Chinook Jargon

Chinook Jargon (also known as Chinuk Wawa, or Chinook Wawa) is a nearly extinct American indigenous language originating as a pidgin trade language in the Pacific Northwest, and spreading 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.[4] It is partly descended from the Chinook language, upon which much of its vocabulary is based.[5]

Chinook Jargon
chinuk wawa, wawa, chinook lelang, lelang
Native toCanada, United States
RegionPacific Northwest (Interior and Coast)
Native speakers
1 (2013)[1]
Revivalsome L2 speakers since 2000
De facto Latin,
historically Duployan;
currently standardized IPA-based orthography
Official status
Official language in
De facto in Pacific Northwest until about 1900
Language codes
ISO 639-2chn
ISO 639-3chn
Glottologpidg1254  (pidgin)[2]
chin1272  (creole)[3]

Many words from Chinook Jargon remain in common use in the Western United States and British Columbia. The total number of Jargon words in published lexicons numbered only in the hundreds, and so it was easy to learn.[6] It has its own grammatical system, but a very simple one that, like its word list, was easy to learn. Though existent in Chinook Jargon, the consonant /r/ is rare, and English and French loan words, such as rice and merci, have changed in their adoption to the Jargon, to lice and mahsie, respectively.

Overview and history

The Jargon was originally constructed from a great variety of Amerindian 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.[7] It peaked in usage from approximately 1858 to 1900, and declined as a result of the Spanish flu, World War I and residential schools.[8]

After European contact, the Jargon also acquired English and French loans, as well as words brought by other European, Asian, and Polynesian 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[9][10] 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 Duployan 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.[7] Novelist and early Native American activist Marah Ellis Ryan (c. 1860-1934) used Chinook words and phrases in her writing.[11]

In Oregon, Chinook Jargon was widely used by Natives, trappers, traders, employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, missionaries, and pioneers who came across the Oregon Trail from the 1830s-1870s. In Portland's first half century (1840s-1890s) there were frequent trade interactions between pioneers and Native Americans. After about 1900, when such daily interactions were less frequent, Jargon was spoken among pioneer families to prove how early they arrived out west. Many Oregonians used Jargon in casual conversation—to add humor, whimsy or emphasis and to exhibit deep knowledge of Oregon's history. Though traditions of speaking Jargon faded away among the non-Native population, some of Oregon's tribal groups continued speaking Chinook Jargon, though usage was diminished. However, a strong revival occurred with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon's 2012 "Chinuk Wawa" dictionary.[12]

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."[13]

Jones estimates that in pioneer times in the 1860s[14] there were about 100,000 speakers of Chinook Jargon.[15]


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). Wawa also means speech or words "have a wawa" means "hold a parley" even in idiomatic English today,[10] and lelang also means the physical bodypart, the tongue.[16]

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" or "the Hudson Bay language".

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 to help settlers interact with the First Nations people 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, Coureurs des bois and Catholic missionaries.[17][18]

Hawaiians and American 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. In some areas the adoption of further non-aboriginal words has been observed. The Chinook Jargon naturally became the first language in multi-racial households and 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 at first by gold prospectors and Royal Engineers; then as industry developed, Chinook Jargon was often used by cannery workers, hop pickers, loggers, fishermen and ranchers of diverse ethnic background. It is possible that at one point the population of BC spoke and understood Chinook Jargon more than any other single language, including English.[19] Historian Jane Barman wrote,

The persistence of everyday relationships between Natives and Europeans is embodied in Chinook. Emerging out of early contact and the fur trade, the Chinook jargon possesses at most 700 words derived in approximately equal proportions from the powerful Chinook Indians of the lower Columbia, from the Nootka people of Vancouver Island, and from French and English... jargon provided 'an important vehicle of communication for trading & ordinary purposes.' James Douglas often spoke in Chinook when addressing Native people, a local Indian then translating his words into the local tongue. Bishop George Hills and other early Anglican clerics did the same when preaching. Chinook was the language of instruction in the school for Indian children that Hills established near Victoria in 1860.

