Chinuk Wawa or English


When looking for the stories of the past there are many places to look. We can observe cultural material and try to figure out how they were used in the past. We can look at the writings of people in the past through historical archives. We can look at plants to understand past uses of places. We can also look at the the etymology of words. These words provide us with a narrative. In English, these words are often associated with introduced materials into our culture. Pizza is borrowed from Italy. Anime is borrowed from Japan. These words show a narrative of trade, not trade of just items, but trade of ideas and cultures.

Chinuk Wawa was the language franca of trade along the Columbia River. It was heavily influenced by all the languages of people who used it to communicate. Prior to European contact, the language was influenced by Kalapuyan, upper Chinook, Salishan, and many other languages. After contact with European and American explorers, traders, and settlers elements of French and English became incorporated into the language.

Most commonly, English and French words entered the vocabulary that were associated with each of those communities or were unique to the trading relationships established with them. For example, the Chinuk Wawa word for ship is ‘Ship’. This may be because ships were introduced to the Chinook by the British.
The word for book in Chinuk Wawa, is ‘buk’. Along with these words, these products—buk, K
hetəl (kettle)—entered into trade and the daily lives of Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest. By bringing the English word into the language it provides an element of metalanguage into the word.  For example, a kettle is associated with English culture that brings to light a narrative of kettles in the language.

Other words introduced or adapted into Chinook Wawa from English are gul (gold), hickchəm (Hankerchief), fitəl (fiddle), haws (house), shush (shoes), lishat (shirt), stakhins (stockings),  and Shakholat (chocolate).

The word bridge is another term and concept the Chinook people borrowed from English. Before contact with the Europeans, bridges weren’t present within the Chinook territories. In a story Vincent Mercier recorded an interview with John B. Hudson. Hudson says “Hílu uk ‘bástən ‘brích’ínatay uk tsəqw.” Which translates into “there was no such thing as what whites called a “bridge” going across the river. This demonstrates how the words came into being within the Chinuk language.

Language provides a different way for us to observe a culture. It allows us to see influences of others into a culture without having to excavate. Through language we can see how trade was used to change the Chinuk world and language. If you wish to learn the Chinuk Wawa language there is an app called “Chinuk Wawa.”


A Thornton Media Production Chinuk Wawa App Thornton Media, Inc. Grande Ronde Departments of Land and Culture, 2014.  

Zenk, Henry B., Comp., Chinuk Wawa (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon) University of Washington Press, 2012.