A correspondent writes:

Movies put dialogue into the mouths of “characters of color” which marks their difference from normative English speakers but which is meant to resemble an admixture of their “original language” with English. Hence, fake Indian talk — “Me want-um heap big tomahawk!”.[…] The question I have is where the screenwriters picked up the allegedly original language features. Does movie-Indian dialogue bear any resemblance to the speech of any American Indian, and, if so, what is the extent of that resemblance?

An excellent question, and I thought I’d pass it along to the assembled multitudes. Anybody know the history of this form of stylized speech? I took a look at James Fenimore Cooper, but his version of Native American dialect, while piquant, is quite different in style: “He ole, now; like top of dead hemlock, wind blow t’rough his branches till leaf all fall off.”

According to John T. Frederick (“Cooper’s Eloquent Indians,” PMLA 71 [1956]: 1004-1017), Cooper did extensive research on how Indians were said by earlier travelers and writers to have lived and spoken—”Cooper’s daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, testifies in The Cooper Gallery to the careful research on the basis of which Cooper sought to give validity to his portrayal of Indian characters.”
Addendum. Lauren of Superlinguo kindly sent me the following reference:
Meek, B.A. (2006). “And the Injun goes ‘How!’: Representations of American Indian English in White Public Space.” Language in Society 35/1: 93-128.


  1. “The question I have is where the screenwriters picked up the allegedly original language features.” Speakeasies.

  2. Hollywood Injun English seems to be ultimately based on a real pidgin. There is a well-known story that Waban, an early convert of John Eliot’s, who gives the name to a village of Newton, Mass., supposedly wrote the warrant:

    You, you big constable, quick you catch um Jeremiah Offscow, strong you hold um, safe you bring um afore me.

    That would be the end of the 17th century.

  3. Aha, very interesting—it goes much further back, and is more authentic, than I would have guessed.

  4. Here‘s an article in JSTOR by Douglas Leechman and Robert A. Hall, Jr. collecting attestations, including, for instance, squaw and wampum in the mid 17th century, and trying to piece together how the pidgin might have worked.
    Talking of Eliot, there’s a bit in Cotton Mather’s memoir of him on the latter’s impressions of the sequipedalia verba of their lingo. Whence A‘s “agglutinative questions when no redskins / lust white gospel in red-tongue.” Demons that understand Latin, Greek and Hebrew seemed to understand Algonquin, too.

  5. Maybe the indigenous people used the simplest language and diction for their masters because the masters seemed so backward to them. The people in power are always the “slow class.”

  6. J. W. Brewer says

    In the less sensitive era of a few generations back, American audiences for vaudeville and suchlike theatrical performances were familiar with a few standardized non-standard, as it were, dialects. There was Comical Negro Stage Dialect, and Comical Yiddish-inflected Stage Dialect, and Comical Irish Stage Brogue, and perhaps others. If you wanted to work in showbiz, you obviously wanted to master the way people expected “the comical way the Irish talk” to be done on stage in preference to accurately imitating the actual speech of actual Irish immigrants, if those turned out not to be exactly the same thing. I think there’s been some work done on the extent to which these standardized ethnic stage dialects did and did not reflect the actual typical speech patterns of the groups in question (not that those were uniform for all members of a given group, of course). E.g., there are certain features of traditional Comical Negro Stage Dialect, such as “ob” for “of” and the use of “am” to agree with other-than-first-person pronouns that are not generally found in more modern varieties of AAVE. Are they evidence that AAVE was different back in the 19th century, or just that the codifiers of the stage dialect were inaccurate? (I suppose “comical” may be a little pejorative, since at least the Negro version was also sometimes used to transcribe, e.g., the lyrics of spirituals by well-meaning white people who were trying to be respectful by the standards of the day even if they might come off as patronizing in hindsight.)

  7. Charles Perry says

    I’ve wondered whether the “um” conventionally attached to verbs in Injun talk is “him,” representing an obligatory pronoun in, say, the Algonquian verb.

