The Origins and Evolution of the Chinook Jargon
fter trading for sea otter at Nootka Sound in 1792, Capt. John Gray, aboard the ship "Columbia," sailed south with a Nootka vocabulary list and made his famous entrance into the river which now bears the name of his vessel. After nine days of fairly successful trading, captain, crew and local natives had more than likely graduated beyond hand gestures as a form of communication. An amalgamation of Nootka, English, and Chinook proper had probably begun to form a speech pattern with some individuals having communication skills.
Many ships during the next fourteen years traded in the great river of the West, most of them British or American, and most of them had been to Nootka Sound. Some semblance of a trade jargon must surely have been developed by this time.
Meriwether Lewis commented in 1806 that the language of the Chinook and Clatsop people of the lower Columbia River was more like English and easier to understand than any they had encountered on their trip across the continent. (This is ironic, given the fact that according to some scholars, proper Chinook was extremely complex and difficult to learn.) He also gives testimony to these natives having had exposure to the English language, noting that they repeated such terms as "musquit, powder, shot, knife, file, damn rascal, son of a bitch, etc." Lewis did collect actual Chinook words and some Nootkan, assuming that they were all of local origin. He noted, among other things, that these people continually asked for "tia co mo shack" (tyee kamosuk). Tyee is a Nootkan term for "chief" and kamosuk is proper Chinook for "beads." "Chief Beads" are the dark blue faceted type, still precious today.
Being faithful to President Jeffersonís instructions to obtain information on Indian languages, Meriwether Lewis recorded terms from the Chinooks and Clatsops, assuming that he was recording examples of their native language. They gave him many trade words.
Chinook Jargon historically, from the outset, has been in a state of evolvement. Phonology and orthography were seldom consistent, as is evident by the vocabulary lists of early recorders, most of whom assumed, like Lewis, that they were collecting Chinook or Clatsop terminology.
Many terms found in one recorderís list would be absent in another's. Terms were often dropped as they fell out of use, being replaced by new ones. The jargon varied from various informants as well, depending an their tribal affiliation.
It is not likely that French had much of an impact on Chinook Jargon until the advent of John Astor's Pacific Fur Company post at the present site of Astoria in 1810, and later the Hudsonís Bay Company post at Fort Vancouver. Both employed voyageurs and other French-speaking people to fill various occupations. A few Iroquois, Ojibway and Cree also worked for these companies. Their work took them in three compass directions, trapping, trading, mapping and collecting information on population and language of the native peoples. Communication was more of a hit-and-miss situation on both sides, with the Jargon spreading, but also picking up new terms. On a return trip to an area, a trader might use a little different jargon in Nez Perce country than he did up on Puget Sound.
The Willamette Valley, south of the lower Columbia, was inviting to French-Canadian settlers, who took up farming and other occupations, often marrying native women. Chinook Jargon became their common tongue, heavily impacted with French terminology.
n 1846 Horatio Hale observed that the five major languages spoken around Fort Vancouver at that time were English, French, Chinook, Cree and Hawaiian, with children of mixed marriages learning Chinook Jargon as their mother tongue. "Chinook Jargon" did not become a term until the late 1840ís, although no less than thirty-six individual word lists had been compiled before the George Gibbs dictionary was printed in 1863. This was widely distributed and became the standard for Chinook Jargon from then on.
Authors of subsequent dictionaries used Gibbs as a model and as immigrants poured into the Northwest country, they brought their copies of any of these with them as a guide to communicate in the hinterlands. New terms were rarely added to these late works from the field, with the possible exception of Father LeJeuneís in the late nineteenth century. As a missionary working in the Kamloops area of Southern British Columbia, he preached (probably more than listened) in Chinook Jargon. Among his many accomplishments were Psalms, a dictionary, songs, and a newspaper called the "Kamloops Wawa," all written in Jargon with Francophone and Gregg Shorthand. His work was heavy with French, obviously.
Meanwhile, back on the Pacific Coast, from Puget Sound north, French didnít have quite the influence it did in Kamloops and the lower Columbia River area, probably because of the lack of French speakers. Also many of the French words in Gibbsí dictionary relate to farming, and there is very little farming in Southeast Alaska and the Coast of British Columbia.
While not appearing in dictionaries. local Indian terms have occasionally replaced some of the Nootka and Chinook. A Haida acquaintance, when speaking Chinook Jargon, invariably uses the terms "lum-ga" and "du-gwan" rather than pahtlum and sihks. He greets with "how-a" rather than klahowya. And with the lack of labial sounds in the Tlingit language of northern southeast Alaska, it is more convenient for those speakers of Chinook to sometimes substitute a Tlingit word for some things, such as "kow a shu" rather than pahtlum. They prefer Tlingit "gu nash cheesh" over mahsie. These few Haida and Tlingit terms are common knowledge in southeast Alaska today.
As the Oregon country became an American territory and the fur companies departed, there was an immediate influx of English-speaking settlers, and of course in time English became the dominant language. Chinook Jargon, with its composite of various Indian, French and English terms, eventually became a secondary form of speech.
oday, Chinook Jargon is being perpetuated in a few isolated areas, either for cultural or regional identity, or because it's fun. Chinook Jargon classes are being taught on the Grand Ronde Reservation. Jargon workshops are being conducted at Black Powder and Mountain Man rendezvous.
Being woodcarvers by profession, in the Northwest Coast Indian medium, the editors of "Tenas Wawa" prefer to use native terms for their tools, if there is not a pertinent one in the official Jargon glossary. Among these are chak yuk, a Nootka term for the "D" adze. We use dax winst, a Gitksan term for "elbow" adze.
The purpose of this article is to give a little history on the development of Chinook Jargon as we know it today, and maybe to address the question of "What is proper Chinook Jargon?" Well, there may not be an answer. Orthography, as we have seen, has not been static, nor has phonography.
It is enlightening to read the stories recorded by Melville Jacobs in 1932. These were narrated by half a dozen different speakers, each having a separate tribal affiliation. Their pronunciation often is quite varied. A friend of mine who speaks Chinook Jargon spent much time with Mungo Martin, the famous Kwakiutl artist. He stated that Mungo and his people always pronounced the pronouns naika, nesaika, maika and mesaika as "naiga," "nesaiga," "maiga" and "mesaiga."
Some Chinook Jargon speakers on the Grand Ronde Reservation abbreviate certain words, for example, shortening pronouns, such as "nai" and "mai" instead of naika and maika.
Sources: Henry Benjamin Zenk; Samuel Victor Johnson; Lewis & Clark Journal; Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, "The Chinook Indians."