Chinuk Wawa - A PNW trade pidgin language

8/22/2022 4:44 pm |

I fell down a Wikipedia hole for a bit this afternoon between calls and while resting my brain from Excel work. I had gone looking for some history about Seattle which led me to began to wonder where the local area "Alki Beach" got its name. As it turns out "alki" is from this Chinuk Wawa pidgin. As with pidgins and creoles, definitions are loose and contextual - here are the definitions for 'alki':

Now, before I dive further into the topic, I was stop and acknowledge that this creole language is closely intertwined with the settlement and imperialism in the PNW region. I do not want to gloss over that that imperialism and cultural erasure is a big reason why this pidgin language both came to exist but also eventually died out. The video I embedded below does a good job discussing this and highlighting it.

What is fascinating here is that this language is less a modification of English and more an amalgamation of first nation languages in the region with English and French thrown in as a quasi-lingua franca of the region in the 1800s.

From the Wikipedia page about it:

Chinook Jargon (Chinuk Wawa or Chinook Wawa, also known simply as Chinook or Jargon) is a language originating as a pidgin trade language in the Pacific Northwest. It spread during the 19th century from the lower Columbia River, first to other areas in modern Oregon and Washington, then British Columbia and parts of Alaska, Northern California, Idaho and Montana while sometimes taking on characteristics of a creole language. It is partly descended from the Chinook language, upon which much of its vocabulary is based. Approximately 15 percent of its lexicon is French, and it also makes use of English loanwords and those of other language systems. Its entire written form is in the Duployan shorthand developed by French priest Émile Duployé.

This video I found on YouTube below is great and talks about it and gives some great historical insight & context:

I love that he called out the word for "American" in Chinuk Wawa as being "Boston." Which is fascinating as I can only imagine it has to do with the early settlers who arrived in Portland (Oregon), where this pidgin originates in the PNW, as I understand it, were settlers from Massachusetts.

In any case, it is fascinating to dive into. There is also a story, I think I wrote about it before as I was reading the biography of Chief Seattle, that notes that today's phrase "big muckety muck" which is sometimes used to describe a fancy ball or high class event, well it turns out that phrase also comes from Chinuk Wawa.

Super fascinating stuff, and I definitely want to peruse the dictionary to see if there are any other fun words to adopt for daily use today to keep the language, its people, and its story alive.

Edit: A quick Twitter search turned this up and I had to come back and add it.

Which then of course leads to an amazing follow up debunking the above post, and instead noting someone is writing anime fan fiction using the language:

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