Chinook Wawa, North America’s Forgotten Language

October 7, 2018

Even before I saw the water, I heard the rumble. Sounding like a river or a waterfall, the noise was gently muffled by the sword ferns and step moss as it reverberated through the sky-scraping red cedars and Douglas firs. What I was hearing was not a river, and if I’d come along this trail an hour earlier or later, I’d have heard nothing at all.

I was visiting the Skookumchuck Narrows, one of Canada’s most famous tidal rapids, which are located a ferry ride north-west of Vancouver at the head of Sechelt Inlet on the Sunshine Coast. On a 3m tide as much as 760,000,000 cubic metres of water passes through the narrows, creating imposing white-water rapids that diminish to calm water four times a day as the tide turns. But the reason I was here was not to marvel at the daring kayakers as they surfed the standing waves. Instead, I had come to ask about the name of the place.

Like many from British Columbia, I grew up with an easy familiarity with a handful of strange words. They were terms I always thought were common English, but they turned out to be unknown beyond the boundaries of my Pacific Coast home. I later learned that words like potlatch, saltchuck, kanaka, skookum, sticks, muckamuck, tyee and cultus were from a near-forgotten language that was once spoken by more than 100,000 people, from Alaska to the California border, for almost 200 years.

Known as Chinook Jargon or Chinook Wawa (‘wawa’ meaning talk), this was a trade, or pidgin, language that combined simplified words from the First Nations languages of Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), Chinook and others, as well as from French and English. It was used so extensively that it was the language of courts and newspapers in the Pacific Northwest from about 1800 to 1905. Some Chinook Wawa still exists in place names and slang, but the meanings are so deeply buried in Pacific Northwest culture that the words come with more of a feeling than a definition, and most residents can’t say which language the terms evolved from.

Curious what these visitors to the Skookumchuck Narrows might know about the site’s name, I waited for a Vancouver kayaker named Jill to step away from the furious water, then asked if she knew what Skookum means. Almost in chorus, an entire crowd of kayakers answered. “It means awesome. Big and awesome.” And chuck, I asked? “That’s the ocean,” they replied.

They’re not entirely correct – historically, skookum meant strong or impressive, and chuck meant water (saltchuck meant the sea), but once words become part of a local lingo they can change with time. When I asked if they knew where the word Skookumchuck comes from, there was a puzzled silence. Finally Jill answered. “I think it comes from here,” she said, gesturing toward the rocky cliffs and dense green forest.

The birth of a new language

Chinook Wawa was developed to ease trade in a place where there was no common language. On the Pacific Coast at the time, there were dozens of First Nations languages, including Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Kwakwaka’wakw, Salishan and Chinook. After European contact, which included Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778, English, French, Spanish, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese were gradually added to the mix.

While pidgin languages usually draw most of their vocabulary from the prestige language, or colonising culture, unusually, in the case of Chinook Wawa, two thirds of the language is Chinook and Nuu-chah-nulth with the rest being made up mostly of English and French.

There are a few different theories about how Chinook Wawa arose. Some say it existed between linguistically different First Nations groups long before European contact.

Others put its development in the hands of Captain Cook: after his 1778 visit to the west coast of Vancouver Island, the Nuu-chah-nulth words he recorded were sent back to England and subsequently used by European traders on the Pacific Coast. Almost 30 years later and 425km south, explorers Lewis and Clark encountered these Nuu-chah-nulth words being spoken as part of the trade language in the home region of the Chinook people, present day Oregon’s Columbia River Valley.

Still other experts say Chinook Wawa was developed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to be used as the common language of the fur trade.

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