Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, or, Trade Language of Oregon by George Gibbs


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Page 1

A copy of Mr. Lionnet's vocabulary having been sent to me, with a request
to make such corrections as it might require, I concluded not merely to
collate the words contained in this and other printed and manuscript
vocabularies, but to ascertain, so far as possible, the languages which
had contributed to it, with the original Indian words. This had become the
more important, as its extended use by different tribes had led to
ethnological errors in the classing together of essentially distinct
families. Dr. Scouler, whose vocabularies were among the earliest bases of
comparison of the languages of the northwest coast, assumed a number of
words, which he found indiscriminately employed by the Nootkans of
Vancouver Island, the Chinooks of the Columbia, and the intermediate
tribes, to belong alike to their several languages, and exhibit analogies
between them accordingly.[A] On this idea, among other points of fancied
resemblance, he founded his family of Nootka-Columbians,--one which has
been adopted by Drs. Pritchard and Latham, and has caused very great
misconception. Not only are those languages entirely distinct, but the
Nootkans differ greatly in physical and mental characteristics from the
latter. The analogies between the Chinook and the other native
contributors to the Jargon are given hereafter.

[Footnote A: Journal Royal Geographical Society of London, vol. xi.,
1841.]

The origin of this Jargon, a conventional language similar to the Lingua
Franca of the Mediterranean, the Negro-English-Dutch of Surinam, the
Pigeon English of China, and several other mixed tongues, dates back to
the fur droguers of the last century. Those mariners whose enterprise in
the fifteen years preceding 1800, explored the intricacies of the
northwest coast of America, picked up at their general rendezvous, Nootka
Sound, various native words useful in barter, and thence transplanted
them, with additions from the English, to the shores of Oregon. Even
before their day, the coasting trade and warlike expeditions of the
northern tribes, themselves a sea-faring race, had opened up a partial
understanding of each other's speech; for when, in 1792, Vancouver's
officers visited Gray's Harbor, they found that the natives, though
speaking a different language, understood many words of the Nootka.

On the arrival of Lewis and Clarke at the mouth of the Columbia, in 1806,
the new language, from the sentences given by them, had evidently attained
some form. It was with the arrival of Astor's party, however, that the
Jargon received its principal impulse. Many more words of English were
then brought in, and for the first time the French, or rather the Canadian
and Missouri patois of the French, was introduced. The principal seat of
the company being at Astoria, not only a large addition of Chinook words
was made, but a considerable number was taken from the Chihalis, who
immediately bordered that tribe on the north,--each owning a portion of
Shoalwater Bay. The words adopted from the several languages were,
naturally enough, those most easily uttered by all, except, of course,
that objects new to the natives found their names in French or English,
and such modifications were made in pronunciation as suited tongues
accustomed to different sounds. Thus the gutturals of the Indians were
softened or dropped; and the _f_ and _r_ of the English and French, to
them unpronounceable, were modified into _p_ and _l_. Grammatical forms
were reduced to their simplest expression, and variations in mood and
tense conveyed only by adverbs or by the context. The language continued
to receive additions, and assumed a more distinct and settled meaning,
under the Northwest and Hudson's Bay companies, who succeeded Astor's
party, as well as through the American settlers in Oregon. Its advantage
was soon perceived by the Indians, and the Jargon became to some extent a
means of communication between natives of different speech, as well as
between them and the whites. It was even used as such between Americans
and Canadians. It was at first most in vogue upon the lower Columbia and
the Willamette, whence it spread to Puget Sound, and with the extension of
trade, found its way far up the coast, as well as the Columbia and Fraser
rivers; and there are now few tribes between the 42d and 57th parallels of
latitude in which there are not to be found interpreters through its
medium. Its prevalence and easy acquisition, while of vast convenience to
traders and settlers, has tended greatly to hinder the acquirement of the
original Indian languages; so much so, that except by a few missionaries
and pioneers, hardly one of them is spoken or understood by white men in
all Oregon and Washington Territory. Notwithstanding its apparent poverty
in number of words, and the absence of grammatical forms, it possesses
much more flexibility and power of expression than might be imagined, and
really serves almost every purpose of ordinary intercourse.

The number of words constituting the Jargon proper has been variously
stated. Many formerly employed have become in great measure obsolete,
while others have been locally introduced. Thus, at the Dalles of the
Columbia, various terms are common which would not be intelligible at
Astoria or on Puget Sound. In making the following selection, I have
included all those which, on reference to a number of vocabularies, I have
found current at any of these places, rejecting, on the other hand, such
as individuals, partially acquainted with the native languages, have
employed for their own convenience. The total number falls a little short
of five hundred words.

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