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Chinuk Wawa: Kakwa nsayka ulman-tilixam ɬaska munk-kəmtəks nsayka/As Our Elders Teach Us To Speak It

By The Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde

Review By Dave Robertson

June 19, 2014

BC Studies no. 185 Spring 2015  | p. 199-200

In an obscure 1978 dissertation, a linguist named Samuel Johnson demonstrated that most of the countless Chinook Jargon lexica compiled over two hundred years form a few distinct lineages.[1] Joining the ranks of definitive dictionaries identified by Johnson is this spectacular new lexicon of our historic Northwest intercultural language, published by the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde in Oregon who, uniquely, adopted “Chinuk Wawa” as their mother tongue in the nineteenth century.

How do you say Alki, Washington State’s Chinuk Wawa motto? We have long lacked reliable pronunciation guides to Chinook Jargon. It has been recorded following English spelling conventions, with the attendant ambiguities. The compilers of this new dictionary wisely recognize that most readers are literate in English, a language from which many Chinuk Wawa sounds are absent. Therefore they innovate, judiciously adding letters (ɬ, q, ) for Aboriginal-derived sounds and adding accents to show a word’s main stress, a modification that hugely improves on anglophone practice. The net effect is to boldly transcend 150-year-old traditional spellings so that learners can finally pronounce confidently.

The compilers also banish another bane of Chinookology — bowdlerization. Surely delighting anyone who realizes this was and is an everyday language, words long absent from Chinuk Wawa dictionaries re-emerge here. This is done tastefully: multi-syllabic synonyms for body parts and functions serve as English translations.

The two centuries of Chinuk Wawa literature consists almost exclusively of word lists. (The main exception is a Chinuk Wawa trove in a distinct British Columbian alphabet, researched by this reviewer.) Contemplate anglophone students of French trying to use only a textbook’s vocabulary index to communicate in Quebec, and the violence this lexical approach does to any fluency in Chinuk Wawa becomes obvious. As well, some astute presentation choices enhance the ability of cheechakos to understand this dictionary. A grammar sketch solidifies the prefatory matter, making this one of the first overt statements of the very real rules for speaking this pidgin/creole language well (30-51). Example phrases and sentences breathe life into every entry. The real coup de grâce is an enormous section of texts in the Chinuk Wawa of fluent elders (357-485). Nothing could more powerfully guide, and appropriately challenge, the learner than these mostly autobiographical glimpses into the life and history of the vibrant Chinook Jargon-speaking community at Grande Ronde, Oregon.

Any shortcomings in this monumental piece of Northwest scholarship are trivial compared to its huge achievements. One might wish for a marginally clearer statement of the orthography used (25), adding the forms “ng” and “z” and simplifying “dj” to the unused “j.” A linguist might note that “doubling” (reduplication, 44) as a grammatical device makes a predicate distributive and that the inanimate “it” has no Chinuk Wawa pronoun. Inexplicably, a few words are isolated at the end of the alphabet under the glottal-stop letter “ʔ”, when they are really vowel-initial (259-260, 304).

This dictionary is the finest resource in existence on Chinook Jargon. Readers who have long wished for a clear picture of what this well-known “trade language” was like, and for knowledge of the background of the many Chinuk Wawa words that have entered our region’s English, have now had their wishes granted. To paraphrase a comment I once heard in Victoria: “Skookum book, eh?”


[1] Samuel V. Johnson, “Chinook Jargon: A Computer Assisted Analysis of Variation in an American Indian Pidgin” (PhD diss., University of Kansas).

Chinuk Wawa: Kakwa nsayka ulman-tilixam ɬaska munk-kəmtəks nsayka/As Our Elders Teach Us To Speak It
The Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012. 400 pp. $29.95 paper