Chinook Wawa.

Back in early 2003 I posted about Chinook Jargon, but there were only four comments (two of them by me) and the linked site is dead, so it’s time to revisit the subject. Diane Selkirk of BBC Travel writes about her experience with it:

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. […]

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.

She mentions various theories about how Chinook Wawa arose, but I expect several of my commenters will be more informed about the matter, so I will leave it up to them to discuss it. At any rate, there’s a lot more about the history of the language, as well as some nice photos. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. John Cowan says:

    I’ve noted before how much better BBC Travel tends to be than BBC Science when it comes to language. They talk to actual experts instead of whoever is pushing the latest trendy theory.

  2. The skookum term is the autonym Chinuk Wawa, adopted by the Grand Ronde tribe, in preference to the older Chinook Jargon. I’ve never seen the hybrid “Chinook Wawa” used before.
    There is a recent comprehensive, scholarly dictionary of the language by Harry Zenk, who writes about it here.

  3. Dan Milton says:

    There’s a blog, with almost daily postings,

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Y: It’s Henry Zenk.

    Chinook Jargon was how the language was referred to in English, where jargon is rather derogatory. Wawa is a native word, as is Chinook, the name of the ethnic group whose language was at first the main source of elements which contributed to the development of the lingua franca.

  5. Oops! Thanks.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    There’s a blog, with almost daily postings,

    Highly recommended – it’s by an expert who burrows through all the historical documentation and all the local languages.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Yes, highly recommended by me too! The expert is David Douglas Robertson whose blog is not only informative (linguistically and historically) but entertaining.

  8. Experimental Wikipedia portal here. Looks like this particular orthography chose <v> for the central vowel, like some of those of Tsalagi (Cherokee), Mvskoke, and Mapudungun.

  9. More nitpicking: if they’re going to use autonyms, Kwakwa̱ka̱’wakw is the people, Kwak’wala is the language.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Y: The Wiki contribution (it is hardly a page) is dated 2012. The spelling used there is not the one DDR uses on his blog.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    It is true that CW was almost official in BC in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but it fell out of use after WWI as a result of immigration from Britain which greatly increased the “white”, English-speaking population. However, until recently there were still white people alive who could speak it, and nowadays others who fondly remember their grandfathers being able to do so. So there is quite a lot of local interest in learning the language, while young indigenous people are more interested in their own ancestral languages.

  12. @m-l: Sounds reminiscent of the situation with the Tupian língua geral in colonial Brazil.

  13. young indigenous people are more interested in their own ancestral languages.

    They are not exclusive. This program is quite successful (sound files, too).

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I think potlatch is reasonably well known away from the Pacific Northwest, but all the others are new to me.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Potlatch” is certainly well known, though pretty much entirely in the context of Northwest Coast practices, so I’m not sure if it counts exactly.

    “Muckamuck” is familiar in the collocation “high muckamuck”; I think I vaguely knew that was Chinook Jargon, but I wouldn’t have known the etymology “plenty food” if I hadn’t looked it up.

    “Kanaka” I knew, but only as Hawaiian.

  16. When I was a child in the Pacific Northwest, thirty years ago, potlatch still got some use to mean simply a really big party, to which all acquaintances could reasonably expect to be invited. It was known to refer to traditional Indian practices, of course, but it was also used for contemporary events.

  17. @DE: I acquired that as “muckymuck”.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    Y: this program (at the University of Oregon)

    It is relevant that CW was spoken and even had some native speakers in the Grand Ronde and Siletz reservations, where it became the common language among people who originally spoke a number of mutually intelligible languages. The young people originating from these reservations are indeed learning what they think of as their forebears’ language. I was referring to indigenous young people in BC, where CW was an auxiliary language for both Indians and whites, not the language of any native community, which had its own language and did not give it up for CW.

  19. My wife’s high school magazine in Tacoma was “Kla-how-ya”. And that was just a regular public high school.

    A lot of white people in the Northwest were familiar with CW at least to the point of knowing some words, commonly until the 1960s or so. It wasn’t unusual to see some CW in English language newspapers (with a translation maybe).

    After that I think it became diluted as there was more immigration from other parts of the US.

  20. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    “Potlatch” is certainly well known, though pretty much entirely in the context of Northwest Coast practices, so I’m not sure if it counts exactly.

    Definitely. I just meant that people anywhere in the world with some knowledge of the Pacific Northwest would be likely to have met the word, not that it would be used for any old party. (Nonetheless, I wouldn’t fall off my chair in surprise if I learned that P. G. Wodehouse had used it casually somewhere.)

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    In the list of CJ-derived loanwords into at least some regional varieties of English I was struck by “cultus,” because of course “cultus” as a loanword from Latin is common (in the right register) in most varieties of English and I didn’t know there was another one. But it turns out that the CJ-derived “cultus” has an unrelated meaning (as one would expect via unrelated etymology and chance similarity of sound/spelling). And whether or not that different sense of “cultus” is actively used at present by a significant percentage of Anglophones in the Pacific Northwest, it lives on in various names of rivers, lakes, etc. in the region where the Latin-derived loanword apparently had nothing to do with the naming.

