1861: “Our Port Townsend Correspondent” urges proper Native pronunciation

This 1861 article was written by renowned Chinuk Wawa expert James G. Swan…

It’s datelined Port Townsend, where he worked as a tax collector, and it refers to his experiences among the Makahs, and his residence in Washington Territory since 1851.

Swan’s uncommonly knowledgeable status enabled him to debunk the folksy theory that the “Hudson Bay Company invented the Jargon”. His idea that it traces back to the maritime fur traders at Nootka Sound is more on target.

But Swan’s idea that Lower Chinookan Chief Comcomoly (Concomly) personally visited the Nootka area on a regular basis has less rooting in facts that I’m aware of. Instead, my research indicates that Chinookans picked up some pidginized Nuuchahnulth words when Euro-American sea traders arrived (1792+), at the same time as they learned some English words and apparently began using pidginized Chinookan with the visitors.

(That said, post-contact, we do know of sporadic very-long-distance travel, for trade, war, and slave-taking, by various Indigenous groups. I compare this situation to the rolling waves of displacement and conflict among Native nations following the introduction of horses, well before most tribes had seen any Whites but indirectly caused by Euro-American activity.)

Where Swan is definitely mistaken is in thinking that “camas” comes from a Nootka word. It’s been shown to be a Nez Perce word instead. Plus, I’m not aware of the early maritime traders having been offered camas products in enough quantity to merit their learning a word for it. Their journals typically note locals bringing deer, fish, berries, and greens to them in trade.

One of Swan’s very best points here is his insistence that you can and should learn proper Native pronunciation, pretty clearly referring to Chinuk Wawa.

Swan is somewhat in the thrall of his era’s privileging of spelling above pronunciation, but he shows that it’s possible and important to accurately learn the “Indian” pronunciations of words. (Not that you’d know that from most of his spellings!) He did document excellent Chinuk Wawa sentences in his 1857 memoir; I always suggest James G. Swan as a highly reliable authority on CW.

Now read his excellent contribution to an early Washington Territory newspaper about this language…


From our Port Townsend Correspondent.

The Chenook Jargon.

The Chenook Jargon, as it is com-
monly called, is the language of com-
munication between the various tribes
and bands ot Indians west of the Rocky
Mountains, and the white settlers. It
is confined almost entirely to the region
mentioned, which includes the whole of
Oregon and Washington Territory and
British Possessions, and is but seldom
if ever used east of the Rocky Moun-
tains, or among the tribes of California.
The language is simply a trading jar-
gon, composed of words from the Indi-
an, English and French languages. It
originated with the fur traders at Noot-
ka, and has been added to from time to
time by words from other lndian tribes,
and by the lndianizing such English and
French words as came into common
use, and were adopted by the lndians
while conversing with the whites.

It has generally been supposed that
the language was introduced by the
traders of the Hudson Bay Company,
for the purpose of facilitating inter-
course among the interior tribes; but
although that company have made
use of the language, and it has grown
since their advent from a few common
words into a recognized medium of
correspondence between the whites and
the aborigines, yet the Hudson Bay
Company did not introduce it. It
came into use in the following manner:
The former head-quarters for the fur
traders on the north-west coast was
at Nootka, on the north-western coast
of Vancouver’s Island. There they es-
tablished their winter quarters and had
a general rendezvous, and from the
time Meares built the schooner North-
west America, in Nootka Sound, which
was in 1788, to the settlement of Asto-
ria, in 1812 [DDR — actually 1811], but little time elapsed when
there were no white persons ashore
among the Nootkans. In 1802, the
ship Boston was taken by the Indians
at Nootka Sound, and all hands killed
with the exception ot two men named
Jewett and Thompson, and the ship
afterwards burned. On Jewett’s return
to the States, he published a narrative,
and in it gave a vocabulary of the words
of the Nootkan language in common
use. From his vocabulary the follow-
ing are selected showing the similarity
between the Nootkan and Jargon lan-


Nootka.      Jargon.      English.
Chammas…..Cammass,     Fruit, anything sweet,
     (The edible roots of the Cammassia Esculenta.)
Klack-ko…..Klack-koon,     Good, or thank you.
Cloosh…..Close,     Good.
Klootzmah…..Kloochman,     Woman.
Ten-as-sis…..Tan-ass     Child, anything small,
Kum-me-tah…..Kumtux,     Understand.
Klattinwah [sic]…..Clat-to-wah,     Go off, or go away.
Mamook…..Ma-mook,     Work.
Pow…..Pow or poo,     Report of a gun.
Lickaminny [sic]…..Chinckamin [sic],     Iron.
Tyee….Ty-ee,     Chief.
Wik…..Wake,      No.
Sie-yah…..Siyah      In Nootka the word
                              means sky; in Jargon,
                              a great distance.

The language of the Nootkan, Clyo-
quots [Clayoquots], Nittinat [Nitinat] and Mackah [Makah] Indians, at
Cape Flattery is almost identical. The
Quillehuytes [Quileutes] and Que-ni-ults [Quinaults], south of
Cape Flattery, speak a language en-
tirely different from the Mackahs, but
greatly resembling that spoken by the
Chemakum Indians, near Port Town-
send. [DDR — Quinault is actually a Salish language, related to the following.] The Chehalis Indians, next
south of the Queniults speak a still
different language, and the Chenooks,
at the mouth of the Columbia, have
still another and a more difficult tongue.

These various tribes have been ac-
customed for many years to trade with
each other, consequently, individuals of
each band oould talk enough of the lan-
guage of the other for the purposes of
trade. Among these trading chiefs,
was commonly the one-eyed chief of the
Chenooks, mentioned by Ross, Cox, and
Irving in his history of Astoria. Com-
comoly made frequent voyages during
the summer months to Cape Flattery,
at which place be was accustomed to
meet the great chief of the Nootka
and other northern tribea, and was fa-
miliar not only with the Nootka lan-
guage, but with the language of the
other coast Indians mentioned.

After the discovery of the Columbia
river by Capt. Gray, in 1792, the fur
traders occasionally ran into the mouth
of that river, and usually anchored in
Baker’s Bay, inside Cape Disappoint-
ment and near Chenook. While in the
Columbia, they traded principally with
old Comcomoly, or through his agency.
Every one of the fur trading vessels
had one or more persons on board who
could speak the Nootka language, and
as tbe Chenooks could understand
enough of that language for trading
purposes, it became the medium of
communication. The Chenooks in
the meantime had learned a few Eng-
lish words, and when Astor’s company
arrived in the Columbia, in 1812 [DDR — 1811 actually], they
found the Chenooks already in posses-
sion of a jargon which was readily
learned by the whites.

The Hudson Bay Company next
made their appearance on the coast
and succeeded Astor’s company, having
bought them out in October, 1813.
The Canadian voyageurs and half-
breeds introduced from Canada by the
Hudson Bay Company, took wives trom
among the tribes of the Columbia, and
as an Indian appears to learn French
much more readily than English, it was
not long before Canadian French was
introduced into the Jargon. The lan-
guage has also received additions by
words trom the Chehalis and Chenook,
and some of the tribes on Puget Sound.
As it is at present used, it varies a little
with every locality, from the fact that
tribal words will be introduced by per-
sons residing among the different bands
which soon become incorporated into
the Jargon as the original.

A residence of several months with
the Mackah Indians at Cape Flattery,
during 1859, and recently, for the past
five months, during which time I have
made the study of the early history of
the coast tribes and their languages a
speciality, has enabled me to trace out
the origin of many of the words in the
Jargon that have been derived from
the Nootkan language. The limit of
this article, however, will only permit
of a couple of illustrations.

