Part One: Redeeming the English Language (Acquisition) Series -The Toast

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Tiffany Midge’s previous work for The Butter can be found here.


When did he first say, “Ugh!” 
When did he first say, “Ugh!” 
In the Injun book it say
When the first brave married squaw
He gave out with a big ugh
When he saw his Mother-in-Law.

–from Walt Disney’s Peter Pan

1. Etymology of “Ugh.”

From the Online Etymology Dictionary, “ugh” is listed as—

“Imitative of the sound of a cough; as an interjection of disgust, recorded from 1837.” And from Wiktionary: “used to express repugnance, disgustboredom, annoyance, tiredness, or horror.” Such as: When I saw how the stuff in the larder had gone moldy all I could think of to say was, “Ugh.”

“Ugh” might also have its origins from an 1872 memoir about a Creek Indian council held in 1825. Michael Johnston Kenan who assisted U.S. treaty commissioners at Broken Arrow in the Creek Nation, remembered:

I was particularly surprized by the simultaneous — & clearly, Expressed responses or guttural ‘ugh’s, of the entire Council — This appeared to be the word of assent or approval that every member uttered, as the speakers rounded or clinched as it were, their statements or inferences — It was as much as ‘yes’ — ‘that’s so’, or their equivalent meaning.

But it was not until the very popular frontier adventure stories of James Fenimore Cooper that “ugh” was successfully injected into the mainstream vernacular in relationship to all things injun.


1.1 Acronym as Acrostic Poem





1.2 Language Acquisition (Overwritten)

As a small child I rarely spoke. I didn’t have to. My older sister did all the talking for me. When adults queried, “what is your name?” My sister answered, “her name is Tiffany.” I was a ventriloquist’s dummy to my big sister’s act. I broadcasted my thoughts through a telepathic wave we inexplicably shared and she, the willing conduit, became the vehicle for my every toddler whim. I had no need for articulation because I didn’t have to. I probably owe a lot to my sister. It was through her enabling of my chronic speechlessness, her Groucho to my Harpo, her Ying to my Yang, that contributed to my preference for writing – a silent activity – over speaking. She was the mystical channeler, my personal J.Z. Knight, open and receptive to the three year old entity I unleashed at her disposal. I was the putty and she was the hand and if it was not for her, I may have ended up being a talker instead of a writer; one who runs loudly at the mouth rather than one who purrs quietly at the keyboard. Language came to me in the form of drawing and coloring—reflections of an artistic savant, and gradually evolved into writing. “Ugh” could easily have been my first utterance. But it could just as easily have been ________.

Universally, across cultures, most every baby’s first word is “mama.” In Dakota we say Ina.


1.3 Phonology

I grew up with extra sets of grandparents. Like luggage, extra sets of grandparents are fortunate and convenient things to have. This is not so unusual a thing in Native communities (extra grandparents, not luggage). The lineage can be confusing so I won’t bother to draw you a diagram. Suffice to say, I grew up with three Indian grandmas (Eliza, Ethel, and Charity), and though Eliza tragically died in a car accident before I was born, she remained a constant presence throughout my childhood because Grandpa Dick (her husband) lived with our family. All of my grandparents grew up speaking their tribal languages and retained it into their advanced years. A common occurrence in my house: after dinnertime, my mother seated with my grandpa around our yellow Formica table, practicing Dakota.

Linguists who study American Indian English describe the dropping of final voiced obstruents in standard American English. They call this final devoicing. It is commonly known among social scientists that the loss of a language is on par with the loss of a species; when a language dies a piece of humanity dies with it. Indigenous languages are in danger of extinction. Native American languages and culture are inextricably linked because the ideas of a culture are anchored within the language; it is not just a reflection of a culture but is the culture. Native cultures have their own set of realities, their own particularities of expression and distinct perceptions of being in the world, and those realities are conveyed through language.

I still do not speak my tribal language. Just a smattering of words.


