1792: The surprising actual distribution of Nootka Jargon (Meany 1957 edition of Vancouver 1801)

The single important fact to stress is, we’ve known almost nothing about the late-1700s “Nootka Jargon”!


Wait, why a map of Kwakwaka’wakw territories??? (Image credit: UmistaPotlatch.ca)

The existence of NJ gets invoked as a fact by linguists because we like to cite each other more than we like to check each other’s grasp of facts, and you’ll be the victim of that when you’re a student of Chinuk Wawa.

And yet, I have to tell you, so far nobody’s done the research to tell us such minor points as the following, for starters:

  • When did NJ come into use?
  • What were its peak years?
  • When did it die out? (No such lingo is any longer spoken.)
  • Where was it understood?
  • Where was it not known?
  • How and why was it taken to any new places to be used?
  • What was its grammar like?
  • What words formed its vocabulary? (Did English play any significant role in it? Or did English get mixed in with it only later, in other places, such as we’ve observed in Chinook country, hundreds of miles southward?) 
  • What sorts of words were not included in NJ?
  • What was its prosody (intonation, stress, etc.) like?
  • What social situations was it used in?
  • Which settings was it not used in?
  • To what extent did Euro-Americans withhold knowledge of it from each other? (E.g. because knowing it gave you a personal advantage in the sea otter fur trade.) 
  • To what degree did they purposely teach it to one another? (E.g. because having all of your ship’s crew speaking it was an extra advantage.) 

I seem to have lately been doing some of the needed primary research into Nootka Jargon.

I feel it’s important to figure out the extent of this language’s contributions to the earliest Chinook Jargon that we know of.

I also suspect that delving into this subject will be a big help in answering the (needlessly) lively hypothesis that there existed some kind of pidgin or other trade language on the Northwest Coast before White “Drifters” showed up.

For some extensive, solid information from eyewitnesses, today I’m looking at still another published version of Captain George Vancouver’s narrative concerning Pacific Northwest exploration in 1792…

This is “Vancouver’s Discovery of Puget Sound” edited by Edmond S. Meany (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1957). 

The renowned Professor Meany of Seattle’s U-Dub outdoes himself here, deeply researching the background of every European person and place mentioned by Vancouver.

He also contributes some nice insights into Indigenous stuff (e.g. learning from S’Klallam elders in 1905 that the mysterious set of tall poles seen by Vancouver in their territory was the frame for an enormous duck net), though there’s far less of such material. 

This edition doesn’t include so much longitude & latitude data, either, so in a few cases you have to infer the precise location being written about. It’s usually not real hard to do so. 

That said, let’s check out an even more extensive list of coastal Native nations met in the broad vicinity of the Salish Sea (Puget Sound), and see how many of them understood “the Nootka language” as spoken by Vancouver’s newly arrived crew. (Thus presumably a simple pidgin, more or less what we have come to suppose was a “Nootka Jargon”.) 

