Linguistics doctoral student Dave Robertson studies Chinuk Wawa, a pidgin language based on the old Chinookan languages of the lower Columbia River region. When the Alaskan-born Robertson discovered the region had its own distinctive language, it motivated him to learn about it. His dissertation examines Chinuk Wawa shorthand materials created by BC’s First Nations people in their first period of literacy. During the Gold Rush, from about 1858 to 1890, Chinuk Wawa was the dominant language from the California-Oregon border to the Alaska panhandle. Here’s a primer, including a handful of terms that are still in fairly common use today:
Kahta mika?: How are you?
Kloshe nika: I’m fine.
Ikta okoke kopa Boston wawa?: How do you say that in English?
Leyom yaka iskum nika lemah, pi yaka tikki haul nika kopa Keekwillie Piah:The Devil’s shaking my hand and he wants to drag me to hell.
cheechako: a newcomer; literally “just came”
saltchuck: the ocean, the sea, literally “salt water”
hummy: smelly, for example a dirty diaper,
from hum “smell”
potlatch: an honouring feast, literally ‘give’
skookum: excellent, high-quality, literally ‘strong’
or ‘powerful spirit’
muckamuck: food, to eat, to bite
high muckamuck: someone who sits at the head of a table;
mesachie: bad, wicked, untrustworthy
cultus: worthless, no-good, worn out
cooley: hurry up, to run
cultus cooley: to wander, sowing one’s wild oats
tumtum, tumtums: to feel, think, believe, hope, consider
tyee: chief or leader
tillikum, tillicums: (Indian) people, person,
may also mean “friend”
shantie: to sing
Boston: American, white person
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