Speaking the Jargon

The Chinook Trade language of the Northwest Coast

Dan Harvey Pedrick


The trade language known as Chinook Jargon (CJ) thrived on the Northwest Coast of North America from sometime before the beginning of the nineteenth century until it began to die out early in the twentieth. Chinook Jargon was a pidgin language--and possibly even a creole--that was created consciously out of the necessity to communicate among a wide variety of interested groups with a diverse linguistic backgrounds. Just which groups participated in this process of creating CJ will be one of the focuses of this paper. Another will be to suggest how far the Chinook Jargon evolved towards becoming a creole before before reaching the end of its development and popularity.

Pidgins and Creoles

Pidgin is the term used to describe a primitive proto-language that comes about as a result of contact between speakers of mutually incomprehensible idioms. Generally, pidgins have little in the way of grammatical structures such as articles, prepositions, and tense markers. If a pidgin endures for more than a generation, however, it may develop into a proper language--a creole, spoken natively as a first language by a community of people. Or, if used only by a limited interested group, it may remain in its primitive state (1).

In tracing the development of Chinook Jargon, it is clear that the dynamic, evolutionary process of change common to all living languages was accelerated at a certain point in the course of its development by an infusion of new liguistic influences. It is also my contention that, for a brief period, CJ quite likely attained the status of a creole language for a small community of mixed-bloods that existed for a time in the Northwest before being overwhelmed by a flood of mostly English-speaking immigrants from the East.

Origin of Chinook Jargon

As stated above, pidgin languages develop as a result of contact between speakers of mutually unintelligible tongues. This phenomenon was most often the result of the worldwide European colonial expansion during the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, which brought speakers of diverse languages groups throughout the world into contact with each other. In the case of CJ, however, there is much evidence to suggest that the jargon was well developed in the area before the first European contact, born primarily as a result of the trading connections between two native seafaring peoples: the Nootka of the west coast of Vancouver Island, and the Chinook of the lower Columbia River (2). This pre-contact theory has long been a point of controversy, however.

Another popular view has been that the CJ grew into existence solely as a result of the arrival of the fur traders on the northwest coast in the latter years of the eighteenth century. According to this hypothesis, the traders' main point of rendezvous was Nootka Sound where they picked up what was to become a primary lexical basis of CJ from the local language spoken there, Nootkan, employing it in their efforts to trade with the natives. From there, the theory goes, the fur traders transplanted these words in their expanding enterprises to other areas in the region, notably the Columbia River basin where Chinookan words were added to the growing lexicon of the trade jargon, which by now began to include English words. With the arrival of many Francophone voyageurs from the interior into the Columbia basin in the early nineteenth century, French words began to find their way into CJ.

With the rapidly increasing interest in trade, CJ began to grow by leaps and bounds. New words were invented as needed, some inspired purely by natural sounds in a process of applied onomatopoeia (3).

Another view of the origin of CJ--and a worthy Canadian myth it is--is that it was invented by the ubiquitious Hudson's Bay Company and learned by native visitors to the company's trading post headquarters at Fort Vancouver (4). Yet another idea stresses the importance of the early missionaries to the Northwest, such as Blanchet, Demers and Lejuene, who were occasionally credited with inventing CJ from scratch (5).

In his historical chronicle, The Northwest Coast, J.G. Swan became an early defender of the pre-contact origin school of opinion. While not denying the obvious contributions of the Hudson's Bay Company and others, Swan states

"...I think that, among the Coast Indians in particular, the Indian part of the language has been in use for years... It originated in the roving spirit of the tribes, and has been added to and increased since the introduction of the whites among them." (6)

Even if lacking a firm scientific basis for his opinion, Swan's theory does have the ring of common sense.

In her article Chinook Jargon: Arguments for a Pre-contact Origin, Barbara Harris supports the educated guess expressed by Swan with some compelling evidence rooted in modern linguistic theory:

In general, pidgin languages and presumably pre-pidgin jargons, have characteristics of both the substrate (subordinate) and superstrate (dominant) languages. Usually the basic lexicon is contributed by the superstratum and the syntactic features by the substrata... All the basic verbs [in CJ], many of the nouns and adjectives, the entire pronomial system, the two negatives and the one all-purpose preposition are from either Chinookan or Nootkan languages... The syntax of the historical [CJ] is esentially Subject-Verb- Object or Indo-European, while the typical structure of the local languages is Verb-Subject. By these criteria, then, CJ follows the usual pidgin structural pattern, as in the pre- contact days and for some time after, the Chinookan speakers and their trading partners were definitely the superstrata to the [European] substrata.

Harris goes on to offer further examples in the areas of the phonology and syntax of CJ that tend to support the idea of pre- contact origin from a perspective of theoretical linguistics (7).

History and Development

One of the first European groups to establish contact with any of the tribes named by Thomas as the main contributors to CJ was the Spanish under various expeditions between 1775 and 1795. In addition to frequent visits over this twenty-year period, the Spanish spent six consecutive years at Nootka. Juan Moziño of the ultimate Quadra expedition compiled a lexicon of over 300 Nootkan words during his five-month sojourn at Friendly Cove in 1792 (8). Nowhere in his copious notes on the Nootkan language, however, does Moziño suggest that he was aware of the existence of a separate trade language. This might be attributed to the fact that Spanish interest in the region--unlike the British, American, and Russian fur traders--did not focus so much on trade and colonialism as in pursuing their quixotic search for the fabled Northwest Passage. Moziño's list does include words that appear in CJ, however, such as "ma-muc" (to work), "ma-cu-co" (to trade), and "clutz-ma" (woman); but the most that these entries do is confirm what is already understood, i.e., that Nootkan was spoken at Nootka and that Nootkan words contributed to the early CJ lexicon (9).

In 1788 John Meares arrived at Nootka Sound. There he observed on meeting Chief Callicum (later killed ignominiously by the Spanish) that he used the word "cloosh", a word of Chinookan origin meaning "good" in CJ. Neither "clooshe" nor its many orthographic variations appears in the list of Moziño, thus suggesting a possible familiarity with CJ on the part of the Nootkans. This reference his been cited by pro-contact proponents as evidence that the trade language was already in use by the Nootka at the time of Meares' visit [see Harris (1994), and Swan (1857)].

John Jewitt survived a harrowing captivity of twenty-eight months with the Nootkan chief Maquinna during which time he became fluent in the native Nootkan language. Jewitt became puzzled by the apparent existence of another tongue which seemed to be used by his captors for ceremonial purposes when another tribe speaking a different language arrived on the scene. Like Moziño, Jewitt compiled a vocabulary of Nootkan words, some of which later were seen to co-incide with the words used in CJ (8). Thomas notes that Jewitt also used some words in his narrative that did not appear in his vocabulary, such as "tyee" (chief) and "pechak" (bad), both common words in CJ and of the same meaning (10) .

In 1805, the American explorers Lewis and Clark were addressed in what was later understood to be CJ by the Chinook Chief Concomly on the Columbia River. As Thomas states in his history and dictionary of CJ:

Almost the first recorded words of [CJ] are found in the Journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition. These explorers were in the territory of the Lower Chinooks at the time--the mouth of the Columbia--so this trade language or Jargon got the name of Chinook--Tschinuk, it was spelled at first... The Chinook tribe had its own dialect, which differed materially from the dialects of even the nearest neighboring Indians... and which bore no resemblance whatever to the dialects of such remoter tribes as the Nootkans... --but all spoke this Jargon. (11)

These records provide the earliest evidence of the existence of CJ. But it remained for those of a particular and practical interest in the native people of the region--first the fur traders and later the missionaries--to recognize CJ for what it was, to learn how to use it, and to contribute in a pro-active way to its development.

Fur traders

In the early days of the Northwest fur trade the only trappers were Indians. Furthermore, up until the time Astor established his fort and trading post near the mouth of the Columbia River in 1811, the fur trade was entirely a maritime activity. But after that, the business was taken over by a different breed of men, frontiersmen from the East who customarily lived among the Indians, married their women, adopted their ways, and to the degree that was necessary, learned their languages. With the ascendancy of the Hudson's Bay Company over other fiercely competing outfits in the region, a significant number of these trappers were Canadian Francophones.

The white trappers were quick to detect the existence of a trade jargon in use by the Northwest tribes and immediately began to contribute to its development with a fresh infusion of new words. These new words were often terms that reflected the expanding requirements of CJ to comprise new technology as well as concepts previously unknown to the natives.

The children of the inter-racial marriages that followed the arrival of the white trappers were known as half-breeds and were not easily accepted into the social circles of the tribes. Even less were they easily accepted into white society. Farther on I will offer some evidence to suggest that this small community of semi-outcasts may have spoken CJ exclusively, thus technically satisfying the most important criterion that would define CJ as a creole rather than merely a jargon or a pidgin.

Early Missionaries

Perhaps no one took such a keen practical interest in the CJ as did the earliest missionaries to the Northwest. In the long established business of Christianizing the "heathen" natives of the New World, one of the greatest obstacles to success was the language barrier. The existence of CJ was an un-disguised blessing for missionaries to the region who soon mastered it and began to adapt it to their purposes, even creating a CJ literature of sorts.

