Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon

In the early 1800’s the Smithsonian Institution printed a small vocabulary of the Chinook Jargon, furnished by Dr. B. R. Mitchell, of the U.S. Navy, and prepared, as we afterwards learned, by Mr. Lionnet, a Catholic priest, for his own use while studying the language at Chinook Point. It was submitted by the Institution, for revision and preparation for the press, to the late Professor W.W. Turner. Although it received the critical examination of that distinguished philologist, and was of use in directing attention to the language, it was deficient in the number of words in use, contained many which did not properly belong to the Jargon, and did not give the sources from which the words were derived.

Mr. Hale had previously given a vocabulary and account of this Jargon in his “Ethnography of the United States Exploring Expedition,” which was noticed by Mr. Gallatin in the Transactions of the American Ethnological Society, vol. II. He, however, fell into some errors in his derivation of the words, chiefly from ignoring the Chihalis element of the Jargon, and the number of words given by him amounted only to about two hundred and fifty.

A copy of Mr. Lionnet’s vocabulary having been sent to the author, with a request to make such corrections as it might require, he concluded not merely to collate the words contained in this and other printed and manuscript vocabularies, but to ascertain, so far as possible, the languages which had contributed to it, with the original Indian words. This had become the more important, as its extended use by different tribes had led to ethnological errors in the classing together of essentially distinct families. Dr. Scouler, whose vocabularies were among the earliest bases of comparison of the languages of the northwest coast, assumed a number of words, which he found indiscriminately employed by the Nootkans of Vancouver Island, the Chinooks of the Columbia, and the intermediate tribes, to belong alike to their several languages, and exhibit analogies between them accordingly. 1 On this idea, among other points of fancied resemblance, he founded his family of Nootka-Columbians,–one which has been adopted by Drs. Pritchard and Latham, and has caused very great misconception. Not only are those languages entirely distinct, but the Nootkans differ greatly in physical and mental characteristics from the latter. The analogies between the Chinook and the other native contributors to the Jargon are given hereafter.
The origin of this Jargon, a conventional language similar to the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean, the Negro-English-Dutch of Surinam, the Pigeon English of China, and several other mixed tongues, dates back to the fur droguers of the last century. Those mariners whose enterprise in the fifteen years preceding 1800, explored the intricacies of the northwest coast of America, picked up at their general rendezvous, Nootka Sound, various native words useful in barter, and thence transplanted them, with additions from the English, to the shores of Oregon. Even before their day, the coasting trade and warlike expeditions of the northern tribes, themselves a sea-faring race, had opened up a partial understanding of each other’s speech; for when, in 1792, Vancouver’s officers visited Gray’s Harbor, they found that the natives, though speaking a different language, understood many words of the Nootka.

On the arrival of Lewis and Clarke at the mouth of the Columbia, in 1806, the new language, from the sentences given by them, had evidently attained some form. It was with the arrival of Astor’s party, however, that the Jargon received its principal impulse. Many more words of English were then brought in, and for the first time the French, or rather the Canadian and Missouri patois of the French, was introduced. The principal seat of the company being at Astoria, not only a large addition of Chinook words was made, but a considerable number was taken from the Chihalis, who immediately bordered that tribe on the north,–each owning a portion of Shoalwater Bay. The words adopted from the several languages were, naturally enough, those most easily uttered by all, except, of course, that objects new to the natives found their names in French or English, and such modifications were made in pronunciation as suited tongues accustomed to different sounds. Thus the gutturals of the Indians were softened or dropped; and the “f” and “r” of the English and French, to them unpronounceable, were modified into “p” and “l”. Grammatical forms were reduced to their simplest expression, and variations in mood and tense conveyed only by adverbs or by the context. The language continued to receive additions, and assumed a more distinct and settled meaning, under the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay companies, who succeeded Astor’s party, as well as through the American settlers in Oregon. Its advantage was soon perceived by the Indians, and the Jargon became to some extent a means of communication between natives of different speech, as well as between them and the whites. It was even used as such between Americans and Canadians. It was at first most in vogue upon the lower Columbia and the Willamette, whence it spread to Puget Sound, and with the extension of trade, found its way far up the coast, as well as the Columbia and Fraser rivers; and there are now few tribes between the 42d and 57th parallels of latitude in which there are not to be found interpreters through its medium. Its prevalence and easy acquisition, while of vast convenience to traders and settlers, has tended greatly to hinder the acquirement of the original Indian languages; so much so, that except by a few missionaries and pioneers, hardly one of them is spoken or understood by white men in all Oregon and Washington Territory. Notwithstanding its apparent poverty in number of words, and the absence of grammatical forms, it possesses much more flexibility and power of expression than might be imagined, and really serves almost every purpose of ordinary intercourse.

