What is Chinook Jargon (aka Chinuk Wawa)?

Chinook Jargon is a pidgin language that formed around the mouth of the Columbia river in the early 19th Century. Yes, you heard me right. It’s a pidgin language. Despite myths to the contrary, this is a full blown language with its own grammar – there is a right and a wrong way to speak Chinook Jargon. It is not just English that you switch out different words for.

Chinook Jargon’s vocabulary is made up mostly of Chinookan, Nuu-Chah-Nulth (via an earlier Nootka Jargon), Salishan, Metis French, English, and onomatopoeia. Its grammar is very simple and there are relatively very few words when compared to a language like English. These words go a long way though, having lots of meanings very dependent on context. They can also be used together to create new words; for example, mamook (to make / do) + kumtuks (to know) = mamook-kumtuks (to teach).

Chinook Jargon was very widely spoken into the early 20th century from Alaska all the way down to Northern California and from the coast to well inland towards the Rockies. It’s possible that there were more than 100,000 speakers at one time. It was used to bridge the gap between people who did not previously share a common language – primarily between settlers and Indigenous peoples, though it also served widely as an inter-tribal language and was commonly sprinkled in with Chinese Pidgin English in interactions between Chinese and European settlers.

Despite its reputation as a simple ‘trade language’ it was used for much more than just commerce. Ideas too were and are exchanged through this language – stories, songs, news, theology, and philosophy. Traditional knowledge was passed down through this language. This was the language that many people grew up with as their mother tongue and the only language they spoke. For many families this was the only language shared between all members. This was the language that many used in religious services – both missionaries and those in the Indian Shaker Church. Trials were conducted in Chinook jargon. Courts regularly employed Chinook-speaking interpreters (such as Won Alexander Cumyow). Treaties were negotiated in Chinook Jargon. In British Columbia it was through Chinook Jargon written in the ‘Chinuk Pipa’ (an adapted shorthand writing system) that many Indigenous peoples first learned to read and write; this Chinuk Pipa spawned a flourishing and unique culture of literacy among Indigenous communities in the interior. Letters, notes, newspapers, and even gravestones were written in Chinook Jargon with this Chinuk Pipa. This language is in many ways permanently and closely interwoven with the history and culture of the entire Pacific Northwest – both settler and Indigenous.

As the 20th century progressed swarms of English-speaking settlers began to overwhelm Chinook Jargon and so its use began to wane – not helped by horrific colonial policies like residential schools which forced students to use English. In certain areas knowledge of Chinook remained into the later 20th century – especially among the families of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde in Oregon. There it became a creole – that is people grew up speaking it as a mother tongue. Elsewhere too it held on and knowledge has been passed down, though very few speakers remain.

Currently there is a strong push to revitalize this language. Grand Ronde remains the centre of Chinuk Wawa’s revitalization; there they have even set up an immersion school to ensure the language and all the knowledge that comes along with it survives into the coming generations. Other nations such as the Chinook Indian Nation, groups, and individuals from Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska have also been pushing to revitalize and pass on this language. There are now likely over 2000 speakers / learners and the numbers are only growing, so why not join the movement?

Before you start learning though, I strongly recommend that you read this article.

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