The Roots of Native American Linguistics
Beginning in the 1790s, the American Philosophical Society began to accumulate vocabularies and texts written in Native American languages, guided by Thomas Jefferson’s idea of comparing languages as a means of reconstructing the histories of Indian peoples and discerning their origins. Jefferson, who was President of the APS from 1797 to 1814, was also one of the early collectors of vocabularies of living indigenous languages. He regarded this collection as a critical endeavor, given the rapid diminishment and dispersal of Indian tribes that had begun during colonial times and continued into his day (and beyond) because of the severe threats of expanding white settlement, disease, and government policies, including his own as President of the United States. During the 19th century, Native Americans such as Sequoyah and Joseph Laurent advanced the knowledge of their languages by producing the first writing systems, dictionaries, and grammars of these languages. Innovations such as these remain the fundamental language tools used by many Indian communities to this day.
Vocabulary of the Delaware Indians, by Thomas Jefferson, 1792
As early as the 1780s, Jefferson became fascinated with the question of the origins of Native Americans, and seized upon the possibility of pursuing this question by assembling vocabularies of as many Indian languages as possible, believing them to be “the best proof of the affinity of nations which ever can be referred to.” Jefferson prepared this printed 280-item word list and distributed it to military officers, rural gentlemen, missionaries, travelers, or anyone else likely to have close contact with Indians. Jefferson himself, or possibly James Madison on his behalf, visited the Delaware Indians (whose actual name is the Lenni Lenape) at Brotherton, in southern New Jersey, and recorded the vocabulary seen here. He collected a similar word list from the last three speakers of the Unkechaug language on Long Island. The modern Unkechaug Nation is now using this word list to revive their language, which has not been spoken for nearly 200 years.
Drawing of Indian Pictographs or Petroglyphs, by Benjamin Smith Barton, around 1800
The source of these pictorial symbols or pictographs is unknown. Barton, a Philadelphia physician with many interests, may have copied them from ancient rock carvings (petroglyphs), which are common throughout the Americas. Like Jefferson, Barton sought to learn as much as he could about Native American languages in order to determine their origins. In his 1797 book, New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America, he argued that Indian languages were relatively few and came from Asia, a view that ran directly contrary to Jefferson’s theory that these languages were much more numerous and were the source of Asian languages.
Tabular View of the Compared Atlantic Alphabets and Glyphs of Africa & America, by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, 1832
Here, Rafinesque, an eclectic and eccentric scholar, compared the script of ancient Libya in northwestern Africa to carved glyphs from the Mayan city of Palenque (also called Otulum) in southern Mexico. Although some of Rafinesque’s linguistic theories remain controversial, he recognized the importance of Native American languages. He wrote that “inscriptions are monuments also, and of the highest value, even when we cannot read them.”
Portrait of Sequoyah, by Henry Inman after Charles Bird King, hand-colored lithograph. From Thomas L. McKenney and James Hall, The Indian Tribes of North America, 1836-44
Beginning around 1809, Sequoyah, a Cherokee silversmith living in Alabama, invented a syllabary for his native language, enabling it to be written and read for the first time. Rather than making an alphabet, he devised a symbol for each syllable in Cherokee. Sequoyah’s work is a landmark in linguistics, as he is the only known person to have ever independently created an entirely new writing system for an existing language. This print reproduces an original portrait painted in 1828 when he visited Washington, D.C.
Broadside of the 4th Commandment in the Cherokee Syllabary, printed in Boston, 19th century
“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy,” declares this broadside, printed in the Cherokee syllabary devised by Sequoyah. In order to spread Christianity among Native Americans, missionaries and scholars translated the Bible and other religious texts into many Indian languages. This broadside, with large print for viewing from a distance, may have been displayed in a church or school.
Catholic Catechism and Prayer Book in Abenaki, written by Joseph Maurault, 1846
Many of the first outsiders to comprehensively learn Native American languages were Christian missionaries who translated the Bible for the purpose of converting and “civilizing” Indians. Joseph Maurault, Abbot of the Catholic mission at Saint-François-de-Sales (now Odanak), Quebec, mastered the Abenaki language and likely wrote this text, which contains a catechism teaching Catholic doctrine as well as numerous prayers, including the Christmas prayer that begins on the right page seen here. Maurault gave this book to the first native Abenaki linguist, Joseph Laurent, who may have helped compose portions of it.
Photograph Portrait of Joseph Laurent, Abenaki Linguist and Lexicographer, 1921
New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues, by Joseph Laurent, 1884
Joseph Laurent (Sozap Lolô Kizitôgw) was chief of the village of Odanak, Quebec. His New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues was, as its subtitle notes, the first ever comprehensive book published on the Abenaki language. It was also historic as one of the first studies of an Indian language written exclusively by a native speaker. In his book, Laurent systematically explains all aspect of the language, from its pronunciation, writing system, vocabulary (of which he gives a few thousand words), and detailed grammatical intricacies, and gives dozens of sample dialogues to demonstrate the conversational use of Abenaki.