The number of words constituting the Jargon proper has been variously stated. Many formerly employed have become in great measure obsolete, while others have been locally introduced. Thus, at the Dalles of the Columbia, various terms are common which would not be intelligible at Astoria or on Puget Sound. In making the following selection, the author has included all those which, on reference to a number of vocabularies, he had found current at any of these places, rejecting, on the other hand, such as individuals, partially acquainted with the native languages, have employed for their own convenience. The total number falls a little short of five hundred words.

Additional Research on Chinook Tribe

Bibliography of the Chinook Jargon

  1. “Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains.” By Rev. Samuel Parker. 12mo. Ithaca, N.Y., 1838.
  2. “Vocabulary of the Chenook language, as spoken about Fort Vancouver,” pp. 336-338.
  3. “Ethnography and Philology of the United States Exploring Expedition.” By Horatio Hale. 4to. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1846.
  4. A vocabulary of the “Jargon or Trade Language of Oregon,” with an essay thereon, and phrases, is given in this work, pp. 636-650.
  5. “Transactions of the American Ethnological Society.” 2 vols., 8vo. New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1845, 1848. In vol. ii., pp. 62-70, under title of “Hale’s Indians of Northwest America,” is a partial reprint of the above.
  6. Rev. Z.B.Z. Bolduc, “”Mission de la Colombie.”” 8vo. Quebec, 1843.
  7. The Lord’s Prayer in Jargon, “et quelques mots Tchinoucs et Sneomus.” The Snohomish is a tribe of Puget Sound. The Chinook words are merely Jargon.
  8. “Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains, &c.” By Joel Palmer. 12mo. Cincinnati, 1847, 1852. “Words used in the Chinook Jargon,” pp. 147-152.
  9. “Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, &c.” By Alexander Ross. 12mo. London, 1849. Ross gives a “Chinook Vocabulary,” pp. 342-348, and words of the “mixed dialect,” p. 349. His Chinook is, however, also impure.
  10. “Ten Years in Oregon.” By D. Lee and F.H. Frost. 12mo. New York, 1844.
  11. “A short vocabulary of the Clatsop dialect.” This is likewise Jargon.
  12. “History, &c., of the Indian Tribes of the United States.” Collected by Henry R. Schoolcraft. 4to. Parts 1-5. Philadelphia, 1851, 1855.
  13. Lieut. G.F. Emmons gives a brief “Klatsop Vocabulary” in Part III., pp. 223, 224, which is of the same character. Note 1 to article, “Philosophy of Utterance,” Part V., pp. 548-551, a “Vocabulary of the Chinook Jargon.”
  14. “Vocabulary of the Jargon or Trade Language of Oregon.” English, French, and Jargon. 8vo. Washington, 1853. pp. 22. Printed by the Smithsonian Institution, for private distribution. Without title-page. This is the one by M. Lionnet, before referred to.
  15. “The Northwest Coast; or, Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory.” By James G. Swan. 12mo. New York: Harpers, 1857. “A vocabulary of the Chehalis and Chenook or Jargon Languages, with the derivation of the words used in the latter,” pp. 412-422.
  16. “A Complete Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon.” English-Chinook, and Chinook-English. To which is added numerous conversations, &c. 3d edition. 24mo, pp. 24. Portland, Oregon: published by S. J. McCormick. Several editions of this work have been published; the last which I have seen, in 1862.
  17. “Guide-Book to the Gold Regions of Frazer River.” With a map of the different routes, &c. 24mo, pp. 55. New York, 1858. A vocabulary of the Jargon, pp. 45-55.
  18. “The Chinook Jargon and English and French Equivalent Forms.” In “Steamer Bulletin,” San Francisco, June 21, 1858. Contains an unarranged vocabulary of 354 words and phrases.
  19. “The Canoe and the Saddle.” By Theodore Winthrop. 12mo. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1863. “A partial vocabulary of the Chinook Jargon,” pp. 299-302.
  20. “History of the Oregon Territory, &c.” By John Dunn. 2d edition. London, 1846. “A few specimens of the language of the Millbank and Chinook tribes.” “Chinook tribe:” 50 words and phrases, including digits. These words, as usual, are in great part “Jargon,” and belong to the Nootkan, “not” to the Chinook.
  21. Besides the above, one, of which I have not the title before me, has been published by Mr. A. C. Anderson, and several in the newspapers of Oregon and Washington Territory.


  1. Journal Royal Geographical Society of London, vol. xi.,1841.[]

Gibbs, George. Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon or Trade Language of Oregon. New York: Cramoisy Press. 1853.

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