Chinook Jargon

Chinook Jargon
Chinook Jargon
chinuk wawa, wawa, chinook lelang, lelang
Spoken in Canada, United States
Region Pacific Northwest (Interior and Coast)
Native speakers
Language family
Various. Mainly Wakashan, Chinookan, and Indo European (Germanic and Romance)
Writing system de facto Latin Alphabet
historically also Duployan
Official status
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-2 chn
ISO 639-3 chn

Chinook Jargon (also known as chinuk wawa) originated as a pidgin trade language of the Pacific Northwest, and spread during the 19th century from the lower Columbia River, first to other areas in modern Oregon and Washington, then British Columbia and as far as Alaska, sometimes taking on characteristics of a creole language.[1] It is related to, but not the same as, the aboriginal language of the Chinook people, upon which much of its vocabulary is based.[2]

Many words from Chinook Jargon remain in common use in the Western United States and British Columbia and the Yukon, in indigenous languages as well as regional English usage,[3] to the point where most people are unaware the word was originally from the Jargon.[citation needed] The total number of Jargon words in published lexicons numbered only in the hundreds, and so it was easy to learn.[citation needed] It has its own grammatical system, but a very simple one that, like its word list, was easy to learn.[citation needed]


Overview and history

The Jargon was originally constructed from a great variety of Amerind words of the Pacific Northwest, arising as an intra-indigenous contact language in a region marked by divisive geography and intense linguistic diversity. The participating peoples came from a number of very distinct language families, speaking dozens of individual languages.[4]

After European contact, the Jargon also acquired English and French loans, as well as words brought by other European[citation needed], Asian[citation needed], and Polynesian[citation needed] groups. Some individuals from all these groups soon adopted The Jargon as a highly efficient and accessible form of communication. This use continued in some business sectors well into the 20th century[5][6] and some of its words continue to feature in company and organization names as well as in the regional toponymy.

In the Diocese of Kamloops, British Columbia, hundreds of speakers also learned to read and write the Jargon using Duployé shorthand via the publication Kamloops Wawa. As a result, the Jargon also had the beginnings of its own literature, mostly translated scripture and classical works, and some local and episcopal news, community gossip and events, and diaries.[4] Novelist and early Native American activist Marah Ellis Ryan (1860?-1934) used Chinook words and phrases in her writing.[7]

According to Nard Jones, Chinook Jargon was still in use in Seattle until roughly the eve of World War II, especially among the members of the Arctic Club, making Seattle the last city where the language was widely used. Writing in 1972, he remarked that at that later date "Only a few can speak it fully, men of ninety or a hundred years old, like Henry Broderick, the realtor, and Joshua Green, the banker."[8]

Jones estimates that in pioneer times there were about 100,000 speakers of Chinook Jargon.[9]


Most books written in English still use the term Chinook Jargon, but some linguists working with the preservation of a creolized form of the language used in Grand Ronde, Oregon prefer the term Chinuk Wawa (with the spelling 'Chinuk' instead of 'Chinook'). Historical speakers did not use the name Chinook Wawa, however, but rather "the Wawa" or "Lelang" (from Fr. la langue, the language, or tongue). NB Wawa also means speech or words – "have a wawa" means "hold a parley" even in idiomatic English today[citation needed], and lelang also means the physical bodypart, the tongue[citation needed].

The name for the Jargon varied throughout the territory in which it was used. For example: skokum hiyu in the Boston Bar-Lytton area of the Fraser Canyon, or in many areas simply just "the old trade language".

ISO language code

According to the ISO 639-2 standard, the alpha-3 code chn denotes the Chinook Jargon.[10]

