Skip to content

Nika Tikegh Wawa Weght Chinook

June 3, 2015

I’m grieving a language today. It’s been dead or dying for at least sixty years, but I’m grieving it anyway. It was this beautiful, powerful human creation. It could have gone places. It could’ve done great things. And now, through aboriginal policies and colonialism, it’s faded into time.


Chinook was probably spoken here. (Fintry Creek, north Okanagan Valley)

Chinook was a trading creole in the Pacific Northwest. It probably started before the Europeans arrived, because there are six language families native to British Columbia (and more in the U.S.), and most of those families encompass many, many languages. There was a lot of trade, especially in oolichan. People needed to be able to talk to each other.

When the Europeans arrived, they picked up on this and started speaking the creole too. A lot of Chinook words are from French or English, as well as Native languages from eastern Canada. Chinook was spoken from the early 1800s into the 1930s and 1940s, and phrases were in common use in some parts of BC into the 1960s. That’s a 160-year span. Other creoles have become full-blown languages in less time. There’s even a guy who suggested in its heyday that Chinook would stick around in BC the way Welsh or Scots has done in the U.K. (That’s one of the things that got me grieving today, because I read that and realized it really, really didn’t.)


Chinook was probably spoken here, too. (Steam clock, Gastown, Vancouver.)

I’m interested in Chinook for a couple reasons. I heard about it first as a kid, because a couple adults I knew used skookum and my dad knew people who were writing histories of it. I’ve run into other Chinook words in the years since—hyas, tyee, cultus, canim, saltchuck, muckamuck, quiggly hole, olallie, klahowya, the sticks*—but nobody else really seems to know them outside my family. They’re place names or historical flavour only. I’ve always been the sort of person who absorbs historical trivia and delights in strange words, so I filed them away with the Wild West names I listed last Wednesday and the Salish-derived places like Ucluelet and Spuzzum and Bella Coola.

I’m also interested in Chinook from a linguist’s perspective. Creoles are fusions of different languages and I’m interested in the hows and whys of the blendings. Why that language for that noun? Why that suffix over that other one? Why is the adjective there? And so on. All the creoles I heard about during my degree were Caribbean or African, but we have our own in BC! I don’t know enough about Chinook (yet) to do that kind of analysis in detail, but I am inordinately pleased by the borrowings I do know about. Wawa means “language, speech, to talk” because that’s kind of how foreign languages sound. A Boston is an American. An Englishman is a Kingchautsh because George IV was ruling the Empire during the dawn of the fur trade. A cat is a pusspuss and hyas pusspuss, “big cat”, is a cougar. A tongue is lalang, from the French.

Lastly, and most recently, I’m interested in Chinook for its importance to the history of my province. It was used in the fur trade and in logging and anywhere Natives and Europeans intersected. There was a newspaper, which used a shorthand variant as orthography. There were court cases. Someone even translated the Bible. And this was all happening during the time period I’m drawing from for my novel, in the region I’m setting my novel, so clearly I’ve got to use it. It’s practically begging me.


Almost certainly here too. (Overlooking the Okanagan Valley, just east of Kelowna.)

So I am. It’s not integral, but it’s in there, as a spoken and written language, which means, woe of all woes, I’m going to have to sit down and learn it. I’ve done this before, of course, just grab a textbook and start reading, but I’m starting at a deeper disadvantage this time. There isn’t a written grammar. It was always a spoken tongue and never important enough to write everything down. What there is seems to be scattered between multiple books, many of which are probably out of print at this point. I see many, many library visits in my future. (Woe of woes.) Good thing I like learning languages, and good thing I’ve got a linguistics degree to give me some more tools to work with.

Besides, Chinook’s basically gone, and if I can help preserve it, why wouldn’t I?


Chinook skookum wawa kopa nika illahie. Nika tikegh wawa weght Chinook.

Chinook is a powerful language of my country. I want to speak more Chinook.



hyas, tyee, cultus, canim, saltchuck, muckamuck, quiggly hole, olallie, klahowya, the sticks = great, chief, worthless/without purpose, canoe, ocean, eat, pit house (kekuli = low), soapberry, hello, forest/bush

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: