恭喜發財! Chinese New Year from a Nez Perce perspective

chinese new year 2020

(Image credit: Mordidas)

Gung hay fat choy!

I want to pay tribute to the remarkably accurate memory of có•c’iyalaht (Agnes Moses, 1868-1961), a 93-year-old monolingual Nez Perce speaker, daughter of a woman called Tolo who is famous in the history of the 1877 Nez Perce War.

The more you use your language skills, the longer and more sharply you’ll remember them. Agnes surely loved her language.

In a reminiscence that was audio-recorded in the last year of her life, có•c’iyalaht tells of being a young girl visiting Idaho mining camps populated by immigrants from China.

Slowing down a moment to look at her wording, you can find a number of terms that may have come into the central Idaho Sahaptian language Nez Perce via pidgin languages:

  • ‘Chinese’ (from the Chinese Pidgin English compound ‘China + man’)
  • ‘New Year’ (we find this English borrowing in CW around Kamloops, for instance).
  • ‘whiskey’ (it’s a widely used word in Chinuk Wawa of the time)

(Also the Nez Perce word for ‘yes’ resembles one often used in CW, but that’s more a case of a widely shared ancient habit among numerous languages in the region.)

But I find it truly wonderful that có•c’iyalaht remembered the expression that those miners would say at Chinese New Year. In her Nez Perce-influenced pronunciation, eight decades later, her páccay’ páccay’ is recognizable as the traditional Chinese greeting of this season, “(Gung hay) fat choy”.

This elder’s warm recollection of the Chinese miners’ kindness to Indians seems like a truly auspicious way to start out a new year of learning about cultures meeting in the Pacific Northwest:

恭喜發財!

chinese new year

page 88

Here’s the English translation of the preceding:

chinese new year english

page 89

And some notes by the researchers:

chinese new year notes

page 90

— from Haruo Aoki [ed.], “Nez Perce Texts” (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979)

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