Tuesday wet scatter: Call it Snass

The Chinook word for blackberries? KLIKAMUKS, with the accent on the KLIK. Actually, that’s Chinook Wawa, the trading language of the Northwest coastal tribes and French traders, and not proper Chinook, which pronounced the M as a B, all this according to George Gibbs’ dictionary of Chinook Jargon (or Wawa) published in 1863.

The Chinook tribes of the Lower Columbia, among the largest concentrations of native people in the United States, were diminished and then practically wiped out by successive epidemics of smallpox brought to them courtesy of Europeans. That’s why we don’t hear the hard K’s of Chinook mixed into the free consonants floating around around our favorite coffeehouses. Very few people speak the language, though tribal leader Tony Johnson is attempting to revive it.

Chinook Wawa came up recently in a conversation with Margot Voorhies Thompson about her painting show at the Laura Russo Gallery (never worry! a post is in the works!). Thompson, whose art was greatly influenced by calligrapher/polymath Lloyd Reynolds, was thinking about the loss of languages worldwide as we talked — which implies the loss of cultural experience, the ways that one culture adapts to its surroundings and creates something distinct. It’s akin to the extinction of a species, Thompson suggests: We lose the “DNA” of those creations, that history, those experiments, when a language dies

Thompson and I aren’t the only ones thinking about that problem, of course. Last month representatives of tribes around the country met with language experts to discuss the disappearance of their languages and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Faye Flam wrote about it. Flam suggests that when Columbus ran into the Western Hemisphere something on the order of 300 languages were being spoken in the United States. But this seems like a very low number, especially if the experience of Columbia tribes is any indication. Chinook Wawa was necessary because of the number of languages spoken in the Northwest. Even along the lower Columbia River, the dialects of various tribes generally considered “Chinook” were very different, according to Rick Rubin’s account, Naked Against the Rain: The People of the Lower Columbia river 1770-1830. George Gibbs, by the way, argued that Chinook Wawa was an “invention” of the French, suggesting that it had so many Chinook words because of the French traders at Fort Vancouver, but Tony Johnson believes that it existed before contact with the French exactly because it IS so Chinook dominant (with some useful French — like CALLIPEEN from CARABINE for rifle — and English words added along with borrowings from other Northwest tribes).

Somehow this June morning, after a drenching overnight drizzle that almost resembled actual rain at times, the Chinook Wawa word for rain sounds just about right to my ear. It rhymes with “moss”: SNASS.