Backgrounds of the Dialect Called Bungi
MHS Transactions, Series 3, Number 24, 1967-68 season
I have often felt, as I have tried to penetrate the tangled woods of the dialect called Bungi, much as men of the Honourable Company must have felt in their tiny forts on Hudson's Bay when, during the 18th century, they began timidly and tentatively to probe the great unknown wilderness that lay about them. Like them, I have had many surprises, and as I have tried to piece together the history of this speech, I have come upon small patches of other kinds of history - one of them a footnote to the history of the Manitoba Historical Society. It appeared in the course of my correspondence with Mr. Ernest Marwick, of Kirkwall in the Orkneys, an authority on Orkney dialect. Here is Mr. Marwick telling of it:
Like your former president, Mr. Douglas, I too have been puzzled by the mysterious word, bungi. Where did it come from, and what did it mean? Until the middle of last summer, I accepted the explanation that had been given me by a number of people, and which was recorded by A. C. Garrioch in his book First Furrows, published in Winnipeg in 1923. Garrioch says (p. 82), "In the early days of this writer, the Ojibeways living in the vicinity of the Red River and Portage Settlements were usually called Bungees, for the reason that when they asked or begged for anything, they invariably commenced their petition with the word Pungee, "a little." The settlers noticed this and so, dubbed them, Bungees." Others have attributed the dubbing, not to settlers, but to the men of the HBC who dealt with the Indians over many generations. In general, the suggestion that the nickname had arisen in this way seemed a plausible one.
But during last summer, 1967, by the kindness of Mrs. Smith, librarian at Hudson's Bay House in Winnipeg, I was allowed to see the brief file on York Factory that is here. Among the excerpts was a letter from James Isham to the Governor and Committee in London, in which he says, "Seven Cannoes of Severn Indians came on the 29th of May, Brought but 37 made Beaver, and 10 Cannoes of Bungee Indians, which is near the said River, but a great distance up."  The letter is dated August 26, 1759.
Isham's letter brings up several interesting points. First, of course, is the early date, 1759. That is only four years after Anthony Hendry's journey into the interior, and it is fifteen years before Samuel Hearne established Cumberland House, the first inland post of the Company. Second is the fact that these Indians would seem to be new acquaintances at York Fort, since Isham finds it necessary to explain where they came from. Both of these facts run counter to the popular explanation of how the name arose - out of long continued experience with the Indians. It would even seem possible that these Indians introduced themselves to Isham as Bungees. Again, then, what did the word mean? It is at least unlikely that it had a connotation of begging or beggars.
To try to find an answer to the question, I got permission from the Hudson's Bay Company in London to have a search made, up to 1760, of the Albany and York Fort records that are in the National Archives in Ottawa. After several months of reading the microfilm records of Albany Fort, the searcher reported no mention of the word Bungee. Isham's letter remains the earliest mention of it that I have so far found.
Blocked, at least for the moment, in that path of inquiry, I tried another. Possibly I could find something of the history of the word through some of the early vocabularies that various people had listed. I was encouraged in this attempt by the general reflection that both the shape and the meanings of words frequently change - look at what happened to St. Audrey, who came out tawdry - and in particular by the quite dramatic change that the Indian word Winnipeg has undergone. At the end of the 17th century, La Potherie, in his account of the events in Hudson's Bay in 1697, writes, "The tribe that lives nearest the fort are the Ouenebigonhelinis which means "the people by the sea."  Nineteen years later, James Knight at York Fort refers in a letter to "the Lake they call the Sea Lake near our Western Indians."  And in 1744, Arthur Dobbs in An Account of the Countries Adjoining to Hudson's Bay says (p. 21), "Another Lake they call Ouinipigouchi, or the Little Sea." Yet the word Winnipeg is now glossed as "dirty water." The change in meaning has come from a shift in vowels, a shift from i to e. Certainly in English that shift - from pig to peg - makes a considerable difference in meaning. Could a similar shift in meaning have occurred with bungi?
