How the Native American Pidgin English Came to Be


By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

Usually, pidgin languages form in situations where there is subordination between groups. So, it’s more the subordinate group learning the dominant group’s language than the other way around. A typical example of this was the Native American Pidgin English that developed in America back in the early days.

The Treaty of Penn with the Indians by Benjamin West, painted in 1771
Native Americans developed a pidgin English as they started to interact more with the European settlers. (Image: Benjamin West/Public domain)

The Hollywood Native American

Hollywood often shows the Native Americans talking in a certain way, which we are now all familiar with: “Big chief go that way. Ugh.” That was just kind of accepted.

And, it wasn’t always a Bugs Bunny joke, either, because Tonto, on The Lone Ranger was depicted as speaking that way. What was interesting was that Tonto and the Lone Ranger, by implication, were together all the time.

The Lone Ranger spoke, very strangely for his social status, a rather unusually pristine mainstream educated English. Tonto is always shown to be no more than two feet away from him and, somehow, he always spoke a type of pidgin.

Learn more about how culture drives language change.

Europeans Make an Entry

The continent was populated by hundreds of different groups of Native Americans—till the Europeans came. Initially, the Native Americans outnumbered white Europeans. However, as time went on, the whites proliferated and the Native Americans became the subordinate group.

As we would expect, most Native Americans, until their almost complete acculturation, were not inclined to become Europeans. They were intent on keeping their languages and cultures—and their folk ways—and communicating with the Europeans was something that they wanted to do on a makeshift basis.

The Origin of Native American Pidgin English

Thus, many Native Americans, up until the 1800s, in particular, tended to communicate with the white man in pidgin English.

Of course, nobody put it that way, but, looking back on the documentation, there was an American Indian Pidgin English. It wasn’t just a bunch of Native Americans speaking English incorrectly. There were conventions in this American Indian Pidgin English that you could see across the country. For example, ‘heap’ was used for ‘very’; so, ‘heap big tee-pee’ was something that Native Americans actually said. It wasn’t just a Bugs Bunny convention.

Examples of Native American Pidgin English

Let’s take the example of the word ‘squaw’ used for ‘woman’. That came from the Narragansett language of Rhode Island; it was common across the country for Native Americans when speaking in English to refer to women as ‘squaws’.

Another example is a quote from a female Native American, who is trying to insult or abuse a white man: “You silly. You weak. You baby-hands. No catch horse. No kill buffalo. No good but for sit still—read book.”

That’s pretty mean, but that is American Indian Pidgin English. Of course, this short speech does not represent the full battery of expression in the English language. However, it’s also articulate in its way. The meaning comes across quite clearly.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human LanguageWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Indifference to Gender in Native American Pidgin English

Another passage of this pidgin is from a male Native American, who is giving some sort of pick-up advice. He says, “Look squaw in face—see him smile—which is all one he say yes!” The ‘all one’ is ‘like’, to indicate that the ‘squaw’ says yes. However, notice, the business of the squaw being ‘he’ does not represent some sort of advanced conception of gender relations. In fact, this is an example of how pidgins tend to leave out the complicated stuff, such as gender.

Native American women photographed in 1924
Native American Pidgin English discarded gender, and used he/him for all. (Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Public domain)

The average English speaker thinks of gender as integral to language. But many languages in the world do not distinguish between ‘he’ and ‘she’. Japanese doesn’t, nor does Finnish. It’s a complication; you don’t usually need to be told whether the person you’re talking about is a male or female. It’s usually either quite clear or not important to know.

So, in a pidgin you usually just go down to one gender. For better or for worse, the default gender does tend to be the masculine gender. So the squaw is a ‘him’. Not because the squaw is male, but because everything is ‘him’; there is no ‘her’.

Learn more about the mixture of grammar between languages.

The Chinook Jargon

But, different pidgins were spoken between different groups of Native Americans. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, there was a pidgin called Chinook Jargon, which, in turn, was a highly watered-down version of the Chinook and Nutka language spoken there.

It was often said that the Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest were rather taciturn when speaking. This may sound like the Tonto taciturn stereotype, but, apparently, this had some sort of anthropological validity, although it must have varied among individuals.

The noteworthy thing is that when these taciturn people were speaking Chinook Jargon, they became very animated. So little was actually indicated by the Chinook Jargon itself that if one wanted to fill in the emotions and the nuances, then they had to wave their hands around, wiggle their eyebrows, or move a lot. Like all pidgins, this only helped one to communicate.

We naturally see American Indian Pidgin English as people not speaking English in the correct way—and they most certainly didn’t. Pidgins, after all, are not true languages themselves.

However, what they were doing was something that people had done all over the world for as long as we know—if you have an intermediate need or desire to learn a language, and you just need to communicate, then create a pidgin.

Common Questions about Native American Pidgin English

Q. Why did the Native Americans begin to speak in pidgin English?

The Native Americans slowly became the subordinate language group as the number of white people increased. So, the Native Americans began to speak in pidgin English.

Q. Why did the Native American Pidgin English speakers always use ‘him’ and ‘he’, even for a woman?

In most pidgin languages, gender was discarded as an unnecessary complication, and usually only the male pronoun was retained. So, in Native American pidgin English, only the masculine pronouns were used, even when speaking about a woman.

Q. What was so unusual about Chinook Jargon?

Chinook Jargon was spoken in the Pacific Northwest. It was supposed to be so limited in terms of words that a lot of action and mime had to be used to convey meaning.

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