STILL FOUND IN B.C.: ‘CHINOOK JARGON’
Linguist David Robertson was pushing his babies in a stroller — the substantial sort that converts to a bike trailer — when he encountered one of his favourite examples of present-day Chinook Jargon usage. “Some random neighbourhood fella saw me with my convertible rig,” Robertson says. “(And) he just out of the blue hollers at me, ‘Skookum stroller, eh!’ ”
Skookum means big, reliable or strong in Chinook Jargon (a.k.a. Chinúk Wawa). And while this exchange took place on the streets of Victoria, you can still find evidence of the Jargon throughout British Columbia — if you know where to look, that is.
Once a vitally important trade language in the Pacific Northwest, you’re infinitely more likely to see it in the names of places — Skookumchuck (“strong”“water”) Narrows, Cultus (“bad, worthless”) Lake, Tyee (“boss, chief”) Spit — than in everyday parlance today. Chinook Jargon arose out of a sudden and immediate need for communication between disparate groups in the 19th century. It was colloquial, its vocabulary derived primarily from the Chinook and Chehalis Indigenous languages, English, French (particularly Métis French) and Nootka Jargon.
“It’s a shared language,” says Robertson, who wrote the world’s first grammar of Chinook Jargon while completing his PhD at the University of Victoria. “So that’s a unique feature for any of Canada’s cultural traits. There’s something quite inspiring about the fact that it’s a co-creation.”
In B.C. alone, there are more than 30 Indigenous languages belonging to seven different families, author Bob Joseph says. “And those language families are as different as Spanish is to Japanese. So Chinook (Jargon) really was there by necessity. The ability to move up and down the coast and up into big rivers and even into other provinces, as we understand it today, would be made possible by Chinook Jargon.”
The earliest records of the Jargon suggest it originated near the mouth of the Columbia River, which spans the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington. But it was in B.C. — in the midst of two gold rushes (185863) — that the number of Chinook Jargon speakers boomed with the growing population. By 1875, it had developed from a pidgin (a simplified means of expression) to a full-fledged language that was spoken by an estimated 100,000 people.
Its writing system, Chinuk pipa (Chinook writing), emerged in the 1890s as a variant of a French language shorthand system, Robertson says: “This unique alphabet was just about exclusively used to write Chinook Jargon.” There was a popular newspaper published in Chinuk pipa — Kamloops Wawa (“wawa” meaning “talk”) — and British Columbians widely used the writing sys- tem in correspondence and even on grave markers.
“There were hundreds of pages, thousands even, of people writing in this pidgin that violated every expectation that we have of these being ephemeral languages that nobody values very highly,” Robertson says. “What we find with these written documents is that people valued the language so much that it was their main channel of communication outside of face-to-face contact.”
In much of the province, usage remained strong through the 1920s until a shift in economics spurred its rapid decline. The Jargon had been heavily associated with certain industries — ranching and resource extraction, including mining and forestry — but was no longer needed when English displaced it as the shared language.
With the railway came a surge in English settlers. As Joseph wrote in a blog post: “The advent of the railroad dramatically changed the way goods and people moved. The railway brought more English-speaking settlers to the Northwest which resulted in Aboriginal people having to learn English to survive rather than the other way round. The assimilation policy further shut down usage of the language, and those who continued to use it were shunned.”
A member of the Gwawaenuk Nation, Joseph says that Chinook Jargon still “finds its way in Kwakwaka’wakw culture” today. Terms such as potlatch (to give) and skookum are commonly used in Kwak’wala (the Indigenous language spoken by the Kwakwaka’wakw) as they are in English. Growing up in Campbell River, his best friend’s dad had a “chuck (water) chariot” that they would borrow to go salmon fishing. The flat-bottomed fibreglass boat with a Vhull “earned the nickname ‘chuck chariot’ because it was just so strong and fierce.”
Other than in place names and a handful of commonly used loanwords, knowledge of Chinook Jargon has all but faded away in B.C., Robertson laments.
The current centre of Chinook Jargon use is south of the border, in Grand Ronde, Oregon, where a language revitalization program has successfully created new speakers by the hundreds.
“It would be great to see a course in schools learning a local language and maybe a little bit of Chinook Jargon in the (kindergarten to grade 12) system. I think those would be very reconciliatory actions that would fit a call to action for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Joseph says.
“I always tell people, if you want to meet interesting people, go visit the seven major language families here in British Columbia and see how they look at the world. That’s the neat part: Whether it’s Chinook (Jargon) or Indigenous languages in general, the viewpoints that they have (are seen) in how they talk about things.”