Something hopeful seemed to come out of Daniel Harmon's Journal Of Voyages and Travels in the Interior of North America from 1800-1819. In an appendix, Harmon gives "Specimens of the Cree Vocabulary." On one page he enters "to fall: Pun-ga-sin;" on another page, "to fall: Punk-a-sin;" and on yet another, "Part (of a thing): Puck-ee." Pun-ga-sin "to fall," and Punk-a-sin "to fall." Could these forms possibly represent an Indian word which the French translated as Sauteurs or Saulteaux, their name for the Indians coming from the area of Sault Ste. Marie or the Falls of St. Mary? With some eagerness I submitted this idea to Dr. Douglas Ellis, of McGill University, who is an authority on the Cree language. Dr. Ellis said no; the word would never be used in that sense, but rather of a person falling. On the other hand, Dr. Ellis had interesting things to say about Harmon's entry puck-ee, "Part (of a thing)." He said that it would be a transcription of the Cree word pahki meaning a "part" or "portion" of something, which in turn has regular phonological correspondence with the Ojibwa form panki. He adds, in his letter, "panki would almost certainly sound like "bungee" to an English speaker's ear, since voicing is not distinctive in Ojibwa and both stops would likely be voiced."
In answer to Mr. Douglas's query of 1951, then, we can say that bungi is a transcription of an Indian word, the Ojibwa panki, of which the Cree variant is pahki. But what of its meaning? Here we seem to have come full circle, or close to it: "a part," "a portion," "a little." Yet if the Indians at York Fort in 1759 told Isham that they were a part (possibly a band?) of a larger group, that would be quite understandable. At any rate, Dr. Ellis has promised to let me know if he should come upon any other glosses, and this summer I shall pursue further the possibilities of information from the York Fort records. 
But if the early meaning of the word must remain in some doubt for the time being, there is no such tentativeness as to the identification of the "Bungee" Indians. The phonological evidence of the word itself makes clear that they were Ojibwas, but ample evidence of other kinds shows that they were the particular branch or part of the Ojibwas whom the French called Saulteaux, as belonging to the north-east area of Lake Superior. The Bungi-Saulteaux identification appears in a letter from Sturgeon River Fort in 1779: "This goes to inform you of Five Indians that Arrived Here Last night Three Natives of the land & two Bungees or Sauteaux, Belonging to the Carriboes Head."  It is repeated about 1800 by the younger Alexander Henry: "N.B. The Ogeebois are commonly called by the English Algonquins, by the Canadians Saulteurs, and by the H. B. Co. servants Bungees."  The identification is made again by Peter Fidler in his journal for July 15, 1815, when he lists the Indians trading in this area as "Stone Indians; Southern Indians or Crees; and Sauteurs or Bungees." It is repeated in various Winnipeg newspapers at least up until 1890; in 1909 by George Bryce in The Romantic Settlement of Lord Selkirk's Colonists; in 1913 by Isaac Cowie in The Company of Adventurers; and as late as 1923 by A. C. Garrioch when he speaks of "the good-natured Saulteaux or Bungees" of Portage la Prairie. There is no doubt whatever that the Bungis were the Saulteaux who migrated from the Sault Ste. Marie country to this area.
Moreover, we have some evidence as to when that migration took place. In 1852 in The History of the Red River Settlement, Alexander Ross says (p. 12), "the north-west people had introduced some of the Saulteaux as trappers in this part of the country ... The earliest date that any Saulteau found his way into this quarter, was about the year 1780." In another passage Ross, who once belonged to the North-West Company which was officially formed in 1783, says that the Saulteaux came into the Red River region "within the memory of living men." The migration must have been extensive by about 1811, when John Tanner arrived, for he says, "we started to go up the Red River, and in two days come to the mouth of the Assinniboin where we found great numbers of Ojibbeways and Ottawwawa encamped."  The continuing sense of these Indians being immigrants in Cree country appears in an incident of 1864, which George Flett later recounted to William Coldwell. While Flett was travelling from Fort Pitt to Carleton, his passage was blocked by a young Indian. Flett's retort was, "My mother is a Cree; and here is this Chippewa trying to stop a man with Cree blood from travelling in his own country." 
