1871: A Negro boot-black (& a missing pidgin)


(Image credit: Amazon.com)

There’s at least one pidgin missing from the flock of languages in this astonished mention of a Portland Black man.

(To me personally it sound disrespectful of the newspaper editor to choose the verb “sport”, but you know what, the title of the periodical gives away their feelings about Black lives…)

The shoeshine worker noted below is far from the only African-American person known to have spoken Chinuk Wawa. It’s good to get these sorts of reminders, though, that CW is a tremendously interethnic language. I just wish this man’s name had been recorded!

Now: I’m known for urging my readers to notice “nulls”. Can you find the missing pidgin language here?

negro boot black

Portland sports a negro boot-black who speaks fluently French, Spanish, German, English and Chinook; and a Chinaman chambermaid “parley voos” French and English, besides several of the Chinese dielects [sic].

— from the Albany (OR) State Rights Democrat of December 15, 1871, page 2, column 4

The “Chinaman chambermaid” (are we supposed to infer a gender there?), it’s virtually certain, spoke the West Coast dialect of Chinese Pidgin English.

That may in fact be what “English” here refers to, because we find an ironclad pattern in old eyewitness sources: Americans understood CPE speakers really well, but much of the time they spoke their own first language (US dialects of English) to the Chinese immigrants.

An interesting dynamic, eh?

Anyhow, multilingualism couldn’t be a rarity in frontier-era America; certainly not among the service-industry workers who needed to communicate well with a diverse clientele.

What do you think?