1893: Gill vs. Hale, debating pre-contact Chinuk Wawa

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Too bad if you haven’t yet read JC Pilling’s 1893 “Bibliography of the Chinookan Languages” (it’s for free at that link).


Unfortunately the only photo I have for James Constantine Pilling (image credit: Find a Grave)

That US government publication would more accurately be titled “Bibliography of Chinuk Wawa”.

It’s crammed with phenomenal material on the Jargon that you probably weren’t aware of. It’s certainly pointed me towards various of the discoveries that I’ve made in researching this language.

Today I want to quote from Pilling’s presentation of a debate (via letters) between two important figures, about whether Chinuk Wawa existed prior to the arrival of non-Natives in the Pacific Northwest.

This is possibly the earliest public discussion of that ever-intriguing question, is CW ancient or not?

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(Image credit: Geographicus)

Chinook Jargon dictionary publisher John Kaye Gill of Portland, Oregon is in favor of this language’s antiquity:

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I am often moved to open a correspondence with Mr [Horatio] Hale on the subject of his book [see below] because of his iconoclasm. He attempts to prove too much, as I believe, and would make it appear that Chinook did not exist as an intertribal language prior to its necessity for the use of the trapper and the trader. I am convinced of the contrary. Within the year I have talked with an Indian who was a man grown when Lewis and Clarke came to this country, and have his assurance that the Klikitat, Multnomah, Clatsop, Chinook, and other tribes all talked to each other in this ancient Volapük upon matters of business or any other inter-tribal affairs, while each tribe had its own language. I have said something on this subject in the preface to our dictionary.

• • •
[Now we have a quotation from a letter Gill wrote directly to Hale:]

As to my argument that the Jargon was of an earlier date than 1820, I have to say that I went rapidly last evening through my copy of Jewitt’s “Captive of Nootka” (1861), and found scattered through the following words, which I am sure have a relation more than accidental to the present Chinook.

Jewitt uses the word pow for the firing of a gun. He speaks of an edible root called quanoose and another, yama, the latter doubtless a form of kamas and the former probably of kouse, both of which roots are still eaten by many of our primitive Indians. Tyee is identical with the present word for the deity or anything great. Pelth pelth is evidently pil pil; peshak (bad) is also identical. Three other words used by Jewitt, kutsak, quahootze, and ahwelth, are all rather familiar to me in sound, and if I had time to hunt them up I believe I could connect two of them with Chinook readily.

Now, I do not claim that the Chinook Jargon originated at the mouth of the Columbia River, where the Chinook Indians lived, but that it was an intertribal language of quite ancient date, and used at first by the coast tribes, whose intercourse was much more frequent than those of the interior. It spread by the Columbia River and through waterways, at last reaching the Rocky Mountains, and covered the coast from San Francisco Bay to the Arctic. As the trading was done largely at Nootka Sound a century ago, that language would naturally be largely represented in such a jargon, but the fact that the oldest white people who have made any records of this Oregon region have used tyee as a name for God, chuck for water, kloshe for good, etc., and that the same things are found in the Nootka and other northern tongues, other than the original Jargon, seems to me only to prove my position. Jewitt encountered these words as long ago as 1803, which certainly gives me reason for my theory that the Chinook is of an earlier date than opponents concede. The whole of Jewitt’s narrative is so palpably that of a simple, oldtime sailor spinning his yarn, which bears internal evidence of its truth, and which agrees with established facts and circumstances on this northwest coast that it leaves us no doubt as to the existence of most of the things he speaks of, though he was not a man of sufficient observation and experience to make the best use of his opportunities. When he wrote yama for kamass it may have been days or months from the time of hearing it, and wrote his remembrance, perhaps, of a word which may have been pronounced differently when he actually heard it. 

• • •

But if the words are Nootka, as you insist, and I am willing to admit they may be, there is no doubt about their having been transplanted to the mouth of the Columbia and having spread into the interior of the Pacific Slope — a transplanting which may have been from either source, as you can readily see. And as the earliest whites on the Columbia heard the same words in use by Indians who spoke languages which were Greek to the Indians on Puget Sound and Vancouver Island, the fact is all the more certainly established that many words were common among a number of tribes who had their own native words also for the same things. As Jewitt gives but a dozen or less Indian words altogether in the edition of his book which I have, and at least six of them are congeners of the Chinook, I am inclined to think that if he had used sixty words of the people among whom he lived, he might have shown us the same proportion of Chinook words, and it is but fair to consider that he would not have chosen only words which were of this common Jargon.

So, JK Gill is saying: because Vancouver Island, Canada folks were already using words that we recognize from Chinuk Wawa by the time Whites showed up, those Native people far away from Chinookan lands must’ve already known CW long before. Gill’s evidence is a single source, Jewitt’s published captivity narrative.

Highly probable among Gill’s motivations for believing in an old, thus dignified, Chinook Jargon is his known sympathy for Native people and his objections to the poor treatment they received from Settlers. It’s hard not to share that sentiment.


(Image credit: Smithsonian)

Now here’s the renowned “philologist” (as linguists were then termed), Hale, as quoted in Pilling; Hale naturally relies on evidence from a large number of sources, including his original extensive research in the PNW:

In Mr. Gill’s suggestion that ‘Chinook existed as an intertribal language prior to the necessity of the use of the trapper and trader,’ he evidently confounds, as many do, the proper Chinook language with the Jargon, or artificial trade language. The Indians of Oregon territory were quick in learning languages, and some of them could speak five or six native idioms. The genuine Chinook, being spoken by a tribe holding a central position along the Columbia River, and much given to trade, would naturally be known to many natives of other tribes, and would be frequently spoken in intertribal intercourse, like the Chippewa among the eastern Indians and the Malay in the East Indian Archipelago. This was doubtless what was meant by Mr. Gill’s aged native informant in referring to the Chinook as the common medium of intercourse before the white traders visited the country. That he could have referred to the Jargon is simply impossible, as the internal evidence of its structure sufficiently shows.

Hale is making clear that the simple reason we now see “Chinook Jargon” words in old “Nootka” documents is that those words were native to the Nuuchahnulth language(s) of Vancouver Island. Thus of course they had long been in use there, not as CJ, but just as the mother tongue, which eventually contributed those words to the new language, Chinuk Wawa. I can add as a linguist, when we look at the languages related to Nuuchahnulth, such as Kwak’wala, we can prove that those words are very old within those languages — they didn’t come from the Jargon.

Hale is courteous to JK Gill, in honoring Gill’s idea that the old tribal Chinookan languages might’ve been widely known among other tribes in pre-Contact times. The known fact is that Native people consistently reported Chinookan as virtually impossible to learn (as an adult, prototypically when you married into their tribe), just as they said of the similarly complex Cayuse language.

On the balance, Hale’s view is more supported by proof than Gill’s is.

In fact Gill’s personal report, of an elder (apparently over 100 years old!) confirming Chinook Jargon was in use when Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805, works in favor of Hale’s and my own view — That the Jargon originated with the arrival of Euro-Americans. I’ve elsewhere shown that CJ likely was born in 1794 at the mouth of the Columbia River, which was just starting to be visited regularly by ships. So this language had already had a good 10 years to develop and spread among the tribes of that area, before the “Corps of Discovery” came overland. (And yes, Lewis & Clark definitely encountered and spoke Chinook Jargon.)

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?