  • Page 76: Makahs seem to understand the Drifters pretty well, having had appreciable contact with their kind already: “The few natives who came off resembled, in most respects, the people of Nootka…They spoke the same language, but did not approach us with the formality observed by those people on visiting the Resolution and Discovery; which may probably be owing to their having become more familiar with strangers.”
  • Page 88: S’Klallam Salish around New Dungeness — most of whose territory is more or less directly opposite the Straits of Juan de Fuca from the Nuu-chah-nulth, and one of whose bands resides near them at Be(e)cher Bay on Vancouver Island — don’t understand the Drifters: “During my absence, some of the natives had been trading with the vessels in a very civil and friendly manner. They did not appear to understand the Nootka language; as those of our people who had some knowledge of it were by no means able to make themselves understood.”
  • Page 92: useful for comparison — more S’Klallam Salish people, this time around Port Discovery — “…some of them understood a few words of the Nootka language.”
  • Page 103: Foulweather Bluff people (possibly the Chimakums, who spoke a language unrelated to the Salish and Wakashan families) — “…they had not the most distant knowledge of the Nootka language, and it was with some difficulty that any of their numerals were acquired.” These people appear to have had no contact with Euro-American traders or goods.
  • Page 139ff: evidently Coast Salish people near Port Orchard in Puget Sound — communication by signs only, not by linguistic understanding (and Vancouver for some reason says he was skeptical of the truthfulness of these people!)
  • Pages 151, 153: Salish of Vashon Island in Puget Sound — these folks say “poo” after every gunshot that they observe (151), and when asked any questions at all, they reply “poo! poo!” and point at a small island where the Europeans had been shooting some birds. This could be taken for a Chinook Jargon word, except it occurs way too early, and without even a single other CJ or NJ word quoted. Plus, the Puget Sound Salish folks were unable to verbally communicate with Vancouver’s crew, which shouldn’t be the case if a pidgin language were being used.
  • Page 173: in the vicinity of Marrowstone Point, probably Chimakums or S’Klallams — “They seemed very solicitous to dissuade us from proceeding to the northward by very vociferous and vehement arguments; but … their language was completely unintelligible…”
  • Page 187: near Point Grey, BC, Coast Salish people speaking an unintelligible language and thus only able to communicate by signs; they have to European trade goods, and Vancouver’s group appear to be the first White visitors among them.
  • Page 198: Howe Sound, BC: Sechelt or Skwxwúʔmesh Salish people — “They however spoke not the Nootka language, nor the dialect of any Indians we had conversed with; at least, the few words we had acquired were repeated to them without effect…”
  • Page 213: “Señor Valdes, who had been on the [Vancouver Island, BC] coast the preceding year, and spoke the Indian language fluently, understood, from the natives, that this inlet did communicate withthe ocean to the northward, where they had seen ships.” (But he too appears to distrust information coming from Indians.) The language referred to here could only be a pidgin, and thus a Nootka Jargon, given the short span of Valdes’s residence here.
  • Here’s where it gets really interesting…page 233: in the area of Loughborough Inlet, opposite the north side of Vancouver Island (Kuma’enuxw Ligwiɬda’xw Kwakwaka’wakw land, distant linguistic relatives of the Nuuchahnulth) — a village which calls itself “under the authority of Maquinna, the chief of Nootka”; “…a very fine stream…was unquestionably well stocked with fish, though not any was offered for sale, notwithstanding the solicitation of our party, in the Nootka language, with which the natives seemed well acquainted.” (Let’s keep in mind that the Vancouver crew could easily have held an over-confident opinion of their own understanding of “the Nootka language” that they had only just learned.)
  • Also fascinating is page 252: in the area of Port Neville, northern Vancouver Island, BC (Lawits’is and/or Madiɬbe’ Knight Inlet Kwakwaka’wakw territory) — “The next morning showed the village in our neighborhood to be large; and from the number of our visitors, it appeared to be very populous…Most of these people understood the language of Nootka, though it did not appear to be generally spoken. The Ty-eie, or chief of the village, paid us an early visit…I understood his name to be Cheslakees. He acknowledged Maquinna to be a greater chief; as he also did Wickananish; but, so far as I could learn, he did not consider himself to be under the authority of either. On inquiring if Maquinna was at the village, he answered in the negative, saying they seldom visited; and that it was a journey of four days across the land to Nootka sound, which from hence towards the S.S.W. is about twenty leagues distant.”
  • This gap is then quite striking page 267: somewhere near the far northwest tip of Vancouver Island: also Kwakwaka’wakw country, but the people have little to trade, seemingly scant exposure to European trade, interestingly their houses are “not quite so much painted” as those in the Nootka Jargon-speaking places visited; “nor did they seem in the least acquainted with the Nootka language.”
  • Similarly, page 271: in the same area of Kwakwaka’wakw land, possibly Kingcome Inlet, the people know that their sea otter skins are valuable, but don’t know the going rate of exchange for iron bars and such; “…they had a distant knowledge of a few words of the Nootka language, but did not always seem properly to apply them.”
  • And on page 291: farther north along the mainland, northern (Gwa’sala) Kwakwaka’wakw people of Smith Inlet have no successful linguistic communication with the visitors; only gestures work well. 

It’s great to find so many data points to map out the distribution of apparent Nootka Jargon use. I think we’ve come to what’s a new understanding:

  • NJ in 1792 was known in (some) Nuučaańuɬ territory, where it was a pidginized, easily learned version of the local language.
  • It was also known, quite surprisingly, only directly overland across Vancouver Island, in what I think of as central Kwakwaka’wakw country; those folks’ language is distantly related to Nuuchahnulth, but they’re not intelligible to each other as far as I’ve heard, so they must’ve purposely learned NJ.
  • NJ was apparently not spoken anywhere else visited by Vancouver. In one place near Nuuchahnulth lands, locals understood one or two “Nootka” words, but these may well have been for common pre-contact trade items, expressions you’d pick up at occasional intertribal gatherings, etc. Keep in mind that Vancouver did not apparently visit southeast Vancouver Island’s Salish groups, about whose possible acquaintance with NJ we know nothing yet.
  • Had there been any extant pre-contact pidgin trade language, folks in the many places Vancouver visited would’ve tried it on his men, who would’ve rapidly picked it up. Instead, the Native people from Puget Sound to northern Kwakwaka’wakw territory had only hand gestures to communicate with these new arrivals. 

The above distribution of NJ puts me in mind of another important trading route on the Northwest Coast: the Lingít (Tlingit) people of southeast Alaska are known to have intentionally controlled the trade with seafaring outsiders. Tribes located across the coastal mountains (Dene / Athabaskan / “Stick” Indians) had to sell their own goods via the Lingít intermediaries, who profited thereby. I would suspect that the Nuučaańuɬ, who happened to be the first native nation to have much contact with “Drifters”, quickly arranged for themselves a good supply of the goods (furs) that were wanted, by way of a nation (Kwakwaka’wakw) who were conventiently out of direct contact with the Drifters. As arduous as it is to cross Vancouver Island — there are still effectively no roads in that area — it would seem worthwhile to set up an exclusive trade agreement with those folks. I say exclusive because the evidence shows that the Kwakwaka’wakws were telling Vancouver’s bunch that they owed a sort of allegiance to Nuučaańuɬ Chief Maquinna. 

I’ll be investigating further early contact narratives of the Northwest Coast in this space. Possibly we’ll see Nootka Jargon having expanded to new areas as the Drifters began visiting more frequently in a greater variety of locales — but no guarantees. There has to be, for instance, some compelling reason why a separate Haida Jargon later took form once Haida Gwaii became a big sea otter trading zone!

What do you think?