A weighty difference between southern and northern CW

The southern (early-creolized) dialect of Chinuk Wawa is just plain “heavier” than the northern (later, re-pidginized) dialect.


The heaviest known Chinook…on record anyway (image credit: Fish with JD)

By that I mean the linguistic sense of “heaviness” — essentially, a single expression that takes relatively long to say.

This might be counterintuitive, to those who expect creole languages to be more “efficient” than pidgins.


CW, the “Jargon”, surely did start out as a pidgin as early as 1794, and then it creolized around 1825.

Surely this language became more efficient, easier and quicker to use, in that process of turning from a sporadically used lingo into an everyday household way of talking.

(We can’t ignore that CW remained a pidgin for most non-denizens of Fort Vancouver, but they too had plenty of dealings with F.V.’s creole-speaking Métis, Native, and European folks.)

Still, I think I can quickly show you, and convince you, that the younger northern dialect is “lighter” in a significant way.

Let me begin with the older, southern dialect.

Southern dialect:
Earlier creolized (Fort Vancouver):

The earliest really good dictionary data is from late-1830s Fort Vancouver, from Demers, Blanchet, and (edited later by) St. Onge. From their book, it’s clear that creole Chinuk Wawa already had:

  • a regular and productive grammar of compound formation, particularly of Noun+Noun phrases (e.g. shit hows ‘water closet’ (outhouse), tluchmen musmus ‘cow’);
  • also of inflection with etymologically Nuuchahnulth/Nootka Jargon words such as mamuk- ‘Causative’ (e.g. mamuk Kao ‘to tie up, bind’, mamuk lalam ‘to row’),
  • tanas- ‘Diminutive’ (e.g. tanas tKop ‘grey’, tanas son ‘morning’),
  • and chako- ‘Inceptive’ (e.g. chako towaH ‘to brighten’, chako spoak ‘to fade, dry’), and so on.
  • We also already find full-root reduplications, albeit confined to Chinookan forms because this structure traces back to those tribal languages — Kal ‘difficult, hard’ & KalKal ‘hard’, iHt ‘one’ & iHtiHt ‘sometimes’

For an intermediate stage, prior to the documented emergence of Grand Ronde CW (see next section), I take Father L.N. St. Onge’s 1892 manuscript dictionary as a guide, because he was in the lower Columbia River region starting in 1867. St. Onge documents:

  • compounds of greater length & complexity than previously seen (e.g. stik-skukom-hows ‘stockade’, tanim-elehi-man ‘surveyor’),
  • large numbers of mamuk- expressions that are longer than anything in Demers & Blanchet (e.g. mamuk-aias-kata ‘tyrannize’, mamuk-chako-aias-tlush-tomtom ‘enrapture’),
  • likewise longer tanas- expressions (e.g. tanas-aias-zin-zin ‘guitar’, tanas-mitwhit-stik-KalaH ‘hedge’),
  • and longer chako- expressions (e.g. chako-elip-tanas-aiu ‘dwindle, decrease’, chako-tlemin-tomtom ‘dishearten’),
  • as well as full-root reduplication expanding to roots it hadn’t been seen on before, but still mostly Chinookan in etymology (e.g. ĥoloima ‘different, other, etc.’ & ĥoloima-ĥoloima ‘diversity’; kwan ‘humble, gentle, docile, etc.’ vs. kwan-kwan ‘glad’)

Later, re-creolized (Grand Ronde):

This stage, from circa 1890 onward, is well documented in the 2012 Grand Ronde Tribes dictionary. Among the newer complexities in this stage are:

  • Gradual expansion of the above tendencies, plus
  • full-root reduplication now occurring with an even wider range of roots (e.g. nanich-nanich ‘to be looking around’, kuri-kuri ‘run all around’)

What’s interesting, and only fair to point out, is that the Grand Ronde elders’ Chinuk Wawa also shows a few new simplifications, so in some ways it does match the expectation that “creolized = simpler / more efficient”. For instance, GR CW lost the older Causative + Inceptive formation mamuk-chako- (‘to make something become…’).

Nonetheless (see the pun I’m making here?), the southern dialect of the Jargon continued complexifying all around.

Latest: Grand Ronde now

We can say that G.R. CW is now creolizing for the 3rd time (because kids are growing up speaking it to each other) and that it’s re-pidginizing (because adults are learning it as a foreign language & tending to change its grammar due to linguists’ never-popular claim of “imperfect learning”). The creolizing trend wins out (read on).

