"Native American" sayings

“White man speaks with forked tongue.”

Is this a genuine quote from some Native American, way back? Or is it (as I suspect) an invention of Hollywood? Does anyone know when this saying was first recorded?

And how about “How”? Is this really a word for “Hello” in some Native American language? If so, which?

And finally, did they ever really call the white settlers “paleface”?

Cecil addresses the “how” question here

“How” (alternative spelling, “hau”) may be, I believe, a generalized greeting among some of the plains nations. On the other hand, it also appears in English as a naval greeting similar to ahoy, so even if it was used on the plains, it may have been introduecd by whites.

I suspect that “paleface” is a literary invention and Answers.com seems to support my conjecture.

“Forked tongue” also seems like a literary invention. There were some North American nations that had negative views of snakes, but I do not recall any of them associating snakes with dishonesty (which is where we associate forked tongue and snakes).

I believe I’ve seen that saying, or something similar, among Southern tribes. It had to do with the idea of speaking with “two tongues,” or saying one thing on one occasion and something different on the next occasion. I’ll try to track it down in my books (but it won’t be easy, since the phrase “forked tongue” doesn’t get indexed).

Glanced through a couple of books, and didn’t find “forked tongue” but I swear I remember reading it somewhere and being struck by it because I too had assumed it was a screenwriter’s invention.

I did find (in speeches by Tecumseh) such now-cliched phrases as “the war path” and “the Great Spirit.”

If I stumble across anything confirming my memory on the “forked tongue” phrase I will post it here (though that may mean reviving the thread some months hence).

I’m not so sure, Tom. It’s true that James Fenimore Cooper popularized the phrase, beginning with Last of the Mohicans (1826), but Answers.com while crediting Cooper admits that the phrase predates his novel:

From that reference, one might reasonably infer that the word was actually in use by Native Americans to refer to whites and that Cooper (learning of this) incorporated it into his novels.

Why do you ask, Two Dogs?

Now that’s funny! :smiley:

Or one could infer that since the two almost simultaneous print cites deal with white men using the phrase, and no early use has been found of a Native American using the phrase, it was a white man’s invention.

As far as “forked tongue”–the use of the term “forked tongue” to mean like a snake and associating it with lying goes back to at least the 1700’s, at least in English.

There are plenty of cites used by both Americans and Native Americans in the 1800’s to show that the imagery was used by both cultures.

But as to whether “white man speaks with forked tongue” as a phrase used by Native Americans in general speech before the talkies, I doubt it. I can certainly believe that it would have been uttered by some Native American sometime in the 1800’s, considering the white men that spoke with forked tongues during that period, as concerns the Indians(got tired of typing Native Americans). :slight_smile:

Most Indians spoke a language other than English. Keep in mind that whatever cliches and banalities have been found are the work of those who translated the words of Tecumseh, Seatlle, or whoever – and that translator may or may not have had a particularly high opinion of the speaker’s intelligence – or a particularly subtle grasp of the language he (or she) was speaking.

Perhaps, but I would infer that the frontier masquerade-goer was familiar with Indian usages (living as he did on the frontier), and was imitating them. It seems less likely that he would invent the word out of whole cloth, and less likely still that Cooper would then reinvent the same word. More likely that both were borrowing an actual Indian usage.

Or maybe the words didn’t seem cliched and banal at the time. “War path” and “Great Spirit” only seem hackneyed to our modern ears because of their repeated use in cheesy westerns. That doesn’t mean these phrases weren’t actually used by Indians.

These cliches had to start somewhere, after all. Why is it so hard to believe that they really did start with the Native Americans themselves?

The 1822 citation might have been borrowed from the Indians, although its presence in a clearly jocular exchange among whites suggests to me that it arose among whites. Obviously, we are still in the realm of speculation at this point.

(I admit to some prejudice against accepting anything from Cooper, who rarely got any details right about anything in his books–a view I held even before I encountered Mark Twain’s observations on Cooper.)

I never thought of the forked tongue remark as having anything to do with a snake. To me it implies that someone says one thing and means something else. Like a fork in the road. Two directions. Lying.

Considering that the Native Americans did not utilize “forks” or any generally equivalent utensil on any widespread basis, I think there can be no question that “forked tongue” can at best be an English translation of a completely unrelated idiom. I’m fairly certain that I’ve read “forked tongue” in British works in the 17th/18th century, and it could very well have seemed a natural, unironic idiom to a translator of the times

(Many phrases that we consider Southernisms or even hillbilly-speak today are actually drawn directly from 16th/17th century British dialects. I recall reading in Smithsonian Magazine ca 1984 that the the Appalachian dialect in the early 20th century was the purest preservation of the 17th century Dorset dialect, in usage, pronunciation and accent, surviving anywhere in the world)

A split roasting spit is a “fork” or “fork-like” to us, but not to any culture that didn’t use forks. Similarly, a split or joining of a river or road (not that they had roads in any sense we’d recognize as such, or that their trails ere like the highly developed trails in Europe of that era or our own) The snake has one huge significance in Judeo-Christianity, but very different (and varying) significance in various Native American cultures.

It’s really difficult sometimes to see our own cultural and linguistic maps. How could “fork” have any native (intrinsic) meaning to them. It was a relatively recent (15h cent) innovation on the English table! (First attested in the sense of a utensil in English in a will in 1463, probably from O.N.Fr. forque, from the L. furca “pitchfork,” of uncertain origin. The verb “to divide in branches” is from the noun.)

“Fork” and its derivative “forked” are just cultural artifacts, and would have been equally meaningless to (e.g) a Sioux Indian, a Nihonjin (Japanese), many African cultures, Australian Aborigines or South American tribes in the 17th/18th century.

I always thought “How” was just the lazy short form for “How do you do?” :wink:

Forks (the pronged instruments) are not the only things that are forked. Presumably most Indian languages had a word to describe the shape of a snake’s tongue or a forked branch.

Surprisingly many stereotypical “Indian” words and phrases are calques or literal translations into English. I discussed “forked tongue” and “paleface” briefly in my staff report on Did Native Americans really believe in the “happy hunting grounds”?

For more on Indian English see either of the books by the late Charles Cutler: O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English (1994) or Tracks That Speak: The Legacy of Native American Words in North American Culture (2002)

Citing Mencken, this source says “paleface” is of Indian origin:


I’d take that with a grain of salt. Sounds like those claims, long debunked, that certain Chesapeake Islanders speak Shakespearian English. It might the “purest”, but it wouldn’t in any sense be “pure”.