1.4 Literacy Acquisition (Example of Dramatic Irony or Running Counter to Expectation)

(Spelling Bee, 1972) My sister competed against the entire student body at Snoqualmie Valley Elementary School Spelling Bee and won by successfully spelling words like incendiary, vacuum, and hors d’oeuvres. She went on to compete with the other schools in our district — middle school and high school combined — and won those competitions too — myrrh, ingenuous, obsequiousness. When she went on to compete against the winners of the neighboring district, she lost. The word that cost her the competition was rhythm. She was a nine-year old Indian girl with dark skin and braids who out-spelled and out-performed more than two hundred white (WASP) students many of whom were several grades ahead of her, and she lost to the word rhythm.

The drum is the heartbeat of our nation. It remains resistant to English interpretation, to translation. As well as it should, because how can you translate a heartbeat? 

2. The Use of “Ugh” in American Literature

There are numerous references to “ugh” in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. This may well have been the birth of “ugh” as it applies to Native Americans. However, “ugh” was originally scripted as “hugh,” which was later refined by subsequent authors to “ugh” so as not to confuse readers with the man’s name “Hugh,” which is English in origin and means “bright mind.”

From Last of the Mohicans (1826):

“’Hugh!’ exclaimed Chingachgook, who had been occupied in examining an opening that had been evidently made … ‘I would wager fifty beaver skins against as many flints, that the Mohicans and I enter their wigwams within the month! …’” (205).

“When his son pointed out to the experienced warrior the situation of their dangerous enemy, the usual exclamatory ‘Hugh!’ … Hawkeye and the Mohicans conversed earnestly together in Delaware for a few moments…” (71).

“’Hugh !’” exclaimed the young Mohican, rising on the extremities of his feet, and gazing intently in his front, frightening away the raven to some other prey, by the sound and the action.” (270).

“out to the experienced warrior the situation of their dangerous enemy, the usual exclamatory ‘hugh’ burst from his…” (161).


2.1 Addendum: December, 2014

One million television viewers tuned in to NBC’s three-hour long musical production of Peter Pan Live (not to be confused with Disney’s animated version). Due to the offensive Indian-speak gibberish of the “Ugg-a-Wugg” musical number, a Chickasaw composer, Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate, reimagined the song and renamed it “True Blood Brothers.” The “Ugg-a-Wugg” chorus was replaced with “OWA,HE,” the Wyandotte word for “come here.”

While this redo of an inflammatory musical number might appear to represent some nod towards progress, it more accurately conveys a kind of compromise. What might seem to be an effort on behalf of cultural sensitivity smacks to me as something more like a bargain. As in, We’ll revise the guttural-Injun-speak just so long as we can still sensationalize and dehumanize actual Native Peoples by presenting these antiquated, stereotypical, racist representations. In fact the updated version made the costumes, choreography and staging all the more garish, contributing even further to the grotesquerie. It seemed all the more insulting.


3. Stages of Language Development (PEPSI)


Level 1: Pre-Production Stage (Silent Period): Minimal comprehension, no verbal production

I keep a photograph of what I believe is of my grandmother Eliza, taken during her boarding school days. In the photo are eight little Indian girls and eight little Indian boys posing on a shady lawn beneath the branches of a large tree. The little boys are attired like George Washington: white wigs, ruffled blouses, cummerbunds and breeches, while the girls are posed as elegant debutants replete in flowery lace and wigs. The children are linking their arms together in uniformed sequence as if curtsying before a waltz or cakewalk. Is it strange that the faces of the children in this photograph are downcast and ominous? Of course most photos taken during the 1920s appear this way, except the context forces one to interpret it in a different, more loaded, way. It was common to shear children’s hair, forbid traditional clothing and customs, and punish children severely for speaking their tribal language. To speak one’s own language was an obstacle for acculturation.


Level II: Early Production Stage. Limited Comprehension; One/two-word response.

