What is Chinook Jargon?

Chinook Jargon, also known as Chinook Wawa, is a pidgin that was at one time widely spoken along the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. Its range was mostly in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon (USA), and the province of British Columbia (Canada).

Chinook Jargon and the Chinook language

Chinook Jargon differs from many pidgins in that the lexifier (i.e. the language from which most of the vocabulary items were drawn) was not European or otherwise colonial. Rather, the word stock came primarily from Chinook, an indigenous language once spoken in the lower Columbia River area. There remain no native speakers of the Chinook language.

Some people refer to Chinook Jargon as simply "Chinook", which confuses the language and the pidgin. Unlike the Chinook language, Chinook Jargon was learned not as a mother tongue but in adulthood as a trade language or lingua franca. The Pacific Northwest coast was home to a large number of unrelated languages (many of which are now extinct), and the Chinook Jargon pidgin enabled speakers of mutually unintelligible languages fairly quickly to acquire a code of sufficient complexity for trade or similar cross-linguistic contacts.

Some examples of Chinook Jargon vocabulary items

Like many extant aboriginal languages which are not already extinct, Chinook Jargon is unlikely to survive much longer in its expanded form. A 1997 estimate put the number of remaining speakers at between ten and a hundred. However, some Chinook Jargon terms have survived to a certain degree in the form of borrowings into English. In the Pacific Northwest, one occasionally encounters references to skookumchuck meaning 'strong water', specifically referring to the Hell's Gate narrows of the Fraser River in British Columbia; salt chuck referring to 'salt water', and skookum which has taken on a meaning of 'very good'. If you are familiar with the area, you might know of soopalalie, the soap-berry, where olalie means 'berry' in Chinook Jargon. A mucky-muck is a feast, and Kla-how-yah is a greeting, now found chiefly in the name of many a tokenistic summer camp.

Not all of the terms in Chinook Jargon originate from the Chinook language. Some Chinook Jargon words come from unrelated aboriginal languages such as Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka), for example chuck from Nuu-chah-nulth chauk, meaning '(fresh) water'. After contact with the Europeans, some English and French sources were added to Chinook Jargon, e.g. kaupy from English 'coffee', and diaub or yaub from French 'diable' ('devil').


A classic reference is George Gibbs' 1863 English-Chinook Jargon dictionary, as are later dictionaries by George Shaw (1909) and Walter Phillips (1913).

Speaker counts from:

Lyovin, Anatole. 1997. An introduction to languages of the world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

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