By far most prominent change that I witness is that the grammar of compounds is becoming still more complex than it had ever been in CW. They’re getting longer, as well as involving more syntactic categories than just nouns, e.g. the following innovations having verbs — some of them transitive, with objects — as their first, modifying member:

  • aləksh-dala-pʰipa ‘grant application’ (a ‘beg-money-paper’)
  • munk-kəmtəks-tilixam ‘teacher’ (a ‘make-know-person’)
  • kusax̣-nanich-wawa-man ‘weatherman’ (a ‘sky-watching-talk-man’)
  • wawa-lakʰaset ‘radio’ (a ‘talking-box’)

These frequent new kinds of compounds, expressing common items in 21st century life, give current Grand Ronde Chinuk Wawa a definite feel that’s all its own.

I don’t notice 21st-century southern CW grammar in general changing very much, though. True, people who’ve learned the language recently are prone to random innovations — but very few of these seem to catch on among their fellow speakers. Plus, in the present situation where we teach Chinuk Wawa from actual written lesson plans, the result tends to be actually less grammatical variation than you’d find back in the day.

Northern dialect (newer, re-pidginized):

The northern dialect of CW, let’s be clear, was originally the southern dialect, but it got brought along as settlement and resource exploitation spread into Washington and British Columbia. In the north, CW wasn’t the main language of any entire community, so it shifted from being a creole to a pidgin, being learned as a second (or “foreign”) language.

True to expectations about any pidginizing language, the Jargon got simplified in the north, losing many features that it had previously displayed. Some new features were innovated, we have to recognize, mainly in the lexicon but also various points of grammar. But northern CW has remained generally simpler than the southern dialect in the sense of grammatical “heaviness” that we’re talking about today. About as complex as northern noun phrases tend to get is the level seen in Kamloops Wawa‘s tlus hom gris (‘good smelling grease’) for the ‘ointment’ that Mary Magdalene brought to Jesus’ tomb.

And yet, the northern dialect is quite as expressive of a range of ideas as the southern dialect. In fact it’s the northern dialect that has a fairly huge literature written in it! How do we reconcile the simplicity and the suppleness of the newer, re-pidginized variety of Chinook Jargon?

I think the answer to that is simple. Modern linguists are going to love this.

Southern CW speakers have increasingly concocted heavy & complex phrases, which are all right if you’re a member of a tight-knit community that shares most of your cognitive points of reference.

Northern speakers have tended instead to exploit another dimension of grammatical complexity, and it’s one that virtually no researcher on Chinook Jargon documented or examined prior to my 2012 PhD dissertation. I’m talking about subordination / embedding / relative clauses / recursion; take your pick of which label is most fashionable for you.

I’m pretty sure a lot of “creolists” have an unexamined belief that there’s no such thing in pidgin languages, lol. 😁

Especially the ones who are also Chomskyan syntacticians, roflmfao. 🤣😂😹😂🤣😹

(Because pidgins aren’t Indo-European haha) 😉

All right all right, I got a million of ’em, but I’ll knock it off now.

Back to what I was schooling you on.

Northern CW speakers, to judge by the ample documentation of how they strung pieces together into sentences, much preferred the strategy of making any descriptive material heavier than a single word be subordinate…

…rather than the southern CW approach making those be co-ordinate members of a single clause with the thing being described.

So, where the southerners have been saying mamuk-komtoks-man, literally ‘make-known-man’, for ‘tutor’ (St. Onge’s customarily fancy way of saying ‘teacher’!) since 1867 and probably before, northerners have said man iaka mamuk komtaks ‘man who makes known’, man iaka mamuk skul ‘man who make teaching’, and so on.

An intimately related point: northern CW speakers have simultaneously preferred (along with southerners) to keep their utterances reasonably short and sweet. Guess what, all spoken languages prefer this. It’s the Grice advice, “be brief”, I reckon.

No average person can be counted on to be willing to sit around and wait for you to get to your point — especially in a pidgin, which I stress again is a foreign language to its users, a language among strangers, not a tightknit community form of speech.

So, in northern pidgin Chinook Jargon, I think equally or more frequent than man iaka mamuk komtaks or man iaka mamuk skul is an utterance like Mr Smis ukuk. Iaka mamuk skul alta. ‘This is Mr Smith. He’ll be teaching now.’

My not-too-obvious point being, northerners love to use iaka ‘(s)he / they’ (and sometimes klaska ‘they’, but they’re not real big on that word), in virtually every circumstance where you can possibly use it!

Because of that love of iaka, northern Chinuk Wawa uses a larger number of clauses, which are thus briefer, than southern CW’s average.

kata maika tomtom?
qʰata mayka təmtəm?
kosay ti pens?
what do you think?