In sixth grade I rejected the principals of “liberty” and “individualism” by becoming a conscientious objector. Our three classrooms consisted of seventy-five children, all white with the exception of one Black boy, a Mexican boy and myself. We weren’t exactly a melting pot. Our three teachers brainstormed a self-esteem program and titled it “Especially-Special-People.” The incentive-designed program listed specific criteria for membership, such as extending good deeds, cleaning blackboards and turning in extra credit assignments. Once a potential “ESP” completed the checklist — much like earning merit badges — they were celebrated in an awards ceremony, given their diploma and given a bright red ESP button to wear. Probably the best privilege of being an “ESP” was entry into an elite organization with exclusive benefits such as being allowed to chew gum, purchasing soda from the teacher’s lounge, and extended recesses. For several months I repeatedly resisted becoming just another “ESP.” Every student in our three classrooms, one by one, met the criteria and were indoctrinated and rewarded as “Especially-Special-Persons.” All of seventy-five children, except for two: myself and the Mexican boy, Ricky. On the last day of class, before we were let out of Summer break, all of the students left school grounds and went to a nearby park to be treated to what my eleven-year-old self imagined to be an extravagant picnic replete with circus performers, cream pie in the face games, and dunk tanks. One of the teachers was forced to stay behind in the hot, stuffy classroom with just Ricky and myself, as we sat quietly at our desks for the rest of the afternoon.


Level III: Speech Emergence Stage. Increased comprehension; Simple sentences; Some errors in speech.

(1971, Christmas) Her name was Tamu (Swahili for “sweet”) and I had picked her out of the toy section in the Sears catalog. What I did know is that when I pulled her talking string she spoke the phrases:

  • My name is Tamu.
  • Cool it, baby.
  • Do you like my dress?
  • Sock it to me.
  • I’m sleepy.
  • Can you dig it?
  • Let’s play house.
  • I love you.
  • Tamu means ‘sweet.’
  • I’m hungry.
  • I’m proud, like you.

But what I didn’t know were Tamu’s origins. She was created by Shindana Toys, a division of a company called “Operation Bootstrap, Inc.” founded as part of a set of initiatives in South Central Los Angeles in 1968 following the 1965 Watts Riots. A goal of the company was to raise Black consciousness and improve self-image. I pulled on Tamu’s talking string with such frequency that I ended up breaking her and she never spoke again. Later that same year my mother unearthed her old “talking” baby doll. Suzy had a cracked porcelain head and most of her original, silken yellow hair had fallen off. My mother told me that Suzy would gurgle and fuss when she was laid down. But she was a 1940s-era doll and had also become mute. These were the only baby dolls I ever wanted, or ever kept, because I was ina was’te, a good mother.


Level IV: Intermediate Fluency Stage. Very good comprehension; More complex sentences; Complex errors in speech.

(1963) Frank Wing, my sister’s biological father, waited in a doctor’s office with his young wife, our mother, and received the grim news that complications from his Type 1 diabetes was rapidly progressing and that he should not expect to live beyond six months. It was a Friday, November 22, the same day President Kennedy was fatally shot while riding with his wife Jacqueline in a Presidential motorcade. My mother and Frank heard the tragedy broadcasted on the car radio after the doctor visit. Where were you when you heard? Their breath would have expelled in frosty plumes, like smoke, as they waited for the engine to warm. My mother would have reached over with her gloved hand and switched off the radio.

My sister was almost three months old when Frank and my mother were confronted with the prognosis. Yet despite the news that he was terminal and despite having gone blind, Frank continued his studies in the Education Department at Northern Montana College. My mother read out loud from his textbooks each evening, going over every lesson, while they drank cups of black coffee at the yellow Formica table.

Tiffany Midge is the recipient of the Kenyon Review Earthworks Indigenous Poetry Prize for “The Woman Who Married a Bear” (forthcoming, University of New Mexico Press) and the Diane Decorah Memorial Poetry Award for “Outlaws, Renegades and Saints; Diary of a Mixed-up Halfbreed” (Greenfield Review Press).

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