TENAS WAWA--The Chinook Jargon Voice Chinook Jargon Notes


In the year 1792, Captain John Gray was the first white man to cross the entrance of that great river that now bears the name of his ship, the Columbia. This was also the home of the people whose name has been attached to the pidgin known popularly as "Chinook Jargon." It is often glossed as "Chinook" or "Jargon," and is a by-product of the fur trade.

Earlier, during his visit to Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, Captain Gray acquired a vocabulary list of the language of that area. He no doubt assumed, or at least hoped, that this could be used to communicate with natives in other ports of call.

The Clatsop and lower Chinook people who came to the ship to trade thought he was speaking in his own tongue. Eager to trade, these natives quickly assimilated the new,"foreign" terminology. Soon a mutual, unofficial pidgin began to develop. (These earliest negotiations were likely carried out in a clumsy mixture of English, Chinook proper, and other native tongues.) Other ships followed, of course, not to mention the historic arrival of Lewis and Clark, who built and wintered at Fort Clatsop.

In the year 1810 John Astor established a fort at the site of the present town of Astoria. Being near the mouth of the Columbia River, it was an ideal spot for his "Pacific Fur Company." He employed a number of Canadian French, along with some Ojibway and Iroquois Indians from the east. In three years Fort Astoria became the property of the British Northwest Fur Company, which merged with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821. In 1824 the Hudson's Bay post was established at Fort Vancouver.

Natives from the interior and along the coast always played an integral role in the fur trade, the men being trappers or middle-men, and the women often negotiating the exchanges for goods with other Indians or the fur companies. The lingua franca for these dealings was the developing Jargon. Many of the French gradually left the fur companies and took up farming in the Willamette Valley, among other trades. Marriage with native women from far and near was common and communities were formed in which there was no common language other than "Chinook Jargon." The first language of these children was "Chinook."

A glimpse at a vocabulary list from any "Chinook Jargon" dictionary reveals the influence that French had on the language.

By the 1840s there seems to have been, for the most part, a fairly standardized vocabulary which was actually being referred to as "Chinook Jargon." Spelling was not standardized, however, and showed much variation among those that recorded it.

By the year 1853, at least twenty-three individuals had recorded what can be regarded today as "Chinook Jargon" vocabularies, if we include word lists from Nootka Sound, recorded by early explorers. The Nootka Sound word lists are all of Wakashan origin, although many terms became part of proper "Chinook Jargon."

It can safely be said that any "Chinook Jargon" dictionaries printed after this time are copies or composites of earlier works. Subsequent editions were often edited at publishing houses.

Klootzman! Nehwa naika Chinook Book, yahwa chako ikti Boston ship!

(Woman! Bring my Chinook Book, there come first American ship!)

George Gibbs, one of Governor Stevens' Indian treaty secretaries, compiled a dictionary in 1863. Gibbs' dictionary drew from previous works, and for many years it had been the standard for English speakers of Chinook Jargon. As a result, it probably also influenced the jargon of non-English speakers.

The dictionary of George Shaw, printed in 1909, has an extensive glossary that illustrates word origins and spelling variations. However, his word definitions are very inconsistent. It has an expanded vocabulary of such incongruous terms as "quorum," "Protestantism," "antediluvian," "unaccustomed," and many more. These are impossible to translate meaningfully into jargon.

The first John Harper Thomas dictionary was published in 1935, and for the most part, was taken from George Shaw. It was reprinted in 1954 and again in 1970. Apparently, in an attempt to expand the "Chinook Jargon" vocabulary, many words from the Chinook language proper were inserted. These have never appeared in any previous "Chinook Jargon" word list, and probably were never used in jargon speech. There are other useless inclusions as well. He included a hymn that isn't even "Chinook Jargon," and may be from Chinook language, as well as a very poor translation of the Ten Commandments. It is very difficult for the editors of "Tenas Wawa" to conceive that the architect of the publication was a speaker of "Chinook Jargon."

Chinook Jargon" isn't truly a dead language today. However, as everyone on the continent speaks English, speaking the jargon is hardly a necessity. For those with an interest in Northwest History, some knowledge of this jargon is a good thing and, let's face it, it's fun.

There seems to be a growing interest in Chinook Jargon. The growing list of subscribers to "Tenas Wawa" indicates that there are some serious people out there who speak it or want to learn.

We would like to complete this story by settling some common fears of Chinook Jargon students. Contrary to results of an extensive and expensive Chinook Jargon research program going on north of our border, there are not "approximately one-thousand words" in Chinook Jargon. Rather, there are approximately three-hundred and thirty, and many of these are English. Also, many of the words are trade-specific. For example, many Chinook Jargon words of French origin deal with farming.

Any speaker with a vocabulary of fifty Chinook Jargon words, excluding the English from that list, can converse with any other speaker. The average number of different Chinook words per issue of Tenas Wawa is probably about fifty.


Some excellent doctoral theses papers have been done on Chinook Jargon recently. The selected bibliography that follows begins with two of them:

Johnson, Samuel Victor, "Chinook Jargon: A Computer Assisted Analysis of Variation in an American Indian Pidgin," 1978, University Microfilms International, 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106 (800) 521-0600.

Zenk, Henry Benjamin, "Chinook Jargon and Native Cultural Persistence in the Grand Ronde Indian Community," 1984, University Microfilms International, 300 North Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106 (800) 521-0600.

Gibbs, George, "Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon," 1863, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection #161; also published: Cramoisy Press, New York.

Gill, John, "Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, 18th edition," 1881, printed by J.K. Gill, Portland.

Jacobs, Melville, "Notes on the Structure of Chinook Jargon," 1932, University of Washington Anthropology Department, and "Texts in Chinook Jargon," 1936, University of Washington Publications in Anthropology.

LeJeune, Father J., "Practical Chinook Vocabulary," 1886, St. Louis Mission, Kamloops, B.C.

Shaw, George, "Chinook Jargon - How to Use It," 1909, 1965 reprint, Shorey Book Store, Seattle.

Pasco, Duane, "KLAHOWYA   A Handbook for Learning Chinook Jargon," with 60-minute cassette of grammar and stories, 1991, published by the author.

(Text and drawings Copyright © 1991-92 by Duane Pasco)

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