Chinook Lingua Franca

An important early work documenting the Chinook Lingua Franca

A simplified and streamlined version of Chinook was developed to surmount the language barriers that existed between the various peoples who lived, interacted, and traded, along the Pacific Coast and Columbia River Interior. Chinook jargon helped to facilitate the exchange of goods among the various tribes of the Pacific Northwest—especially tribes that were located throughout the inland trade routes including the coastline from Northern California to Alaska.

For the peoples of the Pacific Northwest the Chinook Lingua Franca actually functioned much like English does today in the world. So prevalent was the Chinook jargon that white fur trappers and traders from Canada and America adopted the trade language when they were unable to converse with each other in French or English.

Most of the words were of Chinook origin, with a large percentage coming from the Chehalis language. The Nootka Sound also made noteworthy contributions to the Lingua Franca. English and French were the next most prominent additions to the vocabulary—foreign words designated the trade goods brought in by whites. Other words were added to convey the religious concepts of missionaries. Written confirmation of its early use come from prominent explorers such as John Meares and George Vancouver. Lewis and Clark also gave evidence of its use.

A Few Examples of Specific Use

The word “Chinook” itself is a Chehalis term for a dialect group, those who spoke Chinook, referencing their neighbors to the south. The Chinook jargon term “potlatch,” comes from Nootka, meaning “to give” in English. The Chinook jargon term was applied to all types of celebrations that included feasting and gift-giving.

At a potlatch celebration (in the formal sense) many guests were invited from various areas surrounding a particular town or village. A specific house in the village or town usually sponsored the event. All the guests whether of higher or lesser status in the community could participate in the activities. The status of the headman, or the lesser tribal leaders hosting the event, was then validated in the eyes of all participants.


by V. Keven Shipman