Oregon’s Linguistic Landscape

In the year of statehood, Oregonians spoke many languages

Editor’s note:

Euro-American traders and settlers brought Russian, French, Spanish and English to the region we call Oregon, but native people spoke at least 18, possibly more than 25 distinct languages. By 1859, English was becoming dominant, foreshadowing the almost complete loss of native languages and the development of Chinook Jargon (or “Chinuk Wawa”) as a common creole language. Ten of these languages are being revitalized today.

Below, in excerpts from Teaching Oregon Native Languages, OSU anthropologist Joan Gross offers a glimpse of this linguistic heritage. She and co-authors advocate for support of native language instruction “to promote the value of multilingualism in our society and the deep respect for cultural diversity that it brings.”

What became the state of Oregon, an area stretching south from the Columbia Gorge to the Siskiyous, and east from the Pacific over the Coastal Range and Cascades to the High Desert, was a land of many languages, each one encoding information about the land and how to survive on it. The various languages of Oregon belong to language families as different from each other as English is from Arabic: Athabaskan, Salishan, Shastan, Uto-Aztecan, and a number of families that have been roughly grouped into the Penutian phylum (Chinookan, Kalapuyan-Takelman, Sahaptian, Lutuamian, Molallan, Cayusan, Yakonan, Siuslawan, Coosan). Each of these families consisted of several languages, and each language of several spoken dialects. Even within what might be called the same dialect, each village probably had its own subdialect, differing from neighboring villages in the way certain sounds were pronounced and a few vocabulary words…

In addition to the high value placed on learning multiple Native languages, there was still a need for a means of communication in short-term encounters between speakers of different languages. This need was filled by the creation of a trade language that came to be known as Chinook Jargon. By the time Lewis and Clark made their voyage down the Columbia, there is some evidence of a mixed language being spoken, but it most certainly stabilized into a pidgin language during the fur-trading period.

Both natives and Euro-Americans in the Northwest saw the advantage of this easily learned language. Pidgins have a simplified grammatical structure and are much easier to learn than historically rooted languages that have developed all sorts of unsystematic complexities over the years. Languages that bridge communication gaps between speakers of different languages are know as lingua francas. Chinook Jargon quickly became the lingua franca of the Northwest.

The first European nuns who arrived in the Willamette Valley in 1844 to teach the children growing up in this multicultural area used Chinook Jargon with their students. Several Chinook Jargon words drifted into Northwest frontier English. Words like “tyee” (chief), “skookum” (strong), “tillicum” (friend), “wawa” (talk), and “alki” (soon) were used to metaphorically claim identity with the region. An Oregon congressman in the 1880s talked about how General Sheridan and the translator, Nesmith, conversed in Chinook Jargon back in Washington, D.C. (Once, one of their telegrams was intercepted by the Secretary of War who, seeing the incomprehensible words, suspected a plot was afoot.)

Teaching Oregon Native Languages, by Joan Gross, Erin Haynes, David Lewis, Deanna Kingston and Juan Trujillo, published by Oregon State University Press in 2007, can be ordered online.

Note: OSU Press will expand its work in indigenous studies through a $1 million grant to four university presses from the Mellon Foundation. See a January 9, 2009 story in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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