But all of this leads only to another query about the mysterious word bungi. If the distinction between the Saulteaux or Bungees on the one hand and the Crees on the other was so manifest both to whites and to Indians, how then does it come about that at least by 1937 the word "Bungee" is used of people with Scotch and Cree ancestry and of their characteristic speech? That it had been so used for some time before 1937 is clearly implied in Osborne Scott's article "The Red River Dialect" which he published in the Winnipeg Tribune in that year.  Scott says: "When Manitoba entered Confederation in 1870 there were about 5000 half breeds of Scottish or Orkney and Cree ancestry living within the boundaries of the province. These people spoke a curious dialect known as "Bungee." Moreover, following the publishing of Scott's article, there was a flurry of letters to the editor from people to whom that sense of the word had been long familiar. One of the letter-writers recalled that at the turn of the century he was introduced to the dialect and the people who spoke it, by Osborne Scott's father, Archdeacon Scott. In 1955, another article, "St. Andrews, The Retired Fur Trader's Paradise," by Barbara Johnstone, says that Bungee was "a dialect or form of speech resultant in the children of Orcadian or Scottish fathers and Cree mothers."  This seems now to be the only meaning of the word in this area - that is, in the area of the old Red River Settlement, from the Forks down to the mouth of the Red.
How did such a shift of identification come about? At present, I can only conjecture. The basis of the conjecture is the composition of the Indian population of this area. We have noted the migration of the Ojibwa-Chippewa-Saulteaux-Bungees in the 1780s, but of course they did not oust the native inhabitants, the Plains Crees. Some sixty years later, during the 1840s, there was yet another migration, this time of Swampy Crees from Hudson's Bay up the Nelson to Norway House and then on to the Red River. By 1852 Alexander Ross speaks of a "little Swampy" village at the Indian settlement." Added to these three groups, of course, were the Assiniboines. With such a mixture of bands or tribes within a fairly small area, there would be an understandable tendency for the whites to use a general term for all of them. It could possibly be because the Saulteau Chief, Peguis, was such an outstanding leader that the synonym for his people became that general term, with a later deterioration in the sense of the word.
My conjecture, then, runs something like this: While on one level, there is a clear course of the word as a synonym for Saulteaux, there is also, from towards the end of the last century, another level of usage, probably uncomplimentary, for all of the Indians of this area, who were for the most part dependent on the whites. This usage was then ex-tended to include the English spoken by the Indians, which they had learned from their predominantly Scottish neighbors. Sometime around the turn of the century there was a further shift to designate people of Scotch-Indian parentage and their speech. Why it should then come to be attached specifically to those of Scotch-free parentage, I'm not prepared even to conjecture about. The last ninety years of the history of this usage is obviously submerged, though I am still hoping to uncover some of it by further searching.
So far, we have looked briefly at the Indians who were in the back-ground of the speech that Osborne Scott called "a Scotch-Indian dialect." Now we must look at the others involved - the Scotch.
To begin with, we must go back again to the 18th century and York Fort. In Lord Strange's Parliamentary Report, published in 1749, an account of one of the witnesses says: "Being asked as to the number of British Subjects in the Company's Settlements; he said, the first year he was at York Fort  there were 36 persons there; and at Churchill 44 or 45; that he never saw any British subjects there, except the Company's Servants, nor any other Europeans what-so-ever."  At about the same time, Joseph Robson in his Account of Six Years' Residence in Hudson's Bay notes that during the 1730s and '40s there were severe restrictions on HBC servants; among them "the learning the Indian language, or keeping up any correspondence with the people, is severely prohibited under penalty of loss of wages and bodily correction." (p. 64). Yet in spite of the limitations of numbers and of regulations, as Jean Lagasse pointed out in "The Métis of Manitoba," "By the Middle of the 18th century, there were enough mixed bloods in the neighbor-hood of the Bay for J. Isham, himself married to an Indian girl, to refer to them as a separate group, distinct from the White and the Indian."  By 1769 when Samuel Hearne started on his northern journeys, one of this group, Moses Norton, was Governor of Fort Prince of Wales. But like Isham, most of the men at the forts were Highlanders from the mainland of Scotland or from the Western Isles. As Isaac Cowie says, "Not until 1740 did the H.B.C. regularly employ Orkneymen," though of course they would add only another nuance to the predominantly Scotch sounds to be heard around Hudson's Bay in the 18th century. Most of the Company's men would have Gaelic as their native language, and it would be the English that they spoke that the Indians first became acquainted with. And here we have the basic roots of the dialect called Bungi.
