Chinook Jargon Conquers the World?

How’s this for a vibe: you’re waiting on a train platform out in the middle of some vast steppe that makes America’s big sky country look tame, signs posted and flashing in a fluid vertical cursive script, magnetically-levitated locomotives whizzing by at almost the speed of sound, the cars 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Then something in Cyrillic script flashes by…and quite possibly an alphabet few in our timeline have even heard of.

That might be some point along the trans-Mongolian railroad in the science-fictional alternate history setting I like to place my stories. I happened to be on an Austrian train earlier today that extends its way into Slovenia and Italy, and I’ve seen others that range as far afield as Poland (so much the better; OBB in my experience is one of the few passenger rail operators that are actually any good).

In my setting the standard for passenger rail is something more like the Breitspurbahn concept that was most prominent in 1930s Germany but has been kicking around both before and since. Demands are greater, travelers more numerous, and treasuries more flush, so why not? Indeed, the development of regions like Siberia has kicked into overdrive, and further technical advancements have brought in magnetic levitation (powered by cheap and abundant nuclear electricity) as the standard propulsion method, topping out at around 600 miles per hour, just below the speed of sound. Similar to modern-day airplanes! This world’s airplanes, of course, go much faster than their real-life counterparts; closer to Mach 5.

At this speed some rather mind-bending train rides are possible. As it is today there’s an overnight train from Berlin to Stockholm, for example. By road Berlin to Ulaanbataar, Mongolia takes 4,939 miles. A train that kept a steady 600 mph the whole time would arrive in about 8 hours. So you could fall asleep in your sleeper cabin (one that, lest we forget, could be very nice and spacious, given the broad gauge of the railway) somewhere in East Prussia and wake up in Outer Mongolia.

And here’s where it really gets fancy: there’s a tunnel through the Bering Strait in my universe, with connecting infrastructure on both sides, so these trains can cross over into the Americas. Realistically we’re talking maybe another 5,000 miles of track from Ulaanbataar to Fairbanks, Alaska. So on a land travel track Mongolia is about the halfway mark between central Europe and Alaska. Of course maintaining a steady 600 mph would likewise see you arrive in Fairbanks in about 8 hours.

Mongolia is a bit interesting anyway because its longitude is about where long-distance passengers traveling from Europe to East Asia would branch off away from those continuing deeper into Siberia. So it might turn out that an awful lot of people in my setting end up in some station in Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, or Ulaanbataar, or even perhaps a location that (at least outside the area) is very obscure today, perhaps even just wilderness.

From Ulaanbataar to southern Chinese cities like Hong Kong is roughly 2000 miles, so about three and a half hours by train. Not too shabby. Of course if you were going that far south you might take a route through Persia rather than via Siberia.

Passengers going on to the New World would find that even after Fairbanks it’s still another 3000 miles to Los Angeles. So even with these super-trains central Europe to the American Southwest would take the better part of three days. Assuming you just took night trains the whole way.

One can fairly speculate as to whether, say, Austrian train operators out of Vienna would just keep running the night trains clear out to Mongolia, and whether this would be as far as they ever went, handing off their passengers to transfer to Russian or even American or Canadian train operators for the journey into North America. The prospect of just sleeping in a spacious cabin in Vienna and waking up in Peking would certainly entice many; air travel might be faster (at Mach 5 the journey could be made in just over one hour) but the added comfort and lower expense of even a plush night train might just tip the scales to make it a large market.

For that matter an Orient Express from, say, Vienna that zooms right past Mongolia and terminates somewhere in China couldn’t be ruled out. Beijing, after all, isn’t all that far from Mongolia. Seoul or even Tokyo might be viable targets for these beefed-up shiny monstrosities of the imagination. To Tokyo only about four hours would be added to the Mongolia track; enough to sleep in Berlin, wake up, and have a nice big breakfast before entering a new day in what might as well be a new world.

This added connectivity might grant the Pacific Northwest of North America easy access into Siberia and even into East Asia, which leads me to wonder what the effects would be in terms of language: in my timeline Chinook Jargon entrenches itself as the lingua franca of the Pacific Northwest over the course of the 20th century. In large measure that’s because a far more booming economy and the consequent vast numbers of immigrants makes it the path of least resistance; it’s much easier to teach them the Wawa than English, and since the local Anglos already speak it anyway, why not? The post-World-War-I wave of nationalism that suppressed minority languages being absent also helps considerably.

