What are the different ways to write Chinook Wawa?

The Shorthand Chinuk Pipa of the Kamloops Wawa Newspaper

One of the greatest difficulties for beginners in learning Chinook Jargon is that, historically at least, there are almost as many ways to write it as there are speakers. This stems from the fact that Chinook has until recently been almost an entirely spoken language without a standardized writing system. This proves to be a hurdle at the start of your studies, but rest assured that you will overcome it eventually. With that in mind though, what are these ways of writing? Or at least what are the major ways of writing this language, what are the ways that are currently used, and how should you write?

In this post I will not be focusing on what linguists used to record this language, but rather what actual speakers or leaners used or are using. If you would like to learn those systems check out the International Phonetic Alphabet and the many forms of Americanist Phonetic Notation and similar notations.

1. Historical English-Influenced Spelling

Improper – wake kloshe, from George Coombs Shaw’s The Chinook Jargon and How to Use it

Many of the early settlers who first began to write this language down spoke and wrote English as their first language. So, when they began to write down what they heard they used the norms of their first language. Since you are reading this in English I’m sure that you’re aware that those norms might most accurately be called an absolute mess. This is hands down one of the worst ways to write this language. Period. It does an absolutely awful job of communicating the sound of the language and many people even in the 19th century knew that it was awful. Here is Myron Eells writing in 1894:

The spelling of the words is a curiosity. The earliest writer who published a dictionary for popular use (Lionnet, in 1853), instead of following the phonetic method, the only suitable for Indian languages, tried to follow the English method; in other words, no method at all.

Many of the English speaking settlers wrote this way however and these spellings are what usually make it onto the maps, into English loans, on company names, etc.. Some particularly terrible examples in this spelling chalk full of silent letters and horrible letter-combinations include:

Kloshe – good
Wake – no, not
Delate – true, truly, straight
Saghalie – up, high, sky

So how do you think these sound? clo-shay? wa-kay? Take a guess. Here’s what these actually sound like (though keep in mind there was and is a huge variance in how words were pronounced)

This system has even been confusing English speakers for more than 150 years. For example the pronoun “I” in Chinook is commonly spelled “nika” in this system. How do you think that is pronounced? ‘neeka’? ‘nick-uh’? ‘ny-kuh’? You can see my point. For the record, it’s said like this:

Similar systems were used by native speakers of other European languages where they would spell Chinook Wawa like it was their own language, though these are just as flawed and not nearly as common as these English-influenced spellings.

2. Early Attempts at Phonetic Spelling (Chinuk Pipa & Broken Letters)

The “Broken Letters” of Modeste Demers & St. Onge’s Chinook Dictionary , Catechism, Prayers and Hymns

Some saw the problem with writing the language in English spellings, partly because it’s illogical and inconsistent, but also because there are so many sounds that are not in English! These people set out to devise a more logical way to write Chinook and to represent those sounds unfamiliar to most English-speaking ears. Typically this work was undertaken by missionaries, usually French or French-speaking in origin, and typically Catholic. There are really two standouts here: the shorthand alphabetic ‘phonography’ Chinuk Pipa introduced by Father Jean-Marie-Raphael Le Jeune and the so-called ‘broken letters’ of the missionaries Demers and St. Onge. Both of these systems are actually quite similar to each other, both are influenced by French spelling, and both have developed strategies to show sounds unfamiliar to European ears. That said, both also have their problems.

If you look at the image above, do you notice the strange looking letter that looks kinda like the ink ran out when typing an h? That’s actually done intentionally by breaking the typeface and it’s meant to show a sound that is described as “guttural, and similar to the German ch in machen.” You can also find a similar letter in this alphabet that looks like a k with the top broken off. Got a guess what sound that is? The description reads “a guttural-explosive sound which practice alone can teach.” Well, now we know that it’s actually two different sounds and both of them are what we would call ejectives. Here’s what they sound like at the start of two different words:

k’ow and ḵ’o’

One of those “broken k’s” is pronounced father back in your mouth. Linguists would write these now like /k’/ and /q’/.

Chinuk Pipa is similar in many respects to this broken letter script, though it also has some of its own strategies. It’s an alphabetic shorthand, so it writes just like we do in English with our ABCs spelling out the word though it breaks words down into their syllables. It’s based on the French Duployan shorthand and being that it was originally designed by a Frenchman to represent French sounds, it also lacked the ability to represent many of the sounds of Chinook Wawa – that is until Father Le Jeune came up with some inventive ways to show them. As an example, the letter ‘h’ is often added onto letters to show that they are ejectives like that ‘broken k’. Sometimes two letters are written together to show ejectives. “kr” is used to represent that further back in the mouth ejective sound.

Ejectives in Chinuk Pipa

It is in these systems that you will find the vast majority of historic written Chinook Wawa. In fact, it’s really in Chinuk Pipa where you will find by far the most historical Chinook Wawa in complete sentences. This was the only writing system that really took off historically and was seriously adopted by a speaking community – mostly Indigenous people in the Interior of British Columbia and less so on the coast.

Many are currently learning Chinuk Pipa both to connect with the most utilized historic writing system for this language and to unlock the huge amount of reading material available to those able to understand it. Chinuk Pipa spellings but written out in the English alphabet also remain a somewhat common way to write, mostly due to the fact that there is just so much material written in Chinuk Pipa that you internalize its spelling easily. There’s even memes in Chinuk Pipa:


As Chinook usage began to wane due to both an influx of English-speaking settlers and horrific colonial policies like residential schools another phase began in ways of writing Chinook Wawa.

