1870s: Ling Fu proves he’s American by talking Jargon

Be a good citizen, read “Voices of the Pacific Northwest“.


It’s a curriculum of “historical and linguistic history”, a refreshing way educate people about our region’s past, put together by Kristin Denham and David Pippin.

The compilers quote from another respected scholar of the PNW, Coll Thrush, whose book “Native Seattle” recounts how one ethnic Chinese man proved his American citizenship to the satisfaction of a Washington Territory court:

ling fu

Sometime in the 1870s, a Chinese man named Ling Fu was brought before Judge Cornelius Hanford in Seattle’s courthouse, accused of not having the proper citizenship papers. Facing deportation, Ling Fu argued that he did not need to carry papers; he had been born on Puget Sound. To test him, Judge Hanford quickly shifted his inquiry into Chinook Jargon, which had become nearly as common as Whulshooteed or English in the Puget Sound country. ‘Ikta mika nem? Consee cole mika?’ (What is your name? How old are you?), he demanded of Ling who in turn replied, ‘Nika nem Ling Fu, pe nika mox tahtlum pee quinum cole’ (My name is Ling Fu, and I am twenty-five years old). Clearly surprised, the judge responded, ‘You are an American, sure, and you can stay here.’ He then turned to the bailiff and decreed, ‘Ling Fu is dismissed.’ 

In the spellings now used by the Grand Ronde language program, those fluent Jargon sentences are:

— íkta mayka ním? qʰə́nchi kʰúl mayka?
what your name? how.many winter you?

— nayka ním Ling Fu, pi nayka mákwst-táɬlam pi qwínəm kʰúl.
my name Ling Fu, and I two-ten and five winter.

One source of joy for me in reading this passage is that we don’t always find Chinese people quoted as speaking ‘pure’ Chinook Jargon. Perhaps it’s accurate that they mixed West Coast-style CPE (Chinese Pidgin English) with CJ — certainly they are often represented as talking that way. But it would certainly make a lot of sense that a locally born kid would talk straight Jargon.

Bonus fact:

Judge Cornelius Holgate Hanford (1849-1926) really was considered something of an authority on “Chinook”. He was a very early Settler: his family were Portland, Oregon pioneers of 1853, and had a log cabin in the still very young Seattle from 1854 on. Gun in hand, Hanford faced down an anti-Chinese riot mob in 1886. In an irony, Hanford later resigned the judgeship in the face of an impeachment investigation into how he handled another citizenship case. Shortly before his death, he was elected President of the Washington Pioneers’ Association, this in itself usually an indicator of a person who spoke Chinuk Wawa.

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?