The Languages of Contact

When Europeans first entered our territory in 1793, our people did not speak European languages, and no European could speak any of our languages. Indeed, even now, there are very few outsiders who can speak our languages. How did the Europeans communicate with us?

The fur traders brought three languages with them. The officers or "gentlemen" generally spoke English as their first language; most of them were Scotsmen and spoke a Scots dialect of English. The men were mostly French-speaking Canadians. The officers could often speak French, which they learned as they worked their way Westward from Montreal. Many of the fur traders learned to speak Cree on the prairies. Cree was also one of the languages of the métis people who over time came to represent a significant portion of the Hudson's Bay Company people. The fur traders employed small groups of Iroquois hunters, but they could all speak French or Cree.

In the earliest days, it appears that communication was via Cree. Some members of the fur trading parties spoke Cree, which they had learned on the Prairies. Some Sekani people could speak Cree, and many could speak Dakelh. Sekani people served as interpreters between Dakelh and Cree. Very few Dakelh people could speak Cree, so communication using Cree was apparently always via Sekani interpreters.

As time went on, some Dakelh people learned English or French through contact with the fur traders and could communicate with them directly. Until European settlement intensified toward the end of the nineteenth century,these were a small minority, almost invariably men who worked extensively with the fur traders or, in a few cases, people who associated closely with the Catholic missions.

Europeans sometimes learned a small amount of Dakelh, but in almost all cases this consisted of the names of objects; very few Europeans ever learned to understand Dakelh or carry on a real conversation. Daniel Harmon, who was the Northwest Company factor at Fort Saint James and Fort Fraser between 1809 and 1819, gives a list of about 300 Dakelh words that he learned in his Journal. (Interestingly, Harmon mentions that he ordinarily spoke French with his Cree wife and Cree with his children.)

The Roman Catholic missionaries who arrived at Fort Saint James in 1865 needed to communicate more extensively and in greater depth with our people in order to spread their religion. They therefore made an effort to learn to speak our languages. Some of them learned to speak a little bit, and many of them memorized prayers, but hardly any of them really learned any of our languages well. The great exception is Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice, who was stationed at Fort Saint James from 1885 until 1904. Father Morice began to study Dakelh in Williams Lake with Jimmy Alexander, the son of the Hudson's Bay factor and a Dakelh woman, who was sent to school at St. Joseph's school. Father Morice learned Dakelh well. He later published a number of works about Dakelh language and culture.

When the missionaries arrived in 1865 none of them knew any Dakelh, and few Dakelh people knew much French. The language in which they communicated was Chinook Jargon. Some Dakelh men knew Chinook Jargon; the missionaries would speak in Chinook Jargon and one of these men would interpret the speech into Dakelh. Chinook Jargon came to be widely used by Europeans coming up from the south, who were accustomed to using it to communicate with native people. As a result, a certain number of Dakelh people, mostly men who freighted on the Fraser River, learned Chinook Jargon. The Dakelh word for "chief" dayi comes from Chinook Jargon.

Chinook Jargon is no longer in use in our territory. Older people remember hearing it used when they were young, and some people know a few words. Many older people can still sing the Chinook Jargon song that they used to sing when the Bishop came to visit, but they do not understand it. Hardly anyone can actually speak it. Many people recall elders who could speak Chinook Jargon. For example, in her book The Carrier, My People Lizette Hall reports that her father, Louis-Billy Prince (1864-1962), could speak Chinook Jargon, as well as Dakelh, English, French, Sekani and Beaver.

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Yinka Déné Language Institute © 2006