A miner whiling away the winter of 1858 in Victoria wrote his parents that he was passing the time 'studying the Chinook Jargon and can now converse with the Indians.' A beginning clerk in the Granville general store in 1884 was handed a Chinook dictionary, his pronunciation 'in the second language of the area' being repeatedly corrected by his employer. Again, the purchasing power of Aboriginal men, women, and families is underlined... Chinook entered the mainstream. The summertime camps of late-nineteenth century Victorians 'were nearly all given rather fantastic and often facetious names: "The Three Black Crowes" or something à la Chinook... It was only after mid-century, when almost all Indian adults had learned basic English in school, that everyday use of Chinook died out in British Columbia.[19]

A heavily creolized form of Chinook Jargon (Chinuk Wawa) is still spoken as a first language by some residents of Oregon, much as the Métis language Michif is spoken in Canada. Hence, Chinuk 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 and that would have been among the mixed French/Métis, 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 led to the use of Chinuk Wawa as a common tongue among the linguistically diverse population. These circumstances led to the creolization of Chinuk Wawa at Grand Ronde.[20] There is also evidence that creolization occurred at the Confederated Tribes of Siletz reservation paralleling Grand Ronde[21] although, due to language revitalization efforts being focused on the Tolowa language, Chinuk fell out of use.

No studies of British Columbia versions of the Jargon have demonstrated creolization. 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 there. First-language speakers of the Chinook Jargon were common in BC (native and non-native), until the mid-20th century. 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 work environments.[10] Local creolizations probably did occur in British Columbia, but recorded materials have not been studied as they were made due to the focus on the traditional aboriginal languages.

Many believe that something similar to the Jargon existed before European contact — without European words in its vocabulary.[22] There is some evidence for a Chinookan-Nuu-chah-nulth lingua franca in the writings of John Jewitt and in what is known as the Barclay Sound word-list, from the area of Ucluelet and Alberni. Others believe that the Jargon was formed in 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.[7]

Current scholarly opinion holds that a trade language probably existed before 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 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.


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, the Yukon, 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 multi-ethnic 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.[23] 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.[24][25] The Confederated Tribes also offer Chinuk Wawa lessons at their offices in Eugene and Portland, Oregon.[26] In addition, Lane Community College offers two years of Chinuk Wawa language study that satisfy second-language graduation requirements of Oregon public universities.[27]

In March 2012, the Tribe published a Chinuk Wawa dictionary through University of Washington Press.[16]

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)."[8]

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.[28] Translation into Chinook Jargon was done by Duane Pasco.[29]

A short film using Chinook Jargon, "Small Pleasures" by Karin Lee explores intercultural dialogue between three women of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds in 1890's Barkerville in Northern British Columbia.[30]

Revival of the language

Chinuk Wawa was classified as extinct until the 2000s when it was revived, notably in 2014 with the release of Chinuk Wawa—As Our Elders Teach Us to Speak It by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. In 2018 a textbook for Chinook Jargon in Esperanto (La Chinuka Interlingvo Per Esperanto,[31] The Chinook Bridge-Language Using Esperanto) was published by Sequoia Edwards. In 2019 "Chinuk Wawa" became available as a language option on the fanfiction website Archive of Our Own.[32]

During termination of aboriginal peoples by the United States government, speaking of the language was forbidden, and as a result, developed a decline of speakers. After the conclusion of the termination era with the restoration of tribes in the pacific northwest area, revival of Chinuk Wawa began. To date, there are fluent speakers of Chinuk Wawa, primarily in the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.

Influence on English

British Columbian English and Pacific Northwest English have several words still in current use which are loanwords from the Chinook Jargon, which was widely spoken throughout the Pacific Northwest by all ethnicities well into the middle of the 20th century. These words tend to be shared with, but are not as common in, the states of Oregon, Washington, Alaska and, to a lesser degree, Idaho and western Montana.

Chinook Jargon words used by English-language speakers

  • Cheechako Newcomer; the word is formed from chee ("new") + chako ("come") and was used to refer to non-native people.
  • Chuck Water; and thus saltchuck "salt water".
  • Cultus means bad, worthless, useless, ordinary, evil or taboo. Cultus iktus means "worthless stuff".
  • Hiyu less common nowadays, but still heard in some places to mean a party or gathering. From the Chinook for "many" or "several" or "lots of". The Big Hiyu (also known as "The July") was a week-long joint celebration of Dominion Day and the Glorious Fourth in the Fraser Canyon town of Lillooet, featuring horse races, gambling, a rodeo and other festivities. A tenas hiyu (small gathering) was on a much smaller scale. The community of West Seattle has celebrated the month of July for more than 75 years with the HiYu Summer Festival.[33]
  • Iktus "stuff" in Chinook Jargon, also pronounced "itkus" with 't' and 'k' reversed.
  • Klootchman or klootch in the Jargon meaning simply "a woman" or the female of something klootchman kiuatan (mare), klootchman lecosho (sow), tenas klootchman or klootchman tenas (girl, female child). Still in use in English in some areas and with people of an older background to mean a First Nations woman, or to refer to the wives/women attached to a certain group in a joking way e.g. "we sent all the klootchman to the kitchen while we played cards". Unlike its male equivalent siwash, klootchman does not generally have a derisive tone nowadays (when used).
  • Masi In northern BC and the Yukon, and used in broadcast English in those areas, the Chinook Jargon adaption of the French merci remains common, i.e. mahsi or masi, with the accent on the first syllable (unlike in French).
  • It is possible that the slang term moolah, meaning money in American slang, comes from the word 'moolah' meaning 'mill' in Chinook.[34]
  • Potlatch in Chinook Jargon is a ceremony among certain tribes involving food and exchange of gifts, nowadays sometimes used to refer to a potluck dinner or sometimes the giving away of personal items to friends.
  • Quiggly, quiggly hole refers to the remains of an old Indian pit-house, or underground house, from kickwillie or kekuli, which in the Jargon means "down" or "underneath" or "beneath".
  • Siwash (/ˈswɑːʃ/ SY-wahsh) properly a First Nations man, but sometimes used for women as well. Nowadays considered extremely derogatory but still in use, typically with the connotation of "drunken no-good Indian". Historically it did not necessarily have this connotation and was the generic term for Natives to the point where some writers thought there was a "Siwash tribe" in the region. The origin of the word is from the French sauvage. When pronounced /səˈwɑːʃ/ sə-WAHSH, with the rhythm of the original French, it is used by modern speakers of the Chinook Jargon in Grand Ronde, Oregon, with the context of meaning a Native American, or as an adjective connoting connection to same (the /ˈswɑːʃ/ pronunciation is considered offensive in Grand Ronde).
  • Skookum The most versatile is skookum, which was used in the Jargon either as a verb auxiliary for to be able or an adjective for able, strong, big, genuine, reliable which sums up its use in BC English, although there are a wide range of possible usages: a skookum house is a jail or prison (house in the Jargon could mean anything from a building to a room). "He's a skookum guy" means that the person is solid and reliable while "we need somebody who's skookum" means that a strong and large person is needed. A carpenter, after banging a stud into place, might check it and decide, "Yeah, that's skookum". Asking for affirmation, someone might say "is that skookum" or "is that skookum with you?" Skookum can also be translated simply as "O.K." but it means something a bit more emphatic.
  • Tillicum means "people/person", "family", and "people".
  • Tolo used in Western Washington to mean a semi-formal dance, analogous to the homecoming ball, to which girls ask boys. From the Chinook for "to win".
  • Tyee leader, chief, boss. Also Big Tyee in the context of "boss" or well-known person. In Campbell River and in the sport-fishing business, a really big chinook salmon is a Tyee. In the Jargon Tyee meant chief, and could also be an adjective denoting "big", as with tyee salmon or tyee lamel (boss mule). A hyas tyee means "important/big ruler/leader", i.e. king, big boss, important ruler, and is also sometimes used in English in the same way as Big Tyee. e.g. "He was the undisputed hyas tyee of all the country between the Johnstone Strait and Comox" This was also the common title used for the famous chiefs of the early era, such as Maquinna, for whom it was applied by Captain Vancouver and others in the context of "king". The Hyas Klootchman Tyee "Great Woman Ruler", roughly "Her Majesty", was the historical term for Queen Victoria. The word tyee was commonly used and still occurs in some local English usages meaning "boss" or someone in charge. Business and local political and community figures of a certain stature from some areas are sometimes referred to in the British Columbia papers and histories by the old chiefly name worn by Maquinna, Concomly and Nicola. A man called hyas tyee would have been a senator, a longtime MP or MLA, or a business magnate with a strong local powerbase, long-time connections, and wealth from and because of the area. There is a popular BC news site named The Tyee. Beginning in 1900, Tyee was also the title of the University of Washington Yearbook.[35]

