The Sound of the Chinook Jargon language (Numbers, Greetings & Story)

Chinook Wawa (also known as Chinuk Wawa or Chinook Jargon, and sometimes Chinook Lelang) is a nearly extinct pidgin trade language that bordered on being a creole language which served as a true lingua franca of the Cascadia bioregion for several hundred years.

Partly related to, but not the same as, the aboriginal language of the Chinook people, Chinook Wawa actually has its roots in earlier regional trade languages, like Haida Jargon or Nookta Jargon, which itself was a simplified version of Nuu-chah-nulth combined with words and elements of the different Wakashan, Salishan, Athapaskan, and Penutian languages. With the arrival of European explorers, trappers, and traders, many new words were added from French and English, with modifications made in pronunciation, using only those sounds that could be pronounced with ease by all speakers. Grammatical forms were reduced to their simplest expression, and variations in mood and tense conveyed only by adverbs or by the context. With a relatively small lexicon of only a few hundred words, it is not only easy to learn but possible to say almost anything with a little patience and poetic imagination.

During the fur trade in the early 19th century,  Chinook Wawa had more than 100,000 speakers, spreading from the lower Columbia River, first to other areas in modern Oregon and Washington, then British Columbia, and as far as Alaska and the Yukon Territory. It was used as a common trade language between the hundreds of indigenous tribes and nations from the region and was incorporated by early English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and other immigrants, pioneers, and traders who made the area their home, and naturally became the first language in multi-racial households and in multi-ethnic work environments such as canneries, lumberyards, and ranches where it remained the language of the workplace well into the middle of the 20th century.

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As a trade language, Chinook Wawa is by its very nature meant to be usable by people from many different linguistic backgrounds, so naturally, there is no “correct” pronunciation. An individual’s pronunciation of a word was necessarily going to be dependent on that person’s own language and dialect, be it English, French, Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Chinese, or even Hawaiian.

Furthermore, all published lexicons were created by English speakers influenced by standard English spelling methods (and, as everyone knows, there is no consistency at all in English spelling). Still, the wide variation in spellings for many words can give a clue to their potential variation in pronunciation, or for a pronunciation that falls “in-between” the sounds represented (i.e. hiyu / hyiu / hyo is one example, and tikegh / tikke / ticky is another). Though existent in Chinook Jargon, the consonant /r/ is rare, and English and French loan words, such as ‘rice’ and ‘merci’, have changed in their adoption to the Jargon, to ‘lice’ and ‘mahsie’, respectively.


As a result of deliberate measures of genocide and cultural suppression in the United States and Canada, aboriginal languages, including Chinook Wawa, were suppressed or outright banned, resulting in a decline of speakers. While Chinook Wawa has fallen from use in the late 20th century, it has lived on in many toponyms throughout Cascadia, within many indigenous languages, and in some regional English usage, to the point where most people are unaware that the word or name is originally from Chinook Wawa.

Chinuk Wawa was classified as extinct until the 2000s when it was revived, notably in 2014 with the release of Chinuk Wawa—As Our Elders Teach Us to Speak It by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, who have since launched the Chinuk Wawa Immersion Language Program. In 2018 a textbook for Chinook Jargon in Esperanto (La Chinuka Interlingvo Per Esperanto,] The Chinook Bridge-Language Using Esperanto) was published by Sequoia Edwards. In 2019 “Chinuk Wawa” became available as a language option on the fanfiction website Archive of Our Own. With a steadily growing interest in Cascadia and its history, Chinook Wawa is seeing a gradual resurgence.

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