As the Company began to open up posts in the west, more and more Indians learned Scots-English, and more and more Scots were recruited to man the posts. By 1821, children of mixed blood were so numerous as to engage the serious attention of the Company's Northern Council, with its headquarters at Norway House. Not only did the Council issue directives about their financial support and their education, but also about their speech. This directive is in the Minutes of the Council for 1823: "that mother and children be always addressed and habituated to converse in the vernacular dialect ... of the Father. Difficulties attended the Council's directive, though, as the harried tone of a letter from R. F. Harding at Churchill shows: "Our residence is a mere Babel as far as language is concerned, altho I have likewise told them that it is against the company's orders for the women and children to be addressed in any other than the English or what passes for it."  (The italics are mine.)
By the mid-nineteenth century the language situation appears in various lights. Sometimes it was an unhappy one, as it was in 1840 for the Rev. Mr. Smithurst, whose passage was arranged by the HBC from York Fort to the Red River Settlement: "I had a Scotch Highlander as an attendant during the voyage, but as he spoke little but Gaelic, I was not at all the better for him."  Sometimes it led to sharpness. Letitia Hargrave, writing of another white woman at York Fort, says, "She tries to speak high English and exhausts herself in conjecturing how Doi Dame [Joe James, the Hargraves' young son] comes to speak Scotch."  Sometimes it gave joy. John Smith from Stornoway recalled travelling from Hudson's Bay to the Mackenzie River in 1868. There was a pause at Long Portage where the cargo was unloaded, and he says, "While we were waiting two men came along and they asked in gaelic "What the devil are you fellows doing here." We gladly answered them back in gaelic. Those two gentlemen were Alex Christie and Big Bear McLean." 
At about the same time, young Isaac Cowie, twenty-one, fresh from the Shetlands, took the river journey from York Fort to Norway House. In The Company of Adventurers  he describes the young Highlanders and the Indians who, together, manned the heavy boats:
When Cowie reached the Swan River District further west, he discovered that all except two of the Company's twenty servants were "pure Highlanders, whose mother tongue was Gaelic ... Of course all of these Highlanders "talked the two talks." But not all Highlanders "talked the two talks." Later, when Cowie was at Fort Qu'Appelle and on one occasion was left in charge, he had as cook a "Gaelic Highlander who had no English." Cowie was forced to take some lessons in Gaelic from one of the other men there before he could order his breakfast.
The extent to which the Scots and the Gaelic had spread through the west is suggested in 1869 by Duncan Urquhart Campbell, writing from Fort Garry to his hometown paper in Ontario, The Chatham Banner: "I have met quite a number of people from the Saskatchewan district. The most of them are natives of Lewes and they speak "the Gaelic" very fluently." The next year, when Campbell was released from the Fort Garry gaol during the Riel days, he wrote in his diary: "Returned to Mr. Banderman's. I took dinner. Fine people. Speak Gaelic." 
