FW Howay 1943 “Origin of the Chinook Jargon on the Northwest Coast” (post-contact)

One of the very smartest pieces ever published about Chinuk Wawa’s history, was written by a BC judge.


Howay (image credit: ABC BookWorld)

Origin of the Chinook Jargon on the North West Coast” by F.W. Howay (Oregon Historical Quarterly 44(1):27-55 (March 1943).

Frederic William Howay‘s sideline was as a devoted amateur historian of the Pacific Northwest, and he published incredible numbers of studies based on material that he diligently uncovered from libraries and booksellers all over the place. His partner in law and historical, including Jargon, studies was his longtime friend Robie L. Reid.

This 1943 article by Howay proceeds from a point noted by Reid in an earlier piece, that there are 2 main theories “and a tradition” about when Chinook Jargon came into being:

Theory 1 — that CW traces to the early contact days of the maritime fur trade.

Theory 2 — that CW was a “prehistoric inter-tribal language”.

A tradition — that CW was invented by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Howay is spot-on: this “has only to be mentioned to be laughed out of court”, says His Honour.

Having sagely rejected the linguistic urban legend, Howay gets right in to debunking Theory 2 as well. His lawyerly training in analyzing folks’ argumentation comes in handy. He’s sharp about noticing that most of the sources advancing the pre-contact CW hypothesis are imposing authorities (government-published reference works on Native people), which, however, supply exactly zero evidence for their claim. Howay finds, as do I, that regular long-distance travel for e.g. trading purposes was not a known major feature of pre-contact PNW coast life. He notes that it was instead conflict among tribes — I’d specify that this means those not directly tied together by marriage alliances, which I believe joined mostly geographically close groups — that was the rule.

Accomplished researcher of early historical documents that he is, Howay quotes from the diaries of Spanish priests Crespi & Pena, showing that in 1774 they could not effect any verbal communication with Haidas and Nuuchahnulths upon first contact, and only improvised hand signs were of any avail. Had there been any existing “prehistoric” pidgin, we can assume the newcomers would’ve picked up enough of it to communicate more than that, quite quickly. This point is one that I’ve made with regard to other early Euro-American visitors’ failure to communicate with a large range of Indigenous coastal nations. Howay notes, as I have done, that this language gap remained for at least a couple of decades, and it encompassed dealings with the Salish nations, Heiltsuks, Oregon coastal tribes, and plenty more. (Worth noting is that Howay dates the start of the PNW maritime fur trade to 1785.)

Howay takes the trouble to point out that early-contact quotations of “Nootka” people, such as Chief Callicum’s “Martínez pisce, Martínez capsil“, saying words that us modern speakers of CW recognize (“Martínez pishák, Martínez kapshwála” — ‘Martínez is bad, Martínez steals’), are examples of Nuuchahnulth speech. Whether a pidgin Nootka Jargon or straight Nuučaan’uɬ, as the case may be, these are no proof whatsoever of a pre-existing Chinook Jargon. One source who Howay is at pains to critique is EH Thomas, author of a very popular 1935 (and much reprinted) book that makes all sorts of fanciful and romantic claims about Chinuk Wawa.

It can never be overemphasized that the earliest recorded full sentence in CW is, as Howay specifies, the Chinook man in 1805 who said to one of Lewis & Clark’s party, “Clouch Musket, wake com ma-tax Musket” (ɬúsh mə́skit, wík kə́mtəks mə́skit, ‘nice gun, (I) don’t recognize the gun’). This is recognizably CW by virtue of being Nuuchahnulth & English words spoken outside of Nuuchahnulth & English territory by a person who knew neither of those languages.

Another feature of Aboriginal life that Howay is appropriately skeptical of, but which proponents of precontact CW have long relied on, is slavery. He finds scant evidence, in particular, that long-distance voyages were made for this purpose in the times before Euro-Americans’ arrival, and thus sees little to no reason to suppose a slave-trading lingo existed.

The conclusion of Howay’s careful examination of “Theory 2” is that Chinuk Wawa cannot be proved to be anything other than a post-contact language.

Bonus fact:

Robie L. Reid’s writing on Chinook Jargon is also well worth your time. I’ll try to write about it soon!

What do you think?