Native American Linguistics in the 20th Century and Onwards
The course of Native American linguistics and anthropology was radically altered at the turn of the 20th century by the groundbreaking work of German-born anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942). Boas championed the study of Indian cultures on their own terms, independent of any comparison to European civilization and the prevailing evolutionary theories of cultural superiority. By attempting to make fuller surveys of the languages throughout North America, Boas, his colleagues, his students, and their students as well, illustrated the profound variety and depth of Native American cultures and traditions. Throughout the 20th century, sound recording technology has proven to be an indispensable tool in this linguistic and cultural research. APS houses the papers of Boas and many of the most accomplished anthropologists in this tradition. These collections include over 3,000 hours of language recordings that the APS is actively preserving, digitizing, and making newly available to Native American communities to support their efforts in maintaining and further cultivating this invaluable linguistic and cultural heritage.
Miscellaneous Wax Cylinder Phonographs, 1900s-1920s
Wax cylinders were the first commercial audio recording technology, appearing in 1888 and continuing to be in use for field recording well into the 1930s. Although cylinders were primarily used as a medium for popular music, many of the anthropologists and linguists of the era used recordable blank cylinders to make the first ever recordings of Native American languages. Though sometimes touted as “indestructible,” cylinder recordings have become the most fragile of recording media over the passing decades: only 48% of pre-1929 cylinders survive intact today, and a mere 17% from before 1902.
Wire Recordings of Umotina, recorded by Floyd G. Lounsbury in Brazil, 1940s, and Tlingit, recorded by Frederica de Laguna in Alaska, 1950
Photograph of Wire Recording Session conducted by Anthony Wallace with Dan Smith and Nellie Gansworth, Tuscarora Indian Reservation, 1948
Wire recordings made it possible to use audio recording technology in a variety of new applications, due to their greater portability and durability in contrast to earlier wax cylinders and phonograph discs. As well as being the first format for “black box” recordings on aircraft, wire recordings were favored by many field researchers in the 1940s and 1950s as a tool for documenting languages in often remote language communities. The wires on display here include spools made by the linguist Floyd Lounsbury of the Umotina language in the Mato Grosso region of the Brazilian Amazon. The last fluent speaker of Umotina passed away in 1988.
Penobscot Language Recording on Aluminum Phonograph Disc, recorded by Frank Siebert in Maine, circa 1950s
Since the beginning of the 20th century, phonograph discs have been made from a variety of materials, from familiar types such as vinyl, acetate, and shellac, to highly disposable ones on the backs of cereal boxes, on plastic postcards, and even made from chocolate. Solid aluminum discs such as this were often used to record live radio broadcasts. Despite their durability, they were less widely used due to the higher amount of noise they produce.
Map of Fort Rupert, Vancouver Island, with Kwakiutl Place Names, by Franz Boas, around 1900-10
Drawing of a Bella Bella Spider Mask, by Franz Boas, 1923
Boas emphasized the importance of understanding native cultures in terms that arose from each group’s own language, ceremonies, material arts, and other cultural expressions. Each language’s description of the physical world and local geography was a key aspect of this understanding. This map shows local place names for Fort Rupert on the north end Vancouver Island in the Kwak’wala (or Kwakiutl) language. The names reveal detailed local knowledge of specific locations, such as “Flounder’s Place,” “Ringing thunder sound,” and “Can’t-be-seen Plain.” The second drawing shows Boas’ illustration of a spider mask used in ceremonial dances by the Heiltsuk (or Bella Bella) people of the Central Coast region of British Columbia.
Kaibab Paiute Notebook, by Edward Sapir and Tony Tillohash, 1910
Edward Sapir was one of the most influential American linguists of the early decades of the 20th century, in part for his work in assembling many of the first extensive analyses of numerous Native American languages in the western regions of the United States and Canada. In 1910, Sapir recorded dozens of stories in the Southern Paiute (or Ute) language with the assistance of Tony Tillohash, a Paiute Indian who had been removed from Utah to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. This notebook shows Sapir’s transcription of a story told by Tillohash, “Wolf and his Brother” (“Tïvwa´tsιna·va´vιŋw”), with the equivalent English words and grammar given below each line of the original Southern Paiute.
Yurok Word Slips, produced by Mary Haas, 1950s
The collection of vocabulary and grammatical terms is a fundamental aspect of language documentation. Such collection was a major component of the work of linguist Mary Haas (1910-1996), who pioneered research in many languages of the southern United States in the 1930s. She produced the first studies of Tunica (at the age of 25) and Natchez, thanks to the invaluable aid given to her by the last speakers of these two languages. Later, she helped to spur research in the indigenous languages of California, including the Yurok language shown on these card files. Mary Haas’ papers, housed here at the APS Library, contain over 100,000 such vocabulary slips from 38 different languages.
Kinship Term Chart of the Iowa Language, Gordon H. Marsh, 1936
One of Franz Boas’ students, Gordon Marsh, produced this chart of kinship terms in the Iowa language, now referred to as the Chiwere language. The chart shows Chiwere words and their English equivalents, and tracks their inter-relationship in terms of gender, generation, and marriage relations.
Photograph of Watie Akins giving a Penobscot Welcome Song at the American Philosophical Society, May 2010
The American Philosophical Society is currently in the midst of several projects to digitize, preserve, and catalog its extensive holdings of audio recordings, images, and manuscripts relating to Native American languages and cultures. As part of these efforts, the APS recently held the “Building Partnerships between Archives and Indian Communities” conference, welcoming Native American elders, representatives, and linguists from 10 tribes to discuss ways in which the APS and other archives can establish relationships with tribes throughout North America and actively make their collections more and more accessible to Indian communities in their own ongoing efforts at language revitalization and cultural preservation.