  22. “Wawa is a native word, as is Chinook, the name of the ethnic group whose language was at first the main source of elements which contributed to the development of the lingua franca.”

    M-L, can you verify the etymology I saw for the term, that it meant “Southerner” in Chehalis and referred to the Chinookan people at the mouth of the Columbia? Also, how much of the jargon is Chinookan? It would make sense that there’d be a lot, or even that that language would be the basis of the jargon, since that was where the main trade fair ion the coast was held.

    “My wife’s high school magazine in Tacoma was “Kla-how-ya”. And that was just a regular public high school.”

    Maidhc, did that school have another name? I live in Tacoma and don’t know of one by that name, but that sure sounds like the kind of name a school mascot would have around here.

  23. What is ‘kanaka’? It’s used in Australia to refer to South Sea islanders who were brought to Australia as labourers in the cane fields in the 19th century, many of them kidnapped. What is interesting is that kanaka is not from local Polynesian languages but from Hawaiian, suggesting it was part of the language of white colonialism rather than the “kanakas” themselves.

  24. John Cowan says:

    In the Pacific Northwest, Kanaka (which is not derogatory) means ‘someone of Hawaiian descent’. Its cognates are tangata ‘person’ in Maori, Tongan, and the language of Rapa Nui / Easter Island; also in Samoan, where it is spelled tagata and normally pronounced kaŋaka. In addition to the famous /t/ > /k/, Hawaiian also underwent /ŋ/ > /n/.

    There’s a theory that Kanaka > Canuck, as many Hawaiians in Canada intermarried with First Nationals. So a Kanaka nowadays is typically of only partly Hawaiian origin.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    Jim: M-L, can you verify the etymology I saw for the term, that it meant “Southerner” in Chehalis and referred to the Chinookan people at the mouth of the Columbia? Also, how much of the jargon is Chinookan?

    I am sorry I can,t help you with your first question. Chehalis is a Salishan language (geographically close to Chinookan) and that is beyond my area of specialization.

    For the second question, I think that Chinookan is the major source.

    Your best bet is to find David Douglas Robertson’s Chinook Wawa blog on the internet (e.g. on Facebook) and send a message to him. I am sure he will be glad to answer both of your questions.

  26. @John Cowan: On the topic of kanakas and intermarriage, I cannot help but think of HPL: When it come to matin’ with them toad-lookin’ fishes, the Kanakys kind o’ balked, but finally they larnt something as put a new face on the matter.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    The blog is at as mentioned above.

  28. Melissa Darby informs me that her book Thunder Go North: The Hunt for Sir Francis Drake’s Fair & Good Bay (University of Utah Press) contains a chapter on the words spoken by the Natives to Drake, which concludes that Drake encountered people who spoke a proto Chinook jargon.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    Before Chinook Jargon, there was a Nootka Jargon and even a Haida-based pidgin, as I learned on the Chinuk Wawa blog.

  30. J.W. Brewer says:

    This made me curious about the etymology of the toponym Wawa, Pennsylvania (still the headquarters of the Wawa chain of convenience stores), which is pretty close to where I grew up. Turns out it is an “Indian” name, but not a very authentically indigenous one, having been picked in the mid-19th-century by a local fellow building himself a new estate who supposedly took the name out of Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, where it is supposed to be the word (presumably in Ojibwa) for “goose.” I expect the word for “goose” in the Algonquin language spoken by the onetime indigenes of that corner of Pennsylvania (who were long departed from the region by the time Longfellow published) was rather different, or at least that the name-giver probably neither knew nor cared what it had been.

  31. SFReader says:

    Pretty authentic actually – Cree “wehwew”, Ojibwe “wewe” – “snow goose”, apparently the bird was named after sound it makes.

  32. SFReader says:

    Wawa, Pennsylvania is near Philadelphia and it’s original inhabitants were Delaware Indians, also Algonquin speakers.

    My Lenape dictionary has “kaak” for “wild goose”.

  33. Sequoia Edwards says:

    Thanks for this post, and interesting to find that you’ve revisited the topic after so long! In the past couple years we’ve had a heavy upswing in Chinook Jargon learners so hopefully that’ll bear more fruit in the next few years. We now have videos on Youtube, weekly video conference sessions as a sort of “club”, and Discord servers among other things. I myself have started making YouTube videos in it and am starting a publishing company (called “olali pipa-haws – Berry Publishing Company”, or “Berry Paper-House” if you want a direct translation) to translate and publish books in it. First up: Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder!

    As for some other people’s comments about native speakers, there’s still quite a few older people who grew up speaking Chinook Jargon alongside English (both native Americans and non-natives), often having learned it from their grandparents or having worked in an industry like logging or fish canning that held on to the language longer than the rest of society. Grand Ronde in Oregon’s been working on reviving the language for their tribe for some years now by teaching it to kindergarteners in a classroom immersion setting, though I don’t know how that’s going.

  34. That’s great news, thanks for sharing it!


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