And that brings us back, after a glance to the north and west, to what had been going on in this part of the Red River Valley from the early years of the 19th century. There is no need here to rehearse the trials of the Selkirk Settlers. It is enough to note George Bryce's summary to the effect that from 1812 to 1815 the total number of Highlanders arriving was 270, most of them, like the Bannermans, from Kildonan in Sutherlandshire. Of these, 140 moved to Ontario, leaving 130 permanent Highland settlers. We get a vivid glimpse of them from John Pritchard's narrative of the Seven Oaks catastrophe in May, 1816: "On our way we met a number of the settlers crying and speaking in the Gaelic language, which I do not understand." They had other barriers to communication too. In the agreement which they made with Lord Selkirk in the following year, 1817, nine of the nineteen who signed have signatures "X, his mark."
During the 1820s we get other glimpses of the Settlement. There is the rather wistful record of the Englishman, John West, sent out by the Company to minister to the religious needs of the colony. On April 1, 1821, he writes: "This morning the Colony Fort was nearly thronged for divine service ... but, I fear, from their talking, principally, their mother tongue, the Indian language, that they did not comprehend a great deal of my discourse. This is the case with a few of the Scotch Highland settlers, who speak generally the Gaelic Language."  Or there is the testiness of George Simpson, himself a Highlander, as he writes to Colville in 1824, "grumbling is the characteristic of Highlanders ... they talk nothing but Gaelic, and do not mix with the other settlers ... one half of them do not understand English." "The other settlers," of course, by this time, included the retired Hudson's Bay servants - Scotch and Orkney - and their families, for whom the Company set aside a generous portion of land. They came from the forts on the Bay and the Nelson, and from those on the Saskatchewan and beyond; they came for an easier life and for the education of their children. By the beginning of the 1830s, the area from the mouth of the Red to the juncture with the Assiniboine had taken on a general pattern:
Human relationships were sometimes delicate. A deposition in a libel suit before the General Quarterly Court in 1845 reads: "The Deponent knows that the Defendant speaks the Gaelic language as well as the English, and that in the former tongue or the latter either the Deponent never heard the words "long-fingered used in a reproachful sense." In 1857 the Rev. John Black writes to Henry Youle Hind, "The people are mostly Scotch or of Scotch parentage. There are a few Orkney men, whom our Highlanders scarcely recognize as Scotch." Another clergy-man has a sadder story. Robert Machray, in his Report of the Diocese of Rupert's Land in 1865 says, "The European population having been al-most entirely drawn from the north of Scotland, where Presbyterian opinions are held with peculiar tenacity, their affections are not with the order and forms of our Church."
The complex of languages within the area fascinated the American Consul, James W. Taylor, and in later years he often recounted the experiences of his first month in the Red River Settlement in 1859. On one Sunday he heard Latin and French at St. Boniface; the next Sunday "at St. Peter's, Indian Settlement, a full-blooded Indian, Rev. Henry Cochrane delivered an eloquent discourse in Cree;" the third Sunday in Kildonan the sermon was in Gaelic; and on the fourth Sunday he heard the first Bishop of Rupert's Land, Bishop Anderson.  During the 1860s there are several indications of this state of affairs. For instance, The Nor'-Wester,  which began in 1859, occasionally gives a column in French, once a column in Gaelic, and once quotes two paragraphs in Ojibwa from an eastern paper "for our Red River readers many of whom can speak the language as well as English." The Nor-Wester also makes direct comments: "And if you suddenly find yourself among fifteen or twenty, you must faithfully go the round with "How do you do," "Comment vous portez-vous," or "Caimmer hah shui ndiuth," as the case may be." Another article comments, "As to languages, we have English, French, Gaelic, Chippewa and Cree, and we do not enumerate all, but only those spoken by large sections of the community.
