Why Indians say “how” and “ugh”

A generic Indian, as imagined by a 19th-century book illustrator.

Generations of white people have imagined and written about Indians who say “how” or “ugh.” These are the two syllables that represent “Indian language” to many if not most of us.

It’s still commonplace for Americans today to think of “Indian” as if it were a single language, spoken from sea to shining sea — supplemented by hand signs, written in smoke signals, crude and monosyllabic. “Ugh.”

In reality, there were hundreds of native languages and dialects in North America, in several language families — a degree of linguistic diversity much greater than Europe’s, and comparable to all of Eurasia’s. The Cherokee language of the southern Appalachians was as different from neighboring Creek dialects as English is different from — not French or German — more like Turkish.

It appears that “how” and “ugh” have a southern origin. [Update: Maybe not.] One or both come from Muskogee, the most common language of the Creek Indians. (One European who heard spoken Muskogee in the 1820s called it a “pleasing” language that “sounds similar to the Spanish.”* Thousands of people still speak it today in Oklahoma.)

What’s more, both “how” and “ugh” may be attempts by white writers to represent the same word. That word is spelled hvo in Muskogee, where the letter v is a schwa (ə), like the a in English sofa. So it’s not hard to see how hvo was englished into “how.”

Visitors to Creek councils or public gatherings in the 1800s would have heard hvo frequently. It’s an affirmative interjection, something like “yeah” in English. Whenever someone makes a speech in Muskogee (or Seminole, which is closely related), the hearers often affirm the speaker’s words now and again by saying hvo. This is still done today at Creek dance grounds in Oklahoma, even when the speaker addresses the crowd in English.

What’s less clear is how hvo inspired “ugh.” But apparently it did.

The earliest “ugh” that I’ve found is from an 1872 memoir about a Creek Indian council held in 1825. [Update: An earlier example] 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.

Clearly this is the word hvo, but garbled as “ugh” in Kenan’s memory.

It may well be that “ugh” has an earlier origin than this, and comes from an attempt to represent a language other than Muskogee. In that case, Kenan may have read about Indians saying “ugh,” which then shaped his own memory of the sound of hvo.

I have yet to venture very far into the pulp Indian literature of the ante-bellum period — titles like Nick of the Woods or The Yemassee. For all I know, one of James Fenimore Cooper’s Indians may have said “ugh” when I wasn’t paying attention.

If anyone reading this knows of an earlier use of “ugh” to represent Indian speech — earlier than 1872, that is — please let me know with a comment. In the meantime, here are a couple of links about the Muskogee language:

[Updates on how and ugh]


* Translated from the diary of Lukas Vischer, March 1824, in the Lukas Vischer papers, Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt, Basel, Switzerland.
Lukas Vischer describes a Creek chief in 1824 speaking to a large crowd who had gathered for a dance ceremony. While the chief was speaking, the people also “spoke some words several times, namely whenever the chief paused.”
The Michael Johnston Kenan Notebook (1872-73) is in the Hargrett Library special collections, University of Georgia.

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11 thoughts on “Why Indians say “how” and “ugh”

  1. I think “how” is an outcome of the abbreviation of “How do you do.”
    From “How do you do” to “how do” or “how dee” to “how.”
    Plus the raising of the right hand to acknowledge another is common place in many cultures.

  2. That theory doesn’t explain why Indians would be using English instead of their own language. But you’re making an error that white observers have been making for centuries: making an inference based on a fancied resemblance between the sound of Indian speech and some other language. This has led Europeans and Euro-Americans to seriously advance theories that some Indians are direct lineal descendants of ancient Hebrews, or medieval Welshmen, or sixteenth-century Chinese mariners.
    My counter-example is to propose that the Chattahoochee River, which forms most of the boundary between Georgia and Alabama, actually gets its name from English, not Muskogee. You see, illicit whiskey sellers used to hide out along the banks of that river, and whenever they recognized each other, they used to swap trade secrets, or chat about hooch. What could be more obvious?
    And before some careless reader spreads this theory all over the Web — yes, I am kidding.

  3. The way language evolves as cultures blend, a lot is left to speculation. Example: my mother-in-law, Desert Cahuilla, uses the word ‘cel-wish” (sp?) for fry bread. They think it may come from the English “sandwich” with the Mexican slurred “ch” which gives a “sh” sound. Again, speculation but an educated guess. They do incorporate several Spanish into their language. Don’t you wish they had recording machines in centuries past? :o)

    1. I can’t answer that question. Saying a thing does not generate a spelling. Spelling a thing does not generate a pronunciation.

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