California CPE doggerel: Yet Wah, & new lexical discoveries
A kernel of linguistic truth lies within these stereotyping lines…
…There are many recognizable details of West Coast Chinese Pidgin English (CPE) in this poem, as racist as it is — notice the punning use of “chink”, an archaic slang word for ‘money’.
The notes that ring true include (once again!) the trope of Chinese immigrants cussing, and the pronunciation of ‘Chinese’ as “Chinee“, which influenced Chinuk Wawa’s words for this ethnic group.
Therefore, I’m intrigued to research more about the elements that sound possibly authentic, but that are less familiar to me. It’s not at all unlikely that Americans, who as a rule understood spoken CPE well, were familiar with more expressions than have been previously documented by linguists.
One such is the exclamation “Muck-a hi!” We know other common CPE interjections, a classic being “Hai yah!” So maybe this new one, and the “Ki yi!” also seen here, reflect actual usage…?
At least one source seems to translate “Muck-a-hi” as “Damn you”. An 1891 Vermont newspaper states, without contextual backup, that “A-muck-a-hi” means “we are the people”; I can’t say if it’s related. More to the point, I’ve found an 1878 northern California newspaper quotation of a murderer in CPE that goes,
Muck-a-hi, him man owe me fifteen cents too muchee longtime; him no pay, me kill ’em. — Tu na-mah!
Which raises a further question of the meaning of Tu na-mah, but read on for a clue. Another No Cal paper, from 1886, has a Chinese immigrant “say[ing] ‘muck-a-hi-lo‘ in the most savage style”, which I do believe is the same expression we’re looking into. And an 1881 Nevada paper has two Chinese immigrants berating each other with the “the epithets, ‘Tuna muck a high low‘ and ‘pedro‘ “, the first tending to help us and the second raising still another etymological question.
So, maybe some of the new words we’re discovering in West Coast CPE add to the speakers’ reputation as swearers. Huh!
(Not all such words will, though, since some I’ve seen are just words for food and drink, e.g. samshoo.)
Stay tuned for presumably more on this website about Chinese immigrant speech discoveries.
In my transcription of today’s West Coast pidgin-themed poem, I’ll bold words that I know to be CPE. See what you make of it.
His name was Yet Wah,
With no high sounding “Ah,”
To form a front step to his name.
A wash house he kept,
Where he feasted and slept,
And rustled for washee and fame.
Now, Yet was a man
Whom the rest of his clan
Regarded as pure to a fault;
So with limitless trust
Their hoardings they thrust
In the tea chest that served as his vault.
Yet winked his off eye
As he saw the chink fly
Thro’ the slot In his improvised bank;
“Me sabbee,” said he.
With a chuckle of glee,
“Fool Chineeman — allee same crank!”
Time rapidly passed.
Till Yet Wah at last
Decided his harvest to reap.
So one silent night
He arose, lit his light,
The bad resolutlon to keep.
“Like Melican clerk,”
Said he, with a smirk.
“We [sic, for “me”] steal ’em an’ then run away!
Me brave — me no care
How Chineeman swear —
In Canada Yet Wah will stayl”
With half nervous zest
He crept to the chest,
Unlocked it, and raised up the lid;
Then, peering inside,
He sprang up wild eyed,
With a face as pale as the dead.
“Wha’ for[!] Muck-a hi!”
Was his terrified cry,
As he sank out of breath, ‘gainst the wall;
“Some heap bad Chinee
Been here before me,
An’ stealee my money an’ all!
“Thro’ a hole in the bottom
Some roguey chap got ’em;
Ki-yi! it makee me sick!
Bimeby some Chinee
He lay it on me
Say me stole ’em, and killee me quick!“
Like a hideous dream,
So ended Yet’s scheme,
And, fearing the crisis, he “dusted;”
Like a shadow of night,
He slunk out of sight,
Himself, like his bank, nearly busted!
— Yankee Blade.
— from the Great Falls (MT) Leader of May 3, 1889, page 2, column 2