TENAS WAWA--The Chinook Jargon Voice Chinook Jargon Notes

Dr. Tolmie's Notes

and Other Views of the Jargon from the Era

Fresh out of medical school in Glasgow, Scotland, the learned and well-bred William Frazier Tolmie arrived on the ship "Ganymede" at Fort Vancouver in the Spring of 1833. He was immediately sent up the Cowlitz River and then overland to Puget Sound to be medical and science officer and clerk for the Hudson's Bay Company's emerging Fort Nisqually.

Dr. Tolmie had earned letters in several of the sciences, as well as French and Latin. A consummate student, he was an avid collector of native vocabularies, including Chinook Jargon. Knowledge of Chinook Jargon, of course, was practically a necessity in the Northwest in those days, but a thing which he acquired with some disdain, as can be seen by such entries in his journal:

"June 25, 1833. . . .  Have been making a vocabulary of the Chenooke Jibberish, by which we communicate with the Indians   it is a vile compound of English, French, American and Chenooke dialect."

The young doctor was, at least in the beginning, frustrated with the limitations of the trade language; discovering, as others were to, that it was not a medium with which to convey biblical information, as he shows us in his journal a month later:

"July 28, 1833. . . .  Today the Indians assembled in front of the house to the number of 70 or 80 male and female. With Brown as interpreter, who spoke in Chenook, Heron and I explained to them the creation of the world, the reason why Christians and Jews abstained from work on Sunday, and had got as far as the Deluge in the Sacred History when we were requested to stop as the Indians could not comprehend things clearly. The Chenook is such a miserable medium of communication that very few ideas can be expressed in it."

For a person such as the 21-year-old Dr. Tolmie, whose youth had been spent in intellectual pursuits, the lusterless work-based trade jargon of the frontier had no redeeming qualities.

Like it or not, Chinook Jargon was the lingua franca, and was not about to disappear overnight. Throughout the following years various writers had comments like the following from Nathaniel Hale, writing of Fort Vancouver in the 1840's:

"The place at which the Jargon is most in use is at Fort Vancouver. At this establishment five languages are spoken by about five hundred persons, namely the English, the Canadian French, the Chinook [language], the Cree and the Hawaiian. Besides these five languages there are many others: the Chehalis, Walla Walla, Calapooya, Nisqually, etc., which are daily heard from the Natives who visit the fort for the purpose of trading. Among all these persons, there are very few who understand more than two languages and many who speak only their own. General communication is, therefore, maintained chiefly by means of the Jargon, which may be said to be the prevailing idiom. There are Canadians and half-breeds who have married Chinook women and can only converse with their wives in this speech; and it is the fact, strange as it may seem, that many young children are growing up to whom this factitious language is really the mother tongue, and speak it with more readiness and perfection than any other."

At French Prairie in the middle 1830's, a schoolmaster at the Methodist mission wrote a letter containing the following:

"There is a settlement near us, containing eight families. The men are French and Canadians, Roman Catholic by profession, and have taken Native wives. Their children are generally endowed with good understanding, and learn as rapidly as any in their position could be expected to do, being wholly unacquainted with the English language. They have, for the most, a smattering of the French tongue, but more generally in conversation make use of a mongrel Indian language, which is a jargon of the Chinook tongue, and is used by the different tribes and traders in this region in their communications with each other."

On the subject of Chinook Jargon and the Bible, the incompatibility of the two is reiterated by Reverend W.H. Collison, the first missionary on the Queen Charlotte Islands, writing in the 1880's:

"However well the Chinook may be adapted for trading purposes, it is a poor medium for communicating religious instruction. But the importance of the missionary message compelled me to have recourse to the use of it while acquiring Haida."


(Copyright © 1993 by Duane Pasco)

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