Bungee, Bungi

Bungee, or Bungi, was the name of a unique form of English found only on the Canadian Prairies.

This distinctive dialect flourished in Manitoba’s Red River Settlement, home to a large population of Countryborn. These English Métis were the descendants of Cree or Ojibwa women and Scottish or Orkney fur traders working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. From the traders, the Métis inherited fluency in Scots (Scottish English) and Gaelic.

Out of this merging of Scots with Gaelic, Orkney, Cree and Ojibwa, the contact language known as Bungee gradually evolved. The vocabulary and word order were primarily English, but the speech was lilting, like that of Gaelic speakers. And Bungee included vocabulary, structures and speech patterns borrowed from the languages around it. (The name Bungee itself is believed to have come from the Ojibwa word bangii, meaning a small part or portion.)

One interesting shift in pronunciation came from Plains Cree (which does not pronounce the sound sh): in Bungee, shawl became sawl, and she became see. But speakers often reversed the process, turning words like story and sniff to shtory and shniff. Sounds like ch and j also underwent a change, so that catch came out as cats and jump as dzump. According to a 1951 article in the Canadian magazine The Beaver, one Bungee speaker had this advice for a careless child: You sould never shtop when you are goin on a messidze [message] and never tawlk to strainzers in the buss [bush].Footnote 1

Bungee also borrowed words and structures. The standard Bungee greeting “I’m well, you but?” came directly from Cree.Footnote 2 The influence of Cree also appeared in words such as apeechequanee (to somersault), chimmuck (splash), kaykatch (nearly) and keeyam (never mind). Similarly, the sentence I’m just slocked it the light uses a Scots verb sloken (to put something out, to extinguish) with an Orkney past tense I’m slocked (I have extinguished).

Another unusual verb tense possibly evolved from Gaelic and Orkney influences: Bungee speakers expressed a past tense by combining am been, is been or are been with a verb form ending in -ing;Footnote 3 for example, she’s bin thinkin’ [she thought] it’s a good idea.

Bungee reached its peak in the nineteenth century. About 5,000 Countryborn were native speakers of the dialect in 1870. However, over the next century, standard Canadian English gradually replaced it; and by the late 1980s, only a handful of elderly speakers remained. Bungee is now extinct.

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