In the same article, the editor says, "there are some who cannot speak one or other tongue solely. In order to express themselves to their satisfaction, they must be allowed the free use of their own exquisite jargon - half this, half that - a "composite tongue." That remark excited me when I first read it, for it suggests a genuinely creolized language, but if such ever existed (and James Ross, who undoubtedly wrote the article, was inclined to exaggerate) I have found no evidence of it. I think that probably J. J. Hargrave, who arrived in the Red River Settlement in 1861, gives a truer account when he says that the common language, the lingua franca so to speak, was neither English nor French nor any composite of them, but Cree. He writes, "Thus a man whose usual language is English, and one who speaks French alone, are enabled to render themselves mutually intelligible by means of Cree, their Indian mother tongue, though each is totally ignorant of the civilized language ordinarily used by the other."  So much for the Company's directives. Of the population in general during this period, The Nor'-Wester says, "The people are mostly of Scotch and French Canadian origin and are pretty evenly divided between the two races," and that observation is born out in the official census of 1870.
As for the Scots, they continued to join the HBC from the Western Isles, from the Orkneys, and from the shires of the mainland, and to follow the trade routes that spread through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and into Alberta, moving from one place to another throughout the area as they were posted to one or another of the Company's establishments. A considerable number of them came, either before or after retirement, to the Stone Fort, Lower Fort Garry, and to its neighbor-hood. The Selkirk Record chronicles their doings. In 1890 the paper reports a wedding at Lower Fort Garry: "One feature of the occasion was the number of Scotch who were present at the wedding, nearly all of whom spoke the Gaelic." In 1892 a Mr. Baillie Stuart of Inverness gave a lecture in Selkirk and "He drew forth the approbation of the natives of the Highlands when he spoke, recited and sang in their mother tongue - the Gaelic." In 1897, "The Highlanders of Portage la Prairie have organized a society to be called "The Gaelic Society of Portage la Prairie," to encourage and perpetuate the Gaelic language." In 1903 a Gaelic service was held in Knox Church, Selkirk, which "drew together a large number of Scotchmen, who were pleased to have the opportunity of hearing a service in their mother tongue." In 1905 an invitation is issued to "all Gaelic speaking people in the neighborhood" to the annual Gaelic service in Knox Church. Not until 1908 is there a different note, when the Record reports that a Scotch concert was not well attended, although it included a Gaelic singer.
The point of all this is that a continuous and constantly refreshed element of the speech of many communities throughout this province and further west, from the 18th century down to the 20th, has been the English spoken by Scots and particularly by those who had Gaelic as their first language. It was their English that was the English learned by the majority of the Indians of the region, among whom they lived, traded, and inter-married. And so we have the fascinating background of Bungi as an English dialect arising from the union of two peoples, with the unusual circumstance that for both the Indians and for most of the Scots, English was a second language.
Today, this speech can still be heard along the old trade routes as well as in the area from Lower Fort Garry to the mouth of the Red. In both the phonology and in the syntax, one can hear the voice of the Scot at one moment, that of the Cree the next - a quality that Mr. Marwick was able to perceive even from written representations of it. But at the present moment, the most distinctive characteristic to be heard in this speech is its rhythm, the "lilting cadence." If a way can be found to analyse the patterns of pitch and stress and intonation in Bungi so that they can be compared with those of Cree, of Gaelic, and of Scots-English, we may learn something more of what happens when languages come in contact, and thereby see a little further into the nature of language itself. In the meantime, the dialect called Bungi remains an intimate part of our history, that can be heard.
3. Letters From Hudson Bay, 1703-40, ed. K. G. Davies (Hudson's Bay Record Society, London, 1965) p. 57.
4. When I searched the York Fort Journals, some months after I gave this paper, I found that the word Bungee first occurs in them in 1741. It appears casually, in the midst of a list of various bands visiting York Fort, but there is no indication of what the word meant.
5. Cumberland and Hudson House Journals, Second Series, 1779-82, ed. E. E. Rich (Hudson's Bay Record Society, London, 1952) p. 296.
9. The Winnipeg Tribune, Dec. 27, 1937. This is the article to which Mr. Marwick referred. Scott gave it first as a radio talk over CKY, Dec. 7, 1937. The script of the radio talk is in the Public Archives of Manitoba. He then published it in The Tribune, and in 1951 republished it in The Beaver.
23. J. J. Hargrave, Red River (Montreal, 1871) p. 181.
Page revised: 1 October 2012