Chinook Jargon

Continuing in our explorations of translation, my class has been playing around with Chinook Jargon. Chinook Jargon is the trade language of the Northwest, a pidgin of English, French, and several Salish languages. It was widely spoken through the 1800’s, and gave the English language words including “muckamuck” and “salt-chuck.”


It has about 500 core words: enough to say a lot of kinds of things, but little enough you can get a sense of it quickly. Some of the words are clearly English — stick, sun, cole (for cold), waum (for warm). Some clearly came from French — mausie (from merci for thank you). Some are very much not English and French (Salish being from a totally different language family) — illahee for place/ground etc. Lots of ideas are made up of stacks of words, such as cole illahee, which means winter. There are also lots of great onomatopoeia, like piu-piu for stinky, and wau-wau for talk and skwis-kwis for squirrel.

You can see I think Chinook Jargon is fascinating.

I introduced my class to the premise and some of the vocabulary, as well as the idea of a pidgin language, and a little of the story of how and why Chinook Jargon came to be. Then I  set them loose with a Chinook Jargon dictionary The idea was they would either write something directly in Chinook and then write an English translation, or vice versa.

Each way had its interesting puzzles. There are very few synonyms in Chinook Jargon, which means that something written with subtle variation in English is going to have sonorous repetition in translation. There is no way to do direct translations, since the grammar is toddler-simple. Often, we couldn’t find a desired word in our dictionary, so we had to figure out how else to say it. No hello? How about good day! No grass? No leaf? No grow? How about green fingers! Things got poetic quickly. Things that sounded too simple in English were often beautiful in Chinook Jargon, and things that were elegant in English had to be rendered with frustrating simplicity in Chinook. It was also interesting to see what things were easy to write about and what were difficult. The boy who wrote about his sick, crazy cat had almost every word he wanted. The boy who wrote about outer space, not so much.

We learned a lot about translation and how languages work, the poetry and metaphor of everyday words, and the history of our region. Plus, we may have contributed significantly to the sheer volume of poetry written in a language meant for simple transactions.