Origins and evolution

There is some controversy about the origin of the Jargon, but all agree that its glory days were during the 19th century. During this era many dictionaries were published in order to help settlers interact with the First Nations people already living there. The old settler families' heirs in the Pacific Northwest sent communiques to each other, stylishly composed entirely in "the Chinook". Many residents of the British Columbia city of Vancouver spoke Chinook Jargon as their first language, even using it at home in preference to English. Among the first Europeans to use Chinook Jargon were traders, trappers, Voyageurs, Coureur des bois and Catholic missionaries. Hawaiians and Chinese in the region made much use of it as well; in some places Kanakas married into the First Nations and non-native families and their particular mode of the Jargon is believed to have contained Hawaiian words, or Hawaiian styles of pronunciation; similarly the Jargon as spoken by a Chinese person or a Norwegian or a Scot will have been influenced by those individuals' native-speaker terms and accents; and in some areas the adoption of further non-aboriginal words has been observed. The Chinook Jargon naturally became the first language in mixed-blood households, and also in multi-ethnic work environments such as canneries and lumberyards and ranches where it remained the language of the workplace well into the middle of the 20th Century. During the Gold Rush, Chinook Jargon was used in British Columbia by gold prospectors and Royal Engineers. As industry developed, Chinook Jargon was often used by cannery workers and hop pickers of diverse ethnic background. Loggers, fishermen and ranchers incorporated it in their jargon.

A heavily creolized form of Chinook Jargon (Chinuk Wawa or Tsinuk wawa) is still spoken as a first language by some residents of Oregon State, much as the Métis language Michif is still spoken in Canada. Hence, the Wawa as it is known in Oregon is now a creole language, distinct from the widespread and widely-varied pronunciation of the Chinook Jargon as it spread beyond the Chinookan homeland. There is evidence that in some communities (e.g. around Fort Vancouver) the Jargon had become creolized by the early 19th century, but that would have been among the mixed French/Metis, Algonkian, Scots and Hawaiian population there as well as among the natives around the Fort. At Grand Ronde, the resettlement of tribes from all over Oregon in a multi-tribal agency required the development of an intertribal language, and so the Wawa was augmented by the addition of Klickitat and Wasco words and sounds and "more Indian" modifications of the pronunciation and vocabulary.

No studies of British Columbia versions of the Jargon have demonstrated creolization and the range of varying usages and vocabulary in different regions suggests that localization did occur, although not on the pattern of Grand Ronde where Wasco, Klickitat and other peoples adopted and added to the version of the Jargon that developed in Grand Ronde. First-language speakers of the Chinook Jargon were common in BC, both native and non-native, until mid-20th Century, and it is a truism that while after 1850 the Wawa was mostly a native language in the United States portion of the Chinook-speaking world, it remained in wide use among non-natives north of the border for another century, especially in wilderness areas and working environments.[citation needed] Local creolizations probably did occur in British Columbia, but recorded materials have not been studied since they were made due to the focus on the traditional aboriginal languages.[citation needed] Most Chinookology ignores non-native use of the Jargon, and there is a current in Jargon studies to purge or otherwise creolize the English and French words out of it, to "Indianize" it.[citation needed]

Many believe that something similar to the Jargon existed prior to European contact, but without European words in its vocabulary. There is some evidence for a Chinookan-Nuu-chah-nulth interlingua in the writings of John Jewitt and also in what is known as the Barclay Sound word-list, from the area of Ucluelet and Alberni. Others believe that the Jargon was formed within the great cultural cauldron of the time of Contact, and cannot be discussed separately from that context, with an appreciation for the full range of the Jargon-speaking community and its history.[4]

Current scholarly opinion holds that a trade language of some kind probably existed prior to European contact, which began "morphing" into the more familiar Chinook Jargon in the late 1790s, notably at a dinner party at Nootka Sound where Capts Vancouver and Bodega y Quadra were entertained by Chief Maquinna and his brother Callicum performing a theatrical using mock English and mock Spanish words and mimicry of European dress and mannerisms. There evidently was a Jargon of some kind in use in the Queen Charlotte, but this "Haida Jargon" is not known to have shared anything in common with Chinook Jargon, or with the Nooktan-Chinookan "proto-jargon" which is its main foundation.