The Jargon could spread into Alaska, and that’s the gateway into Siberia. Signage and tourist facilities in Chinook Wawa could cross the Bering Strait, being present across the Russian Far East by the time the 21st century really takes off. The night trains from Alaska that come into Mongolia might be the last signs of Chinook Jargon that you’ll see as a Cascadian traveler heading westward. Indeed, the German from the west, the Wawa from the east, the Russian from the north, the Chinese from the south, and the Mongolian in the middle might all meet there in Mongolia, making for a truly fascinating melting pot of a setting, especially considering how generally remote it is and how it’s neglected in the Western mind (Genghis Khan’s exploits aside). The English language, to the extent it’s even gained a foothold in the region even in real life, is likely to be a non-factor.

Indeed, in this setting the British Empire keeps on, albeit as not quite the world-leading juggernaut it once was, but the United States never assumes the role of the global hegemon. No other language is really in a prime position to become a global lingua franca, yet that’s a niche that needs to be filled in a globalized economy and society. So if not English, then what?

In my setting I posit that Russian culture experiences a secular rise much like western European did after the high middle ages and in coming centuries dominates the realm of “soft power” worldwide, which would suggest Russian ultimately wins out, albeit only at a very late date. But with the success of Chinook Jargon in my setting, I’m starting to wonder: one desired property of a global lingua franca is that it be neutral, not privileging the native speakers of any particular language, as well as easy to learn, both of which Chinook Jargon possesses. Of course practically it’s easier for a language to take over that role if a large number of people already speak it, which is why Esperanto, for example, has never really gone anywhere. But in this universe the Wawa has precisely that advantage!

Indeed, if Chinook Wawa could come to be the prevailing lingua franca in Siberia then with the rapid development, population, and rise in prestige of the region in my timeline it would be delivered a major boost. The trans-Pacific comes, fairly inevitably, to dominate over the trans-Atlantic, economically, socially, and culturally speaking, so an already established lingua franca across the North Pacific has an excellent chance at spreading even further.

Per the Dymaxion map, think of Siberia not as some wasteland but as a gateway, the essential connective tissue between all the major parts of the world. It’s not a very practical way to think now, but in a futuristic setting with easy and fast long-distance travel, a population that primarily lives in rural acreages (which means places where people can spread out will be prized, i.e. precisely the least populated now), and where mining and industrial development determine where the economic centers are instead of fertile farmland, people will think, and, more crucially, act this way.

Speculative? Yes. A stretch? Perhaps. But confess: the idea of a Native American language achieving world domination instead of English (or even Russian) is just too cool to resist. And in the case of Chinook Jargon a strong case can be made for its theoretical suitability in the role (the same applies for Swahili, notably, but in a setting like this that trade language might well take off like wildfire within Africa and connected regions).

Instead of English announcements being the global standard at transit stations so everyone from abroad can understand you might hear Chinook Jargon. So at some train station in Siberia that’s a major thoroughfare internationally you might hear an announcement in Russian followed by Chinook…and that’s it. In later centuries you might even hear Chinook announcements in places like Japan, China, Persia, even Europe and beyond. The default language of the Internet in this timeline might veer inexorably toward Chinook.

As for the script? Written Chinook Wawa? In real life the standard for it is (pleasantly enough) not the Latin alphabet, but rather Duployan shorthand. Admittedly in real life this was only invented for the Kamloops area in the 1890s but it did become widespread in the Chinook orbit.

Source is public domain copies of the Kamloops Wawa in the Simon Fraser University Library, generously scanned by Skookum1 of Wikimedia Commons.

Honestly if you want to display on digital signage and have it easily understood it needs work, but that may well come with time. My heart wanders to the idea of the Chinook script, courtesy of the connections to Russia (as well as the hordes of Russian immigrants pouring into Cascadia…) falling more under the influence of Cyrillic in some ways, and my mind wonders what that would even look like.

Upshot, though? Imagine this Mongolian railway station of a futuristic alternate history, and someone from the America of our timeline airdropped into there. If they use Mongolian (in the super-cool traditional vertical cursive script of course), Russian, Chinese, and Chinook he may well find not only none of the languages familiar, but none of the alphabets either. If he can see something even as familiar as a German-speaking night train to Europe he’ll be lucky… 😀 

Oh well. It might be a bit of a caprice but I love the idea of Chinook Jargon as the lingua franca of my alternate timeline’s future. Heck, even the globalistic vibe of the setting jives quite nicely with the idea of a Native American trade language instead of the native tongue of any particular major power predominating. It’s a bit of a stretch, but like the War of the Army of Christmas it just fits like a glove…I think I’ll roll with it.

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