3. IPA-Based Orthographies (Early Online into Grand Ronde)

The IPA-based orthography currently used by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde

When the revitalization of Chinook Wawa was underway, people were looking for a way to write this language that was consistent, logical, and that represented speech well. The clear choice here, for linguistically-minded people anyway, was to adopt something based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This alphabet uses one symbol for one sound with a few extra markings as well. It is a very accurate way to write language down, but there are several problems with using straight IPA. Mainly it is an absolute pain to type. There are just too many sounds and thus too many letters to fit into a standard keyboard, that is if you even had specialized software to allow you to type the letters on that keyboard.

An example of early IPA-based orthographies used online

One way that this was dealt with early on when few had specialized keyboards was to use a mix of symbols that resemble IPA letters, mixing multiple letters together to write one sound, and using capital letters to represent sounds different than the lower case version of the same letter. These methods were used especially by linguists or linguistically-minded people and were by no means standardized. In fact, they vary almost as much as the old English-based spellings. This method is not commonly used now except when one needs to type quickly and does not have access to the proper keyboard or software.

In the example above, pulled from a 1998 email on the Chinook listserv, you can see that “lh” is being used to represent that slurpy sound at the start of the word spelled “kloshe” in English spelling. The capital E is the u in “uh-oh”. It’s called a schwa. The capital X is a kind of raspy noise you make at the back of your throat called a uvular fricative.

This was of course just a functional way to write and not the ideal. Eventually the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde settled on an IPA-esque writing system which they and many others use today. This is the spelling you will see used on their social media, their publications, their videos, their books, their website, and used in their immersion school. You can see how they spell the words on this paper for free, and I highly suggest if you want to learn this language that you also buy the Grand Ronde dictionary (that uses this spelling). It is hands-down the best dictionary for this language currently available.

Despite the adoption of this spelling by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, there still remains several other orthographies – ways of writing – that are commonly used. I will only focus on one though.

4. BC Learners Orthography

Pulled from one of Dr. Robertson’s learning papers recounting a Boxer Rebellion siege

This orthography has been adopted by the learners of Chinook Wawa in British Columbia and it seeks to bridge the gap between historical spellings and slightly less approachable (to non-linguist-types) IPA-based systems. You can see an explanation of this system here. Primarily it was designed to be as consistent phonetically as possible while also preserving something as recognizable as possible to the mostly anglophone learners. You can find lots of material written in this system, especially very informative learning papers here.

This system follows several of the Indigenous languages of British Columbia by representing those sounds you pronounce in the back of your throat with an underline. This includes ḵ and ẖ. You can see both of these in the example above written as “kanawei-ḵaẖ”. Also that slurpy noise you heard at the start of “kloshe” above (aka a lateral fricative or sometimes an affricate as well) follows the historic spelling of “tl”. You can see that in the word “tlaska” above and also the ejective form in the word spelled “tl’ap”. These words sound like this:

tlaska & tl’ap

So How Should I Write?

Well, I can’t and won’t tell you how to write. That is something you need to decide for yourself. I can however give you my personal take on it.

Personally I would strongly recommend that you adopt an orthography and spellings that are actually used by a learning or speaking community. That would mean you should write in the Grand Ronde orthography if you are learning Southern Chinook Wawa, you should learn the BC Learners / Chinuk Pipa Transliterated orthography if you are in BC, and so on. I would strongly recommend that you do not invent your own system as it puts a further strain on people, especially learners who are just starting out. Inevitably if you delve deep enough into Chinook Jargon you will learn many different ways to write, however let’s not add to the mess further. This is obviously just my opinion and a suggestion though.

If want to expand your horizons with Chinook Wawa and learn as much as possible while also keeping within standards, I would recommend you primarily learn and write three ways:

Grand Ronde Orthography
BC Learners Orthography
Chinuk Pipa (and its accompanying transliteration)

It is in these three orthographies that you will find the absolute vast majority of Chinook works – not to mention also the good, fluent Chinook works. It is in these three orthographies that most people are seriously learning, so you should be too.

2 thoughts on “What are the different ways to write Chinook Wawa?

  1. I’m working on a lexicon combining of Plains Indian Sign (PISL), Grande Ronde Chinuk Wawa and the Duployan shorthand glyphs. It’s hard to imagine i’ve not come across this before!

    My feeling is that, like Chinese, the shorthand was lost on most who read and/or wrote it, and the recognized “glyphs” were the means of communication.
    I’d love your input.


    1. To an extent this is true of Chinuk Pipa. There’s lots of evidence that people learned Chinuk Pipa by memorizing whole words by rote rather than learning the individual glyphs. For example, in Chinuk Pipa letters you can see writers rotating words which would make them indecipherable if you were reading them based strictly off the rules of Duployan, but easily understood if you know the common way of writing CW words in Chinuk Pipa. This is why I stress that when people write with Chinuk Pipa they need to first learn the whole words as written in the Kamloops Wawa rather than learning the letters and going from there.

      All that said though, there’s absolutely many people who knew the individual glyphs of Chinuk Pipa. In letters you can see them writing lots of uncommon words, names, etc. that would require it. Le Jeune also gave names to the letters which he taught people when giving lessons in the “katikisim haws”. However, writers were clearly less confident about uncommon words / names than the common CW words and often made mistakes. You can see that with Le Jeune or myself as well!


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