  8. The 17th century English stage had a conventional “foreigner’s dialect” used for the French, Dutch, etc., which to my ear has no appreciable resemblance to any language.
    A lot of Chinook Jargon was understood by whites in the Northwest in the 19th and well into the 20th century. My wife’s high school yearbook was named Klahowya. But that didn’t make it into many movies, other than those about the Klondike Gold Rush.

  9. Charles Perry: I quite agree the “um” element looks like a transitivity/agreement marker. However, I very much doubt it has anything to do with Algonquian, as I know of three similar cases found in pidgins/creoles spoken far away from Algonquian-speaking territory:
    1-In the English-based creoles of Suriname there exists an /m/ element which is suffixed to verbs and whose behavior has also been compared to a transitivity-marking morpheme;
    2-In many Pacific English-based pidgins a verb suffix -IM (English HIM) definitely is a transitivity marker; and
    3-In the earliest written samples of pidgin Cape Dutch (used by speakers of Khoisan languages) there exists a verb suffix -OM, which also looks vaguely like a transitivity marker.
    This leads to the question: is there a connection between any or all of these endings? I suspect there is, between all of them.

  10. The recent smash-hit success on British TV, “Downton Abbey”, received complaints about the feeble attempt at an Irish accent by a middle-aged actress. It transpired that she is a distinguished Irish actress; the complaints presumably stemmed from people being unfamiliar with a particular real Irish accent and expecting Stage Irish instead.

  11. Etienne,
    You can add West African Pidgin English to your list of pidgins/creoles with /Vm/ transitive markers. As a friend from (Anglophone) Cameroon recently wrote me about cooking fufu while visiting the US:
    Mi sep-sep fi kukam. Mek yu cam chopam.
    ‘I myself will cook it. (Let) you come eat it.’

  12. I imagine that the TV/movie/book ‘-um’ affix might be to a certain extent a hesitation on the part of a speaker whose native language includes case markers (which is frequently lexicalised in English as /um/ /ah/ or /uh/)

  13. which of course could easily become codified as part of a creole

  14. and obviously of course an affixation of ‘-him’ to….crud, what is that, accusative case? I wasn’t much good at German and only got 1 year of Latin

  15. Hall’s analysis linked to above is that /-əm/ is “the objective suffix.” Like Etienne says above, transitivizing seems closer to the mark, that’s what Holm has in his section on AIPE. And like Etienne and Joel above he notes that it’s found pretty widely, in Cameroonian, Tok Pisin and Ndyuka.
    I’ve read some discussion of the few Tok Pisin transitives that do not end in -im. Some of which form a different transitive verb with it. Like kaikai ‘eat’ and kaikaim ‘bite’. But newer online sources seem to say that kaikai is ‘food’ and kaikaim both ‘eat’ and ‘bite’. Is this a trend toward regularizing or just a difference in analysis / dialect / register? I’ve also read that -im is tending to get shorted to just -i, but I don’t know any details.

  16. Koj: actually, I doubt the substrate language has that much of an impact. Thus, Charles Perry wondered whether the -UM ending was related to Algonquian transitive verbs agreeing with their object. The problem is that other languages in contact with Algonquian languages show no such change: the French spoken by the Metis in the Canadian West has been influenced (in its phonology especially) by Cree and Ojibwe for several generations, has been almost wholly untouched by learned/standard French influence, but there is no trace in the Metis French verb of any kind of transitivizer/object agreement morpheme (indeed, the Metis French verb, as far as its morphosyntax goes, appears quite untouched by Cree/Ojibwe influence).
    Joel: in your examples the -am ending looks more like a cliticized pronoun than a transitivity marker: did you hear examples where the verb had an -am suffix as well as an overt nominal object?

  17. Just to complicate things, there is a suffix -um in Wampanoag (which would have been Waban’s native language, more or less) that forms transitive verbs with animate objects (though it doesn’t appear on every such verb). It’s attested on many verbs that are not English borrowings (wôkum ‘greet’,natwum ‘ask about’, kakâhtyum ‘advise’, weetapum ‘sit with’…). It does also show up on at least one borrowed verb: payum ‘pay’.

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