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Shouldn’t Oregon’s official language be Chinook?

Sure, most people speak English. But there’s an older language whose roots run far deeper in Oregon’s culture and history, and it’s one that nearly every Oregonian knows a word or two of.

The front cover of the 1891 edition of Gill’s Dictionary of Chinook Jargon, on display at the Log House Museum in Seattle. (Photo by Joe Mabel)

From time to time, bills come up in the Oregon State Legislature that seek to designate an official language for the state.

Of course, the language they specify is always English, since that’s the dominant language in Oregon today.

But if an official state language is thought of like the official state bird, or state wildflower, or state animal — as a special example of a type that is vital to the very nature of Oregon and that helps provide it with its particular character — there’s really only one legitimate candidate for state language. It’s the Chinook Jargon — more commonly spelled by those who speak it today as “Chinuk.”

The Chinook Jargon — pronounced with a hard “ch” sound, as in “chin” — is probably thousands of years old, although scholars disagree about that. And it’s still all around us — in the names of companies called “Tyee” and “Potlatch”; in restaurants like the late lamented “Big’s Hi Yu He He” in Veneta; and in the names of places like Cultus Lake and Illahee. And in some parts of the state, it’s still a living, growing language.

Not many years ago, Chinook Jargon was very common, and many Oregonians used it regularly to show their deep roots in the state — a way to differentiate themselves with the Johnny-come-latelies from back east or down south. For a while, it was a mark of “club membership,” rather like fluency in Gaelic is in some parts of Ireland. As late as the 1930s, some elderly gentlemen were still greeting each other on the streets with glad cries of “Klahowya!” — their knowledge of the jargon showing that they had been around Oregon when it was young and rough and full of strong Native American tribes.

Origins of Chinook Jargon

The label from a box of Skookum brand apples, from the 1930s. “Skookum” means strong, mighty or powerful.

For years, it was widely assumed that Chinook Jargon was an invention of the English- and French-speaking traders who first came out to the old Oregon territory, in the last few years of the 1700s. And, in fact, the Chinook of today is especially rich in mangled English and French words. But most scholars today think Chinook Jargon was a trading language that developed among the tribes that lined the banks of the Columbia River and Puget Sound, where representatives of dozens of tribes and bands came to trade.

When the very first English-speaking explorers appeared among Northwest Coast Native American tribes, they found the members of the tribe speaking two different languages — one language for strangers, and another for friends and family members. And this is exactly as one would expect. Each tribe, speaking a dialect of its own oral language, would have found great difficulty in communicating with most other tribes. Picking a “lingua franca” from among the native tongues would have been politically difficult and, anyway, practically impossible; non-written languages are notoriously complicated and difficult to learn.

The crude, simple syntax and grammar of early Chinook Jargon, borrowing from a number of nearby Chinookan and Nootkan tongues, was the solution — a patois so easy to learn that one could be using it almost as effectively as anyone else after just a few weeks’ study and practice.

Enter the Europeans, and Chinese

When the “Kin Chautch tillikum” (English — literally “King George people”); “Pasiooks” (French);  and “Bostons” (Americans) showed up and wanted to swap with the “Siwash” (Native American) traders for beaver and otter pelts, the native traders naturally taught them the easy trading language of riverside commerce rather than the impossibly complicated ones they each had learned at their mothers’ knees.

Chinook words used in Oregon place names:
Boston (American person)
Chaco (become)
Cultus (bad)
Hyak (fast)
Hyas (large, great. Pronounced “high-ass,” a linguistic coincidence that has furnished great amusement for several generations of young Oregon lads.)
Illahee (grassland)
Ipsoot (hidden)
Kanaka (Hawaiian person)
Katsuk (middle)
Klahn, Klak (wide)
Klootch, Klootchie (female)
Klootchman (woman)
Lakamas/Clackamas (camas, a wild root)
Lolo (to carry)
Melakwa (mosquito)
Memaloose (death, dead creature)
Moolack (elk)
Mowich (deer)
Muckamuck (food, eat, meal)
Nanitch (view, lookout)
Olalla (berries)
Sitkum (half)
Siwash (Native American)
Skookum (big, strong)
Skookumchuck (big/strong water)
Skookum Tumtum (strong heart)
Skookum House (jail)
Tamanawas (spirit, wizard)
Tatoosh (breasts)
Tenas (little)
Tenas Illahee (little land, island)
Tillikum (people, friend)
Tokatee (pretty)
Tolo (earn, win money)
Tumtum (heart)
Tumwater (waterfall)
Tyee (chief, boss)
Wake (no, not, none)
Yukwah (this-here)
Other common Chinook words:
Iktus (stuff, junk)
Cheechako (tenderfoot)
Hyas Muckamuck (big banquet)
Potlatch (big ceremony with food and gifts)
Hiyu (plenty, abundance)
Chickamin (money)
Six (friend)
Klahowya (hello, goodbye)
Ikt (one)
Mox (two)
Klone (three)
Lockit (four)
Kwinnum (five)
Note: “Squaw” does not exist as a word in Chinook Jargon. It’s a corruption of a word from the Algonquin language of East Coast tribes.

(By the way, “Siwash” is pronounced “suh-WASH” — never “SY-wash.” It’s derived from the French word “Sauvage.”)

Chinook Jargon also was a godsend to the poor Chinese “ku li” workers, who found it much easier to learn than full-blown English. It was similar to the “pidgin English” that some of them already knew.

The high-water mark of Chinook Jargon use came in roughly 1880, when the language was spoken and understood from northern California to southern Alaska and all along the inland Columbia and Fraser River valleys. At that time, it was still a comparatively crude and unexpressive sort of lingua franca, a second language for almost everyone who spoke it, which meant that it was easy for new speakers to pick up and left them at less of a disadvantage in talking with others (a particularly vexing problem for the Chinese). It was very common in situations where hard labor was being done by men from faraway places. A railroad building job might include men from Norway, Ireland, Sicily, Shanghai and Silesia, none of them speaking any common language other than Chinook.

Already, though, it wasn’t as crude as it once had been. Throughout the 1800s, hundreds of lonely English, American and especially French mountain men had partnered up with local Native women, and Chinook Jargon was the only common language they had. With domestic use came a pressure to make the language more expressive and versatile, and by the 1930s as it faded from common use it had gotten much more complicated.

Today, the highest development of Chinook Jargon is a complete language, Chinuk Wawa, which is curated and taught and extensively spoken by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. And the Tribes, from their headquarters in the Coast Range just east of Lincoln City, have become the leaders in a region-wide push to preserve Chinuk Wawa as a living language — Oregon’s own native tongue.

Perhaps someday soon, the Legislature will honor their efforts — and, at the same time, sidestep the perennial parade of "Speak English or move away" bills — by making the language's Oregon roots official.

(Sources: Fee, Chester Anders. “Oregon’s Historical Esperanto: Chinook Jargon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, June 1941; Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. Chinuk Wawa as Our Elders Teach Use to Speak it. Seattle: UW Press, 2012; oregonencyclopedia.org)

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