oregon statehood.

We know relatively little about the author; I’ve found two newspaper articles from 60 years later reporting Oregonian Settlers’s memories of serving in the 1855-56 Indian Wars with him. Page [iii] of this book has a letter signed “Maj. A.N. Armstrong” of Oquawka, Illinois.

From his early presence in the region, and his militia service here, we can infer that he had some familiarity with “Chinook Jargon”.

But from this book, it would appear he didn’t know a whole ton of it — or didn’t care much for it. The vocabulary that he presents on pages 145-146 is skimpy.

Worse yet, it’s badly typeset by Easterners (Illinoisians) who I reckon could make neither head nor tail of this section of his manuscript; they even messed up some of his English translations of these words.

We can still make out most of what he had in mind: < clook-e-man > is still recognizable as what must have been a handwritten < clooch-e-man > ‘woman’. < Ek-ice-man > ‘money’ was probably written as < Chic-e-man > or < chick-man >.

But < rat-lak-tik > for ‘brother’ is a puzzler! We’re accustomed to shapes like áw or kápxu. The following word, < clooch-e-mup > for ‘sister’, is a clue; I think these two words snuck out of Armstrong’s Nuučaan’uɬ lexicon, which follows the CW one. For ‘brother’, compare qaɬaatik ‘younger brother’ in Stonham’s 2005 Nuučaan’uɬ dictionary.

Finally, I can’t help but both admire and feel impatient towards Mr. Armstrong for devoting precious space to a Jargon translation of his own surname: < La-mah scu-cum > — which is ungrammatical in CW unless you’re trying to say ‘the arm is strong’. Grrr! Listen, that couldn’t have been something that was widely used or generally understood by Jargon speakers of the time.

I won’t get much into the weeds with this little vocabulary. One fairly reliable observation of it is that it uses only < wake > (wík) as a negator, in just the true southern-dialect fashion that we’d expect from an Oregonian. And he gives a genuine-sounding useful expression using it, < wake-six > (wík-síks) ‘no friend’, i.e. enemy, which he may well have picked up on the warpath. That counts as a new discovery for us.

Here’s the entire vocabulary that Armstrong published:



He also devotes about as much page space (pp. 144-145) to some speculations on the origin of Chinuk Wawa. His tale is as spurious as it is indicative of the Settlers’ perceived racial hierarchies: The Hudson Bay Company decided to create a single language to communicate with the varied Indigenous nations; “a shrewd Scotchman undertook the task”; “a number of Canadian French were then employed…to learn this language”; these men became emissaries to the tribes and taught them the Jargon!

Armstrong’s characterization of CW vocabulary is colorful, too. “[A] compound of blackguard English, low French, humorous Spanish, (words selected without reference to their original meaning,) grafted on the NOOTKA language…[which was] the language spoken in common among the greatest number of Indians…”

Like the rest of his account of the Jargon, this has a grain of accuracy at its heart. A pidginized form of “Nootka” (Nuučaan’uɬ, from Vancouver Island, BC) had become somewhat known along the Washington coast by the time overland fur traders (the American Fur Company of JJ Astor) arrived.

However, Chinuk Wawa had already existed before that, certainly by the time Lewis and Clark arrived in the winter of 1805-06. And the HBC didn’t arrive on the scene until after the events noted just above. Finally, an intentionally created pidgin language is extraordinarily rare; I recall reading that there was one in Namibia when it was German Southwest Africa.

So take Armstrong’s words with a grain of salt. But they’re nonetheless an interesting little contribution to our knowledge of frontier-era creolized Chinuk Wawa.

What do you think?