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Chinook Jargon

Chinook Jargon was a trade language (or pidgin) of the Pacific Northwest, which spread quickly up the West Coast as far as Alaska. It is related to, but not the same as the indigenous language of the Chinook people.

Jargon was derived from a great variety of indigenous words, as well as English and French. Many of its words are still in common use in the Western United States and Canada. The Jargon words of published lexicons only numbered in the hundreds, and so it was easy to learn. It has its own grammatical system. In Kamloops, British Columbia hundreds of speakers also learned to read and write the Jargon using the Duployan Shorthand - as a result, Jargon also had its own literature.

There is some controversy about the origin of the Jargon, but all agree that its glory days were during the early 1800s. During this era many dictionaries were published in order to help settlers interact with the First Nations people already living there. American leaders sent communiques to each other, stylishly composed entirely in The Chinuk. Many residents of Vancouver choose to speak Chinook Jargon as their first language, even using it at home in preference to English. Loggers incorporated it in their jargon.

Chinook Jargon is still spoken as a first language by some residents of Oregon State, much as the Métis language Michif is still spoken in Canada. Hence, Jargon is now a creole language.

Some believe that the Jargon (without European words) existed prior to European contact. Others believe that the Jargon was formed within the great cultural cauldron of this contact. Current opinion holds that a trade language of some kind probably existed prior to European contact, which morphed into the more familiar Chinook Jargon in the late 1700s. Many words in Chinook Jargon clearly had different meanings and pronounciations at various points in history, and continued to evolve into interesting regional variants. A few scholars have tried to improve the spelling, but since it was mostly a spoken language this is difficult (and the users tend to prefer the sort of spelling they use in English).

Local West Coast historians are well acquainted with the Chinook Jargon. For everyone else, the fact that Chinook Jargon ever existed is relatively unknown, perhaps due to the great influx of newcomers into the influential urban areas. However, the memory of this language is not likely to fade entirely. Many words are still used and enjoyed throughout Washington State (ie. Seattle), British Columbia, and Alaska. Oldtimers still dimly remember it, although in their youth, speaking this language was discouraged as slang. Nonetheless, it was the working language in many towns and workplaces, notably in ranching country and in canneries on the British Columbia coast where it was necessary in the strongly multiethnic workforce. Place names throughout this region bear Jargon names and words are preserved in various rural industries such as logging and fishing.

The Chinook Jargon was multicultural and functional. There was no Official Chinook Jargon, although the past publishers of dictionaries would have had you believe otherwise. To those familiar with it, Chinook Jargon is a wonderful cultural inheritance. For this reason, and because Jargon has not quite died, enthusiasts actively promote the revival of the language in everyday western speech.

A few Jargon words