The first missionaries to what became known as the Oregon Country were F.N. Blanchet and Modeste Demers who arrived at the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Vancouver on the Columbia the 24th of November 1838 (12). Within a few weeks Father Demers had begun to preach in CJ. Demers compiled a vocabulary and began to translate prayers, liturgy, and songs into CJ and teach them to his parishoners. As Shaw points out:

[Modeste and Blanchet] had to instruct numerous tribes of Indians, and the wives and children of the whites who spoke only Chinook. (13)

Thomas states:

The first serious attempt to reduce [CJ] to writing was probably that of Blanchet, an early missionary in Oregon. He and his companion, Father Demers, had to instruct numerous tribes of Indians as well as the wives and children of the whites, all of whom spoke the Chinook Jargon. (14)

Many missionaries following in the wake of Blanchet and Demers also made extensive use of CJ. These included Myron Eels, John Booth Good, Paul Durieu, Father LeJeune, and Father St. Onge, to name but a few, all of whom published books on the subject which in some cases added to the sparse but interesting literary component of CJ.

Sunset of the Jargon

As the increasing flow of settlers from the East into the Oregon country became a flood, many of the true frontiersmen-- including trappers and their kin and many missionaries--moved north into British Columbia. This migration was hastened by the cession of the Oregon Country to the United States as part of the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which effectively obliged the Hudson's Bay Company and their many Francophone employees to vacate the mainland areas below the forty-ninth parallel. The area of the main usage of CJ thus migrated with its speakers-- given by some sources at up to 100,000 at its peak of popularity-- from Oregon to British Columbia. CJ continued to be used extensively on the coast of B.C. well into this century. The Kamloops Wawa, a B.C. newspaper in CJ published by Father LeJeune, lasted from 1891 until 1932, and provided CJ with a journalistic component to add to its literary history.

I personally knew Chief Jimmy King of the Kingcome Inlet Band of the Kwa-giul people and he addressed me in CJ often, although at the time I thought he was speaking Kwakwala, his native tongue. Ralph McGee of Salt Spring Island used many colorful CJ words including "siwash" (meaning to foul something up, as used by the speaker) and "klootchman" (meaning a man who married an Indian woman--once again, according to the speaker). Fluent speakers of CJ are now very rare but certain words of the Jargon have survived into English, including "skookum" (strong), "Tyee" (big chief, also used to describe large Spring Salmon), and "saltchuck", meaning tidewater.

In summary, CJ was an extraordinarily successful trade language with a history that predates European contact. Originally a primitive jargon, it was greatly developed and expanded by a growing group of users that included fur traders, missionaries, and settlers, and proved useful for most types of communication. It is likely that during its peak--especially in the early Oregon years--it may have been the first language for a small community of people, notably the mixed-blood children of whites and aboriginals. To the extent that it was, it may be said to have graduated from the status of a pidgin language to that of a creole. The missionaries provided the most concerted impetus to the development of CJ. In addition to their dedication to promoting its everyday use, they created dictionaries and translations that survive in a form of Chinook Jargon literature.


Bickerton, Derek, Roots of Language, (Ann Arbor 1981, Language and Species, (Chicago 1990)

Shaw, George C., The Chinook Jargon and How to Use It, (Seattle 1909).

Thomas, Edward Harper, Chinook - A History and Dictionary of the Northwest Coast Trade Jargon (Portland 1935)

Jewitt, John R., White Slaves of the Nootka (Surrey 1987)

Moziño, José‚ Mariano, Noticias de Nutka, (Vancouver, B.C. 1991, - trans. by Iris H. W. Engstrand).

Chinook Jargon: Arguments for a Pre-Contact Origin, (Pacific Coast Philology XXIX 1, Sept. 1994: 28-36).


1. (Bickerton 1990: 120-121)

2. Thomas (1935) on pp. 29-30 credits a total of four native groups as being important contributors to the foundation of CJ: "Four families of tribes account for most of the dialect words in the Jargon, notably the Chinookan, the Salish, the Wakashan and the Kwakiutl. The Chinook family... contributed the largest number of words to the Jargon... The second in importance is the contribution of the Nootkan... Salish words are third and Kwakiutl are fourth in number."

3. Shaw (1909) pp. X.

4. Ibid., pp. XI

5. Ibid., pp. XI

6. Ibid., pp. XI

7. Harris 1994

8. Moziño 1991, (trans. by Engstrand)

9. Ibid., Appendix A

10. First printed in 1815, Jewitt's narrative has been published no less then eighteen times since. Jewitt dined out on his Nootka experiences for the rest of his short life, even playing himself in a musical theatrical production based on his adventures staged in Philadelphia in 1817. Jewitt died in Hartford, Connecticut, on January 7, 1821. He was thirty-eight. (See Jewitt, John R., White Slaves of the Nootka, Surrey 1987, pp. 118-126)

11. Thomas, op.cit., p. 20

12. Shaw 1909, p. XI;

13. Ibid., p. XI; (Italics are mine.)

14. Thomas, op.cit., p. viii; (Italics are mine.)

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