Life in the Old West

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Indian Pidgin English shaped the Old West

In his excellent reference work, “Dictionary of the American West,” writer Winfred Blevins has an interesting section in the introduction on Indian Pidgin English, a language of convenience which he says bridged a communications gap and traveled via explorers, traders, and mountain men across the entire continent.

Blevins makes an interesting point that this mishmash of terms came about mostly from efforts by the many Indian language groups “to learn or develop words that would work, starting a pidgin language, with expressions like big medicine, big water, big talk. … In time, with lots of Indians using it, whites learning it and translators adopting it, Indian Pidgin English became a kind of language.”

Some of the terms that are classified as Indian Pidgin English are “fire water,” the use of “winter” to mean “year,” the use of “moon” to mean “month,” and even “buffalo soldier” to mean “black soldier.” Blevins points out that some Indian tribal groups used this pidgin language to communicate with other tribal groups whose language they never learned. And, quite interesting, is his notion that the word “squaw,” which actually started as an Algonquin word, was identified by most Plains Indians as a “white man” word which they considered offensive. He concludes his discussion of Indian Pidgin English with this remark:

Americans were once criticized enthusiastically by the British for corrupting English with “wigwam words.” So let us now proclaim them thoroughly ours and celebrate them.

Understanding Indian Pidgin English goes a long way toward understanding how various Indian tribal groups and white settlers worked to communicate.

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