Why is it important to learn Chinuk Pipa the right way?

Often when people try to learn Chinuk Pipa, the first thing they do is to learn each letter in isolation and start writing words how they like. I’m sorry to say, but this is exactly the opposite of what you should be doing. In this article I’m going to show you why it is important to learn Chinuk Pipa the right way, that is by whole words in the way they are commonly written in the Kamloops Wawa.

Understanding the ‘shapes’ of words

Let me preface this by saying that I am no cognitive scientist or linguist. I’m just someone who has an interest in languages and language learning. With that said, I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to recognize that the way our brains work means when we read a text, we do not necessarily read every single letter. Once we are familiar with a writing system, we come to subconsciously recognize entire words (or even more of the sentence) by what I like to think of as their ‘shapes’.

You might be familiar with this classic boomer Facebook meme:

If you read this text by painstakingly going through each letter in every word, it would make no sense to you. But despite the claims of this meme-maker, I think the vast majority of literate English speakers, if not all, could make sense of this text. Why is that? Because you don’t read by parsing each word down into its most basic components – you take in the ‘shape’ of the whole word or even more of the sentence.

What does this mean for Chinuk Pipa?

The same fact holds true with Chinuk Pipa. Take this example with the word “kaltash”:

I do not think you need to be literate in Chinuk Pipa to see that clearly it is the last example which strays farthest from the general ‘shape’ of the “correct” way to write this word. If you can’t read Chinuk Pipa though, it might surprise you to know that if you took the last example letter by letter it actually does spell “kaltash”. Going down the line, this is the transcription of each example broken into syllables with ‘ marking the break:

Correct: Kal’tash

Too long: gor’dash

Incorrect angle: pal’tash

Incorrect Syllabification: ka’lta’sh

The first two mistakes are still easily understood as the word “kaltash” to a fluent reader of Chinuk Pipa. There are just so few words in Chinook Jargon that, in general, you easily internalize the ‘shapes’ of them and so can understand even when there are minor mistakes. This is just like how you could understand the meme in English above. The last example, however, pains me greatly to read and unfortunately this is the sort of writing that is often produced by new learners of Chinuk Pipa who do not learn whole words as properly written.

To illustrate what this is like for a reader of chinuk pipa as best I can in our English alphabet, take a look at this:

ac  cordingtor e se ar chatC am bri dgeUni vers ity,itdo esn ’tmatt einwh ato rde rthele tter s inaw or d  ar e,th eo nl yim po rta ntt h ingi s th att hef i rsta n dl astlet terbe a tther ig htp la ce. T her est ca nb ea to ta lmes san d yo uca nst il lr eadit wi t houtp ro bl em. T hisis be cau seth eh uma nmi nd….

This is the same text as in the above meme and this is essentially what you are doing when you pick up Chinuk Pipa and just start to write any old way you want without learning the proper ‘shapes’ of the words. I don’t know about you, but for me this is way more painful to read than the above example. The above example still maintains the general ‘shape’ of the English words while this does not.

Okay, but then how do I write better Chinuk Pipa?

Well, the clear answer is that you need to learn the ‘shapes’ of the words. But what are the shapes and where can you learn them?

There are several factors that go into the proper word ‘shapes’. Firstly and maybe most obviously you must spell the word correctly. Spelling of words in Chinuk Pipa comes from the way they are most commonly written in the Kamloops Wawa newspaper. Period. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s not a good way to spell or you think you have a more accurate spelling for what you think the pronunciation is. If you try to invent your own spellings or transliterate other spelling systems like the one established at Grand Ronde, you will utterly confuse your readers and you are doing a disservice to this historic language and writing system. There is the closest thing to a historic standardized spelling of Chinuk Wawa in Chinuk Pipa – it does vary somewhat, but for the most part it is standardized and you must stick to this standard when writing Chinuk Pipa.

Secondly you must syllabify properly – that is split the word apart in the right way. You must learn by rote memorization the way that words are most commonly broken apart in the Kamloops Wawa. Again this will vary in minor ways sometimes, but for the most part it is quite standardized.

Thirdly, you must orient the letters correctly. This varies slightly more than the above two, but in certain cases it remains quite consistent and will be wrong if you stray from certain orientations. to illustrate what I mean, take a look at this example with the words “mitlait” and “tanas”:


Lastly, you must connect your letters correctly. Chinuk Pipa sometimes does not play nice with the rules of normal duployan shorthand, but in general there are certain things to avoid. These all are common sorts of pitfalls with new learners of Chinuk Pipa, take a look:

Now I won’t go into the ins-and-outs of this in this article. But I can point you in the direction where you can learn.

So, where and how can you learn all these standardized spellings, syllabifications, orientations, and connections? Simple: by reading the Kamloops Wawa and Chinook Rudiments, writing out, and memorizing what you see. It also helps greatly to read a large amount of text and internalize the common ways that Chinuk Pipa is written. This is really a necessary step if you want to learn this writing system properly – you must learn the common ways of writing whole words, not just the letters themselves. There are some lessons drafted by Le Jeune to teach the basics especially of orientation and connections, and you may find these helpful as well. But, I will always stand by the fact that just picking up actual texts and learning the words whole is one of the best ways to do it (there’s even evidence that’s how many of the learners did it more than 100 years ago!). This is the only way you will ever lean all the proper syllabifications and internalize the correct spellings.

So here are the links:

Chinook Rudiments (be careful because Le Jeune has some non-standard spellings especially of English-derived words in here)

Kamloops Wawa (Canadiana)

Kamloops Wawa (UBC)

Chinook Bible History

USASK Indigenous Studies Portal (you can find tons of Chinuk Pipa documents here by searching)

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