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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Indigenous Languages, Focus British Columbia

The First Nations living in British Columbia may be among the most well-known Indigenous Nations in Canada after the Haudoenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Mik'maq, especially the west coast Nations which are so well known for fine woodcarving and the construction of elaborately painted wooden houses. Yet these First Nations have another claim to fame: before the arrival of Europeans to today, these peoples living west of the montain ranges snaking south from below the Arctic circle to at least the Snake River in Washington1 had aready become the most linguistically complex group of peoples in North America. Before the spread of European diseases into the region, there were dozens, if not hundreds of languages spoken, today categorized by linguists into at least eight 'language families' that sometimes seem to be agreed on, and sometimes aren't.

The source of this variability continues to be puzzled over to some degree by linguists. According to both First Nations themselves and linguists however, this many languages developed because the people have lived there for a very long time. Even the linguists have been forced to concede that people were there before the glaciers were entirely gone, having learned that the words for 'rock' in Haida in fact refer to ice — stubborn ice that hangs on for a long time.

When Europeans began to enter the region more regularly for trade purposes, they found that the most broadly useful languages east of the Rockies, Cree and Ojibwe, were not terribly helpful there. Those languages and their relatives had been difficult enough to learn, but on crossing the Rockies most Europeans found themselves struggling to learn and understand languages that included glottal stops (they're a bit like the first part of a hiccup) and weird consonant combinations like tl, dl, and hl (you say these the way you say 'cl' in 'clean' not like the 'ttl' in 'little'). Hand signs were only so useful, especially since European trade goods had already reached the area, so European traders couln't hope that sheer novelty would cut down haggling. Conversely, the Indigenous people themselves were challenged by the large number of languages, many of which were not related to each other. Their solution to the problem was later eagerly taken up by the Europeans.

The solution was a so-called 'pidgin' language known today as the Chinook jargon. Since it was primarily meant to facilitate trade, it was very much a barebones language. There were no past or future tenses, and each verb and noun only had one form. This made for a servicable, if somewhat odd sounding tongue that absorbed words mostly from two languages, Chinook and Nuuchahnulth. Chinook is a Salishan language, and Chinook speakers live all along the Columbia River from the deep interior to the Pacific Ocean. Until the late 1800s when illness caused many of those living in Canada to join neighbouring nations, and those in the United States to accept reservations in Oregon and Washington, they were the undisputed masters of the Columbia river watershed. That said, contrary to popular belief, the Salish speaking Sinixt Nation is not extinct and is still at the easternmost end of the interior Salish lands around the Arrow Lakes. The Nuuchahnulth have always lived on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and are world famous for their art, their canoes, and their seafaring skills. The Chinook jargon eventally absorbed many words from French, and a few from Ojibwe and Cree. The Chinook jargon helped establish a variety of Indigenous language words in North American english, including potlatch, high-muck-a-muck, and moose.

European traders learned the Chinook jargon as rapidly as they could because it helped them do business, but found that they still couldn't pronounce or hear the less familiar sounds properly. In the end they simply dropped the glottal stops and made sounds like 'tl' easier to pronounce by throwing away the l.

Across Canada and much of the United States, most Indigenous languages are in danger of disappearing for lack of fluent speakers younger than sixty-five. Exceptions are Cree and Ojibwe in Canada, Navajo and possibly Lakota in the United States (there is some argument over its status in this respect), and Nahuatl in Mexico. Accordingly First Nations all over North America have been working hard to preserve their languages by establishing courses, language instruction in their community's schools, and cooperating with Elders to record songs and stories. As a general rule, First Nations are not too worried about the Chinook jargon, but non-Indigenous people living in older towns along the old-time trade routes where Chinook jargon was once commonly used seem to be. There a number of language societies primarily in the United States attempting to preserve it, no mean task for a language that it is not an integral part of an existing culture.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 23:43:13 MDT