1786-1787: Portlock and Dixon on the northern PNW coast

Seems to me this early set of contacts with Tlingits and their northern neighbors indicates virtually no trade language existed on the northern Pacific Northwest coast in the late 1780s.

These are the voyages of a pair of British fur-trading ships to southern Alaska…


“View in Portlock’s Harbour [Lingít country] N.E. [sic] Coast of America”, between pages 280 & 281

Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon,”A voyage round the world but more particularly to the north-west coast of America: performed in 1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, in the King George and Queen Charlotte, Captains Portlock and Dixon” (London, UK: John Stockdale, 1789).


July 19 — The ships arrive (for certain at last) in Russian Alaska, and a boat full of people come aboard. The British don’t understand any Russian, and can scarcely glean any information from what these people say.

July 20 — Onshore the Russians have a very basic camp, part of the staff being “Indians” who the British surmise are Alutiiqs from Kodiak or Aleuts from Unalaska. The Russians are observed to be constantly on their guard against any appearance by “the Americans”, i.e. by local Native people.

July 28 at Cook Inlet, Alaska — Native people “promised to bring furs the following day”. The following days of communication seems to happen mainly by hand gestures.


April 24 — In the area of Afognak and Kodiak Islands, Alaska; Native people mention the name Nootka (of a ship), and it emerges that they have sold their furs to a Captain named something like Thomas Molloy. (This name I haven’t yet been able to find in other old records.)

May 8 — The Native people who come to the ships frequently repeat the word Nootka and the name of Molloy again.

May 8-10 — The Native people use a few English words and inform the visitors that there is another ship near Cape Hinchinbrook, where they find Captain John Meares in the snow Nootka out of Bengal, India. There is extremely little indication throughout these British folks’ encounters with south-central Alaska people that any substantial verbal communication took place.

May 18 — “On my inquiring for salmon, they gave me to understand that there were none at present; but that when the snow melted from the hills, there would be plenty.”

May 22 — “If I understood them right, the adjacent country was called Tacklaccimuke, and that it was principally inhabited by a tribe, the name of whose chief was Nootuck, and the name of another chief belonging to the same tribe was Coocha.”

June 22 — “…a party of Indians visited us…They pointed towards the South West, and gave me to understand that we might procure plenty of furs from that quarter.”

July 31 — The author explains that the publication of Captain Cook’s voyages and others makes it unnecessary to include many details here about the Alaskan Native people (!), but he takes a moment to briefly describe them and their way of life.

As part of this section, on page 254ff we are shown page and a half of the local people’s words (Alutiiq, they seem to me), “…though it appeared to be such a confused, unintelligible jargon, that it was not without some difficulty that we could collect these instances.” Several of these few words are personal, place, or tribal names. I’m curious to have a speaker, or an Eskimoan specialist, look at this short vocabulary for signs of pidinization!

August 6, in the Sitka area — “I found their language totally different from that spoken by the natives in Prince William’s Sound”; this is accurate, as these folks would be Lingít (Tlingits). “I made my new visiters a few trifling presents, and inquired for the sea-otter skin, by the name it bears at Prince William’s Sound; but they not understanding me, I shewed them a sea-otter skin, and made signs for them to bring me some, which they seemed inclined to do.” They possess European trade goods. “They made me understand by signs, that the vessel from which they procured those articles had been in a port to the eastward of Cape Edgecombe, and described her as having two masts…I shewed a man in the boast, who appeared to be the chief, a marked skin, and he immediately knew (probably by the mark) what country it came from, and described the inhabitants as having their under lips slit, and wearing ornaments in them. He also described their canoes [kayaks], with their method of paddling…” It turns out that these Lingít have had direct contact with the Alutiiq, and sometimes battles. A number of similarly basic communications between the locals and the mariners come in following pages.

August 21 — Tlingits from the east arrive; “their language varies a little from the others”, their material culture is essentially the same as the local Tlingits’ but their songs and music differ. A sample of the “harsh and unpleasant” Tlingit language is on page 293, again worth examining by a speaker or Tlingit specialist for indications of any pidginization.


Illustration from between pages 294 & 295

This is all there is to the linguistic contents of Portlock & Dixon’s visits on the PNW coast.

So I’m not detecting useful positive evidence of any pidgin in use at the northern end of the Pacific Northwest coast in 1786-1787.

This fits everything I’ve found in my research on the earliest Indigenous contacts in this region with Euro-American “Drifters”.

We have no proof for any claims that pidgin languages existed out here prior to the early 1790s.

I want to repeat this — a number of hypotheses have been put forward in public, suggesting why we might imagine Chinuk Wawa (in particular) could’ve been in existence & widely used long before our region’s written history.

But none of those hypotheses has provided positive proof. And they can’t.

Personally, I see nothing to lament in the fact that CW has existed for “only” 227 years, to use the most remote date that we have halfway adequate evidence for.

No language has existed in its present, identifiable form since time immemorial. Any linguist will tell you, all languages are in perpetual metamorphosis. This fact includes the phenomenon of languages suddenly coming into existence, which has happened at least hundreds of times that are known to us in the last 5 centuries or so.

You’re reading this in English. English as you casually speak it in 2021 would be nearly impossible for a British person 500 years ago to understand — and you wouldn’t understand their normal English, either.

Chinuk Wawa, like your 2021 English, is a newer way for PNW people to speak. In my personal opinion, it also amounts to the current form of the old Chinookan tribal languages, which have no other arguable currently spoken manifestation. A similar argument can be made that CW is the current successor to numerous other tribal languages.

(Chinookan and those other languages can be revitalized, though! I work on Lower Chehalis Salish, and I intend to seriously advance knowledge of Lower Chinookan as well…)

What do you think?
qʰata mayka təmtəm?