1862: You Saby — blending Chinese Pidgin English and Chinuk Wawa in Oregon

Way back in the “frontier” era, when Oregon was a young state, you could publish an entire newspaper article in Chinook Jargon blended with the West Coast variety of Chinese Pidgin English.

printers devil
Printer’s devil (image credit: Internet Archive / BYU Library)

Pretty much everyone who read it understood it.

You saby?

you saby

YOU SABY.” — Nesika tenas diabola, wawa, mox Siwash charco copa John Chinaman‘s house, mima hias lapete illehee, tickay ishcum clean shirt, pe wake yaca tickey potlatch chickaman. John Chinaman charco hias sullix, pe yaca ishcum ick hias nipe, pe yacu John hias cocshat clone Siwash wakesiyah mimalous ick Siwash. Siwash hiack clataway, tenas alka charco hiu Siwashes, pe yaca clean out John Chinaman like one shoot-gun. “You saby?

— from the Portland (OR) Weekly Oregonian of November 15, 1862, page 3, column 2

I want you to know that I’m not 100.00% clear on the above passage. The word “diabola” is new to me. “Lapete” might be ‘priest’, lipʰrét“Yacu John” seems like a mistaken writing of “John yaka…”

Nonetheless, a decent knowledge of Chinook will give you a clear and detailed understanding of what’s being said.

I’ve underlined the parts that we can consider to be Chinese Pidgin English, and most of those are easy to grasp as well. (You might recall that I often say most White folks understood CPE really well.)

Some of the possible CPE stuff, though, might equally well be (A) English used in local Chinuk Wawa, which happened a lot, and (B) the editor interpolating his own English for humorous effect, just as he seems to do with Latin diabola ‘devil’. (See below.)

With these points out of the way, I’ll tell you what I take today’s article to be saying. Will you post a Comment below with any observations of yours?

“YOU UNDERSTAND.” — Our little devil [printer’s devil] says that two Natives came to John Chinaman’s house, downstream from the bishop’s place, wanting to pick up clean shirts, but they didn’t want to pay. John Chinaman got really mad, and he picked up this big knife, and John really wounded three [sic] Natives, just about killing one Native. The Natives hurried away; in a while there came a bunch of Natives, and they cleaned out John Chinaman like a shotgun. You understand?

Now I want to point out a couple of interesting features of the Jargon used there…

  • Mima is the adverb máyʔmi ‘downstream’, but it’s used here as if it were a preposition ‘downstream from’.
  • Hias lapete illehee is evidently háyás(h) lipʰrét (‘big priest’) compounded with ílihi (‘place’), in an “Inalienable Possession” structure that was surprisingly common in early-creolized Jargon. 
  • Potlatch chickaman (‘give money’) was also very common, as a way to express ‘paying’, as a synonym for the English/Métis French-sourced pʰéy(é).
  • Tenas alka (‘a little in the future’) is a novel way to express ‘after a while; pretty soon’, which is normally tənəs-líli (‘little-long.while’). I find it highly understandable, though. Seeing as how the rest of the Jargon here is quite good, and spelled in unique ways as if it’s from one person’s real knowledge, I suppose this is an expression some folks actually used. 

qʰata mayka təmtəm?
What do you think?