WJ Samarin “Chinook Jargon and Pidgin Historiography”

There’s a 1986 scholarly article that I recommend more highly than any other…


William J Samarin, 1926-2020 (image credit: University of Toronto)

William J. Samarin published “Chinook Jargon and Pidgin Historiography” in the Canadian Journal of Anthropology 5(1):23-34

This study has been fairly influential in pidgin and creole linguistics; Google Scholar tells us it’s been cited 31 times.

I myself didn’t have a lot of use for it when I was doing my dissertation research — but that is only because I was mostly crunching a lot of raw language data, not yet investigating the history and growth of Chinuk Wawa.

Now that I’ve found the time and energy to get into that subject, Samarin’s 1986 article is revealing itself to me as a rare and precious dose of careful thinking. 

And, when I call it “scholarly” writing, I just mean it conveys careful, documented thinking. It’s not really a hard article for anyone to read and understand. So I won’t spoil it for you.

But I will list a number of Samarin’s points that most impress me with their cogency: 

  • page 24 and following — Ethnolinguist Dell Hymes (in a 1980 article) misrepresents or misunderstands George Gibbs’s (1863) CW dictionary, in claiming that Gibbs had noted a pre-existing “jargon in the earliest contact near the Columbia.” Hymes also erroneously concludes from Jewitt’s narrative of captivity among Nuučaan’uɬ people of Vancouver Island around 1800 that those folks were talking Chinook Jargon to Jewitt. And so on. Supposed documentary evidence for the pre-Contact existence of CJ is anything but.
  • page 27 and following — An argument is made by some researchers that Chinook Jargon’s phonology is so complex, and certain features of its grammar so different from English and French, that it must have originated among Indigenous people only, prior to contact with Euro-Americans. But this is plausibly undermined by a notion that CJ, like any other pidgin, started as an intercultural mashup (as I keep arguing on this website lately), which “subsequently ‘nativized’ as it spread and became more widely used by the indigenous population.” This closely matches what I’ve come to see in the available data on CJ history, which appears to proceed from a circa-1794 amorphous jargon along the whole PNW coast, to a fairly coherent pidgin by 1805, to creolization around 1825, to very strong indications of Indigenous-oriented structures by 1838.
  • pages 28 and following — Some have also argued that pre-Contact Indigenous cultural patterns (such as the massive multilingualism of the Pacific NW “language hotspot”; extensive trading networks; the custom of taking foreign slaves; customary marriage into another tribe; etc.) must have led to the ancient creation of a trade language. Samarin notes to the contrary that plenty of evidence from other world regions such as Africa shows Indigenous inter-ethnic trade being accomplished by a few specialists or privileged people, sometimes by leaving a relative or a slave among a group that you want to deal with, so that that person can learn their language. Samarin also discusses scholarly work on PNW slavery that indicates it became far more prevalent after Euro-American contact. In any case, he makes a well-supported case that all of these supposed cultural factors in favor of pidginization actually have prevented pidginization elsewhere in the world. His counterarguments in fact align with the picture I’ve found in the historical documents and ethnographies that I’ve managed to read in my research on the Pacific Northwest. 

I’m going to leave it at that, and encourage you to read Samarin’s paper and find out — 

what you think / qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm.