1902: Alaskan Inuit pidgin English (/Hawai’ian)

It’s been known for some time that there was a pidgin Inuit language in far northern Alaska’s frontier days…

Front Street, Nome, 1902, a place where you’d hear this pidgin language spoken (image credit: Art.com)

Now it looks like that pidgin shared the developmental path of Chinese Pidgin English and many regions’ Chinuk Wawa, in becoming progressively Anglicized. 

Here’s a paragraph from a 1902 news story reported from the village of “Sinrock”, outside of Nome.

(That looks like a version of the Inupiaq place name Siqnazuaq / Sitŋasuaq. If you google Sinrock, you’ll learn that the name has been appropriated by a chain of sex-oriented businesses in Anchorage and Fairbanks.) :/ 

This story about the then new Alaska petroleum-exploration industry, contributed by the rare woman reporter (Mary E. Hart), overtly identifies the speech of Sinrock Mary “The Eskimo Reindeer Queen” as “pidgeon English”. 

But as you’ll see, despite its resemblances to the West Coast-style Chinese Pidgin English that I sometimes showcase here, there’s something more going on in Mary’s analysis of local oil deposits as coming from her deceased kinfolks…

inuit pidgin

Further south, on the right hand side as you enter Norton sound, oil has been discovered, and at Sinrock, thirty miles north, your correspondent saw many evidences of the petroleum deposit. In company with Sinrock Mary, the Eskimo “Reindeer Queen,” I visited the native burying ground, half a mile north of the Eskimo village, and returning, drew the attention of my royal entertainer to the oily seepages. She studied the indications closely for a few moments, and in her characteristic “pidgeon English” explained “Heap grease! Many my people gone mucky (dead). Eat lots seal oil and fat tomcod. See?” I meekly bowed my acquiescence, her deduction evidently being that this floating “grease” was the exuded “fat” from the defunct but well-fed bodies of her departed subjects lying in close proximity, all unconscious of this coldblooded analysis.

— from the Los Angeles Herald Illustrated Magazine of February 16, 1902, page 6, column 3

Researchers such as Wilfried Schuhmacher, who I met when I gave a lecture on Chinook Jargon in Juneau, have called the Inuit pidgin of northern Alaska “Eskimo Trade Jargon“. That’s the name to search on for the most informative results, if you’re interested.

The pidgin is actually known to have been used by the 1870s. The first report of it that’s well-known in the linguistics community was published in 1909 by Vilhjalmur Stefánsson, from even farther north than Nome. 

Yet here we have an obviously pidgin form of speech, in not quite the same locale, and much less based on the Inupiaq language. As a matter of fact, all of Mary’s words are from English, with the exception of “mucky” (dead). 

What’s the deal with that word? Well, as T. Haunani Makuakāne & Emanuel Drechsel have shown, Inuit Pidgin contained quite a component of words from … get this … the Hawai’ian language!

Because in frontier times, Kanakas, as we know them from Chinuk Wawa, were recruited in sizeable numbers as crew for ships that traded in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. 

Down here in the PNW, very little linguistic trace of Kanaka influence remains in Chinuk Wawa. Although the Islanders spoke CW while here, and formed settlements in some locales, we have few Hawai’ian words, essentially just kʰanákʰa and a couple place names like Wahu and Wayhi.

But Inuit pidgin, spoken in quite a different region under distinct circumstances — in a whaling industry where Hawai’ians and Inuit were perhaps the most effective workers and would therefore have lots of mutual contact — contained quite a number and variety of Hawai’ian words. And one of those words is make ‘dead’. That is, “mucky“. 

If I had to guess, I’d suppose that the existing Inuit pidgin might have made its way along the coast west- and southward through contacts among Native people. In the more southerly (!) area of Nome, which was a brand-new boomtown of 10,000 white male English speakers in 1902, a sudden shift toward English may have meant a substitution (“relexification”) that replaced much of the Inuit and Hawai’ian lexicon. Such a shift would’ve been still new and in progress in 1902, though, so that we still find traces of the earlier, much more Native-oriented pidgin — such as “mucky“. 

What do you think?