Notable non-natives known to speak Chinook Jargon

See also


  1. Chinook Jargon at Ethnologue (21st ed., 2018)
  2. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Pidgin Chinook Jargon". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Creolized Grand Ronde Chinook Jargon". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. Lang, George (2008). Making Wawa: The Genesis of Chinook Jargon. Vancouver: UBC Press. pp. especially 127–128. ISBN 978-0-7748-1526-0.
  5. "Chinook Jargon". Yinka Dene Language Institute. Retrieved 2009-12-02.
  6. "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-09-04. Retrieved 2012-07-13.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. Holton, Jim. 1999. Chinook Jargon: The Hidden Language of the Pacific Northwest.
  8. "Can We Still Speak Chinook? - The Tyee". The Tyee. 10 January 2006.
  9. Early Vancouver, Maj. J.S. "Skit" Matthews, City of Vancouver, 1936.
  10. Lillard, Charles; Terry Glavin (1998). A Voice Great Within Us. Vancouver: New Star Books. ISBN 0-921586-56-6.
  11. Squaw Elouise, Chicago; New York: Rand, McNally, 1892; Told in the Hills, Chicago; New York: Rand, McNally, 1891, 1905.
  12. Prince, Tracy J. (February 27, 2014). "Why Tillicum is the right name for TriMet's new bridge: Guest opinion". The Oregonian. Retrieved April 17, 2014.
  13. Jones, Nard (1972). Seattle. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. p. 94 et. seq. ISBN 0-385-01875-4.. Quotation is from p. 97.
  14. "North America's nearly forgotten language". BBC. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  15. Jones, op. cit., p. 97.
  16. Chinuk Wawa Dictionary Project (2012). Chinuk Wawa / kakwa nsayka ulman-tili̩xam ɬaska munk-kəmtəks nsayka / as Our Elders Teach Us to Speak it. University of Washington Press. ISBN 978-0295991863.
  17. Goulet, George and Terry Goulet.
  18. Barkwell, Lawrence.
  19. Barman, Jean (2007). The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia (Third ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press Inc. pp. 180–181. ISBN 9780802093097.
  20. Zenk, Henry (1984). Chinook Jargon and Native Cultural Persistence in the Grand Ronde Indian Community, 1856-1907: A Special Case of Creolization. University of Oregon.
  21. "Siletz Dee-Ni Talking Online Dictionary Project Western North America - Living Tongues Institute For Endangered Languages". Archived from the original on 2013-11-10.
  22. Thomas, Edward Harper. Chinook: A History and Dictionary. Portland, Ore. Bin fords & Mort. 1935. p. 10. ISBN 0-8323-0217-1.
  23. Thomas, Edward Harper. Chinook: A History and Dictionary. Portland, Ore. Bin fords & Mort. 1935. ISBN 0-8323-0217-1
  24. "Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde Community of Oregon". US Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved 2009-12-02.
  25. 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.
  26. Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde Community of Oregon. p. 15 "Cultural Resources slates classes" Archived 2009-07-31 at the Wayback Machine, Smoke Signals, 2009-07-15. Retrieved on 2009-12-02.
  27. "Language Studies Department - American Indian Languages". Lane Community College - Language, Literature and Communication Department. Lane Community College. 2014. Retrieved 23 Jun 2014.
  28. "Artwork: Welcome To the Land of Light". City of Vancouver. June 4, 2008. Retrieved December 10, 2009.
  29. Community Services Group. "Public Art Registry". Archived from the original on 2013-06-16.
  30. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  31. "La Chinuka Interlingvo Per Esperanto, an Ebook by Sequoia Edwards". Smashwords. Retrieved 2019-03-26.
  32. "Archive of Our Own" Check |url= value (help).
  33. "".
  34. "Cayoosh". Archived from the original on 2011-08-05. Retrieved 2011-11-19.
  35. University of Washington Yearbooks and Documents

Note: The Incubator link at right will take you to the Chinuk Wawa test-Wikipedia, which is written in a variation of the standardized orthography of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde which differs significantly from the orthographies used by early linguists and diarists recording other versions of the Jargon:


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