Many words in Chinook Jargon clearly had different meanings and pronunciations at various points in history, and continued to evolve into interesting regional variants. A few scholars have tried to formalize the spelling, but since it was mostly a spoken language this is difficult (and many users tend to prefer the sort of spelling they use in English).[citation needed]


Pacific Northwest historians are well acquainted with the Chinook Jargon, in name if not in the ability to understand it. Mentions of and phrases of Chinook Jargon were found in nearly every piece of historical source material before 1900. Chinook Jargon is relatively unknown to the rest of the population, perhaps due to the great influx of newcomers into the influential urban areas. However, the memory of this language is not likely to fade entirely. Many words are still used and enjoyed throughout Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska. Old-timers still dimly remember it, although in their youth, speaking this language was discouraged as slang. Nonetheless, it was the working language in many towns and workplaces, notably in ranching country and in canneries on the British Columbia Coast where it was necessary in the strongly multiethnic workforce. Place names throughout this region bear Jargon names (see List of Chinook Jargon placenames) and words are preserved in various rural industries such as logging and fishing.

The Chinook Jargon was multicultural and functional. To those familiar with it, Chinook Jargon is often considered a wonderful cultural inheritance. For this reason, and because Jargon has not quite died, enthusiasts actively promote the revival of the language in everyday western speech.

The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon is taking steps to preserve Chinook Jargon use through a full immersion head start/preschool which is conducted in Chinuk Wawa, in hopes of fostering fluency in the language.[11][12] The Confederated Tribes also offer Chinuk Wawa lessons at their offices in Eugene and Portland, Oregon.[13]
At her swearing-in as lieutenant governor in 2001, Iona Campagnolo concluded her speech in Chinook, observing that "konoway tillicums klatawa kunamokst klaska mamook okoke huloima chee illahie" - Chinook for "everyone was thrown together to make this strange new country (British Columbia)."[1]
An art installation featuring Chinook Jargon, "Welcome to the Land of Light" by Henry Tsang, can be viewed on the Seawall along False Creek in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia between Davie and Drake streets.[14] Translation into Chinook Jargon was done by Duane Pasco.[citation needed]

English-language speakers

Pacific Northwest English and British Columbian English have several words still in current use which are loanwords from the Chinook Jargon. Skookum, potlatch, muckamuck, saltchuck, and other Chinook Jargon words are widely used by people who do not speak Chinook Jargon.

See also


  1. ^ Lang, George (2008). Making Wawa: The Genesis of Chinook Jargon. Vancouver: UBC Press. pp. especially 127–128. ISBN 978-0-7748-1526-0. 
  2. ^ "Chinook Jargon". Yinka Dene Language Institute. Retrieved 2009-12-02. 
  3. ^ Dillard, Joey Lee. 1985. Toward a social history of American English, pp. 146-147
  4. ^ a b c Holton, Jim. 1999. Chinook Jargon: The Hidden Language of the Pacific Northwest.
  5. ^ Early Vancouver, Maj. J.S. "Skit" Matthews, City of Vancouver, 1936.
  6. ^ Lillard, Charles; Terry Glavin (1998). A Voice Great Within Us. Vancouver: New Star Books. ISBN 0-921586-56-6. 
  7. ^ Squaw Elouise, Chicago; New York: Rand, McNally, 1892; Told in the Hills, Chicago; New York: Rand, McNally, 1891, 1905.
  8. ^ Jones, Nard (1972). Seattle. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. p. 94 et. seq.. ISBN 0385018754. . Quotation is from p. 97.
  9. ^ Jones, op. cit., p. 97.
  10. ^ Library of Congress search results page
  11. ^ "Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde Community of Oregon". US Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved 2009-12-02. 
  12. ^ McCowan, Karen. "Grand Ronde tribe saves a dying language, one child at a time", The Eugene Register-Guard, 2003-07-20. Retrieved on 2009-12-02.
  13. ^ Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde Community of Oregon. p. 15 "Cultural Resources slates classes", Smoke Signals, 2009-07-15. Retrieved on 2009-12-02.
  14. ^ "Artwork: Welcome To the Land of Light". City of Vancouver. June 4, 2008. Retrieved December 10, 2009. 

External links

Note: The Incubator link at right will take you to the Chinuk Wawa test-Wikipedia, which is written in the modern creolized Grand Ronde OR-derived of the Jargon, not the normal historical forms encountered outside of Lower Oregon as is not relevant to or reflective of the Jargon as used at Warm Springs, Colville, or in British Columbia:

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