The true meaning of the name of Ta-
tooche Island, for instance — the word
Tootooche or Tatooche in the Jargon
means, milk, or breasts, but there is
another word in the Nootkan dialect
pronounced Tootootche, which sounds
very similar although it is not a Jargon
word, which means thunder, or the
thunder bird, or thunder storm. One
of the Nootkan chiefs mentioned by
Meares and Vancouver, and still re-
membered by some of the Indians at
Neeah [Neah] Bay, was named Too-tooche-at-
icus, and he formerly owned the land
about Cape Flattery. From this fact,
Meares named the island at the extrem-
ity of the Cape Tatooche or Tatootshe
island. The Indian name for the Is-
land is O-po-jec-ta.

Tatooche or milk Island is not so ap-
propriate a name for the storm-beaten
little island on our extreme north-
western coast, through whose hollow
caves the waves of the Pacific reverber-
ate with a continuous roar like thun-
der, and whose summit is crowned with
the tall light-house — a beacon by day
and a pillar of fire by night — as Ta-
tootshe, thunder or fire island.

2d, The word Cammass, the Cam-
massia Esculenta, a little plant of the
lilly [sic] species, with pretty hyacinth-
shaped blue flowers, and a bulbous
root, the size and shape of small gar-
lics. This root is eaten by all the In-
dians west of the mountains, and is
found in great abundance. It is pre-
prepared [sic] by roasting or baking, and
when cooked is very sweet The na-
tives on the coast make it up into
loaves, which they cover either with
fern leaves or fine cedar bark, and in
this state it is sold. The Nootkan word
for fruit is cham-mass, and for anything
sweet and pleasant to the taste it is
cham-mass’-ish, and their word for mo-
lasses is cham’-mo-set.

The early traders with the Nootkans
were offered these loaves for sale,
and were told that they were cham-
mass, or fruit. The Nootkan name for
the plant is qua-quanis-kook. The
traders soon reduced the word to cam-
mass. As the root is universally eaten
by all the tribes, and is called by a dif-
ferent name by each tribe, the Jargon
word, cam-mass, is generally used, and
there is not a word in the Jargon that
is spelled so many different ways — for
instance, lackamas, camarus, camash,
kammeus, and kama-as. Cammass is
the simplest and most correct. The
different manner in which the words
are spelled is no evidence of a difference
in meaning, for no two writers of Indi-
an words fully agree as to the proper
mode of spelling. My own method in
spelling Indian words is, first to pro-
nounce a word slowly and distinctly
till I can give it the same sound that
the Indians do. When I find that the
Indians consider my pronunciation
correct, I then write down the word in
the simplest manner possible, so that
another white person on pronouncing
it can produce the same intonation or
as near as may be. Many persons from
detective hearing or want of euphony,
are utterly unable to pronounce an In-
dian word as Indians do, and yet I have
known several persons of this sort who
thought they were capable of writing
out vocabularies. A man who has no
ear for music may as well attempt to
make harmony among a choir of sing-
ers as a man whose ear is not trained
to nice distinctions of intonation at-
tempt to write lndian words.

The Jargon is interesting as showing
how a language may be formed. The
words of three distinct languages, — the
French, English, and Indian, — are made
to form a separate and distinct tongue.
It is a language, however, never used
except when the Indians and whites
are conversing, or by two distant tribes,
who do not understand each other. It
originated in the roving, trading spirit
of the coast tribes, and has been added
to and increased since the introduction
of the whites among them.

I have in preparation for future pub-
lication, a full and complete vocabulary
or glossary of the Jargon, together with
directions and rules for learners, ac-
companied with illustrations of the or-
igin of various words, of which I have
given in this article two specimens.
These have been carefully collected and
collated by me, during a residence in
this Territory among the coast tribes
since 1851, and cannot fail of being of
interest to ethnologists.


— from the Olympia (Washington Territory) Washington Standard of July 27, 1861, page 1, columns 2-5

What do you think? qʰáta mayka tə́mtəm?