Chinook Jargon

Chinook Jargon is a trade language that was used extensively in the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth century for communication between Europeans and First Nations people in much of the Pacific Northwest, including British Columbia. Chinook Jargon should not be confused with Chinook, which is the native language, now extinct, of the Chinook people, whose traditional territory is around the lower reaches of the Columbia River, near Portland, Oregon. Although many Chinook Jargon words come from Chinook, the real Chinook language is quite different from Chinook Jargon.

Chinook Jargon is a language with a simplified grammar that draws its vocabulary from several languages. The largest parts of its vocabulary come from Chinook and Nuuchanuulth, followed by French. It also contains words from other native languages and from English. Some Chinook Jargon words have made their way into British Columbia English. An example is saltchuck "ocean".

The grammar of Chinook Jargon is simple in that there is no conjugation of verbs or declension of nouns. For example: "I speak Chinook Jargon" is Naika wawa chinook wawa. Here naika is the equivalent of English "I" or "me". To say "He speaks Chinook Jargon", we say Iaka wawa chinook wawa. We just change "I" to "he"; the verb "to speak" wawa, does not change.

Scholars do not agree on the origins of Chinook Jargon. Some people think that it came into existence as a result of the arrival of Europeans who did not speak native languages. They argue that native people did not need a trade language like Chinook Jargon because so many of them could speak other native languages and so could serve as diplomats, traders, and interpreters. Other scholars say that it was convenient for people who did not speak another native language to be able to trade directly, without an interpreter. They point out that some of the earliest European records of contact with native people in the Pacific Northwest contain what appears to be Chinook Jargon. This suggests that Chinook Jargon was already in existence when Europeans arrived. It does seem to be clear that the arrival of Europeans helped to spread Chinook Jargon.

There are two main varieties of Chinook Jargon: native and European. The native languages that contributed words to Chinook Jargon had a number of sounds that were unfamiliar to and difficult for Europeans. These included the ejectives (glottalized consonants), the voiceless lateral fricative (often written lh or hl), and the lateral affricates (often written tl and dl). When native people learned Chinook Jargon from other native people, they generally preserved these sounds. However, Europeans usually had great difficulty pronouncing these sounds and changed them into more familiar sounds. In this way, there arose a phonetically simplified version of Chinook Jargon that did not contain sounds that were unfamiliar or difficult for speakers of European languages. Where Chinook Jargon was spread by Europeans, it was the simplified, European variety that was spread. This is why in our area even our own people used the European variety of Chinook Jargon. Our own people had no difficulty with the exotic sounds, but since they learned Chinook Jargon from Europeans, who did not produce them, they never heard them.

By the end of the nineteenth century Chinook Jargon was in extensive use throughout the Pacific Northwest. Here in British Columbia it was used most extensively on the Coast and in the South, especially along the Fraser River. European settlers learned it and used it to communicate with native people. Missionaries gave sermons in Chinook Jargon and published hymns, prayers, and catechisms in it. In 1890, Roman Catholic missionaries created a writing system for Chinook Jargon by adapting the French DuPloyer shorthand system. This writing system, referred to as wawa writing, was also used for English, Latin, and Shuswap. In Kamloops, a newspaper called the Kamloops Wawa was published in Chinook Jargon using the wawa writing.

The most recent and comprehensive dictionary of Chinook Jargon is Chinuk Wawa: kakwa nsayka ulman-tilixam laska munk-kemteks nsayka / As Our Elders Teach Us to Speak It.

For a very nice book about Chinook Jargon in British Columbia, see Lillard and Glavin (1998). Howay (1942), Thomas (1935), Thomason (1983), and Thomason & Kaufmann (1988) discuss the origins of Chinook Jargon.

Howay, F. W. (1942)
"The Origin of the Chinook Jargon," British Columbia Historical Quarterly 6.4.225-250.

Lillard, Charles and Terry Glavin (1998)
A Voice Great Within Us: The Story of Chinook, B.C.'s Lost Language, with a Chinook Lexicon, Examples of Its Use, a Map and Gazetteer of Chinook Place Names, Chinook Poetry, and a Discussion of its Origin and Legacy. Vancouver: New Star Books.

Thomas, Edward Harper (1935)
Chinook: A History and Dictionary of the Northwest Coast Trade Jargon. Portland, Oregon: Metropolitan Press. Reprinted 1970 at Portland, Oregon by Binfords & Mort.

Thomason, Sarah Grey (1983)
"Chinook Jargon in areal and historical context," Language 59.4.820-870.

Thomason, Sarah Grey & Terrence Kauffman (1988)
Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

For more information on Chinook Jargon, try the following sites: