Intellectual History of the Atlantic World

Colonial-Indigenous Language
Encounters in North America and the
Intellectual History of the Atlantic World
Seton Hall University
Princeton University
abstract Early American archives abound with references to episodes
of communication, translation, and interpretation, and with a diverse array
of Native-language texts. They provide evidence both of practical and
philosophical colonial projects and of the ways in which Native people
used their languages to mediate colonization. Scholars have uncovered a
range of methods that diverse peoples employed to communicate with one
another, the contexts that shaped the meanings of the words and messages
exchanged, and the broader significance of those exchanges for figures far
from the point of encounter. The texts and commentaries that flowed
from efforts at language learning and linguistic collection bear testimony
to ways Native languages shaped Euro-American intellectual, cultural, and
religious history. They also transform previous rubrics for understanding
American Indian resistance to linguistic imperialism into a social fact with
an archive and a material history. Colonial-indigenous language encounters influenced the cultural and intellectual history of Native individuals
and communities, providing new media for linguistic expression and new
frames through which to consider their own tongues.
One of the most striking aspects of the colonization of North America was
the number, variety, and significance of the language encounters between
Natives and newcomers. The imperial contests among Spain, Portugal,
The authors would like to thank Alejandra Dubcovsky, Joshua Piker, participants
in the Princeton American Studies Workshop, and the EAS anonymous readers for
their valuable criticism.
Early American Studies (Summer 2017)
Copyright 2017 The McNeil Center for Early American Studies. All rights reserved.
Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 443
France, the Netherlands, and England that took place from the sixteenth
through the eighteenth centuries, as well as contests the United States
joined after its independence, rested on ideologies of linguistic conformity
or vernacular translation into a multiplicity of tongues, and sometimes
forms of each simultaneously, as foundations for imperial, colonial, and
national cohesion.
European and American Indian encounters resulted in a vast colonial
archive of indigenous language texts: Christian didactic texts in indigenous
languages from Nahuatl to Huron to Mi’kmaq, legal records of sale and land
exchange, and understudied genres such as the grammars and vocabularies
compiled by missionaries and traders and collected by statesmen and philosophers such as Thomas Jefferson and Peter S. Du Ponceau. Circulating
throughout the early modern Atlantic world, such documents shaped European intellectual, political, and imperial history through perceptions of Indian
origins and migrations, spirituality, and a “savage” mind, while also serving
the practical purpose of facilitating conversion, trade, and communication.
The translation of the Bible into Massachusett in 1663 might be thought
of as an act of colonization through the printed word, or as a moment in
which a new field of cultural production opened in North America. The
opus, Mamussewunneetupanatamwe up biblum God, could not have been
produced by John Eliot alone, for neither Eliot nor his Puritan missionary
contemporaries had adequate language skills to accomplish this task. Eliot
relied on a Nipmuck convert, James Printer, and the Massachusett Praying
Indian Job Nesuton to translate, compile, and print the Bible and various
other Christian-Massachusett texts. Besides being exposed to new ideas and
acquiring new skills, these two men were also in a unique position to shape
Eliot’s message.1
More than three centuries of English print circulation inspired the Cherokee nation’s Sequoyah to invent a writing system for his language. Some
of the characters in the syllabary took their shapes from the Roman alphabet, though there was no connection between the sounds and values from
one system to another. The invention frustrated whites who had hoped to
impose a standardized alphabet on all Native peoples. Cherokees rejected
that project, instead writing Cherokee laws and Christian scripture in
Sequoyan and publishing a newspaper in parallel columns of Cherokee and
English. Sequoyah himself, however, sought cultural and physical distance
from whites. Though he was among the first Cherokee emigrants west of
1. Philip Round, Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663–
1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

444 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
the Mississippi, his first substantial piece of writing in the syllabary
addressed the question, fraught amid pressure for removal, of the Cherokees’ boundary with neighboring states. The syllabary was designed for
Cherokee alone, but in Indian Territory, according to one account, he
worked on a similar writing system for Choctaw. Some opponents of
removal held up the syllabary as a mark of Cherokee “civilization,” but many
whites recognized that the syllabary rejected assimilation. Although the
appeal of syllabaries to Cherokees, Crees, and other Native peoples fueled
theorization of the linguistic aspects of racial difference, these writing
systems also contributed to the cultural and political strength of Native
This essay reflects on some of the conclusions drawn from recent work
on colonial-indigenous language encounters in North America. While using
the historiography of Latin America as an essential context, it focuses primarily on North America because there the circumstances of colonization
were different and the indigenous languages spoken in North America differ
from those of Latin America. Consequently, the preserved record of indigenous languages takes a strikingly different shape. Whereas colonial Latin
America maintained an indigenous elite of authors writing histories and
codices, a parallel culture did not exist in North America. While the comparative hemispheric context is intrinsically interesting and intellectually
useful, the conclusions that can be drawn from the historiography are in
many ways geographically specific.
The concept of colonial-indigenous language encounters links indigenous
studies to Atlantic transit, empire building, religious studies, and intellectual history. As Ian Steele explained in 1998, the long-standing assumption
of disappearing American Indians created an outmoded anthropological
perspective within the fields of early American studies.3 Though studies of
2. George Lowery and John Howard Payne, “Notable Persons in Cherokee History: Sequoyah or George Gist,” Journal of Cherokee Studies 2, no. 4 (1977): 385–93.
See also Willard Walker and James Sarbaugh, “The Early History of the Cherokee
Syllabary,” Ethnohistory 40, no. 1 (1993): 70–94; Ellen Cushman, “ ‘We’re Taking
the Genius of Sequoyah into This Century’: The Cherokee Syllabary, Peoplehood,
and Perseverence,” Wicazo Sa Review 26, no. 1 (2011): 67–83; Sean P. Harvey,
Native Tongues: Colonialism and Race from Encounter to the Reservation (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 2015), 113–44.
3. Ian K. Steele, “Exploding Colonial American History: Amerindian, Atlantic,
and Global Perspectives,” Reviews in American History 26, no. 1 (1998): 70–95. For
a retrospective account of the success of this idea a decade later, see Paul Cohen,
“Was There an Amerindian Atlantic? Reflections on the Limits of a Historiograph-

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 445
Native people have moved well past this view, the notion persists in some
measure with respect to Native languages. Despite the well-established fact
that Christianity and nation-states disparaged and destroyed indigenous
tongues,4 early American archives abound with references to episodes of
communication, translation, and interpretation, and with collated vocabularies, dictionaries containing thousands of indigenous words, grammars
brimming with rules for intelligible communication, and scripture, catechisms, Psalms, Bibles, and prayer books in dozens of Native languages.
These works, in print and in manuscript, formed a linguistic base for massive projects directed at the recording, description, translation, and classification of Native languages in which Native people frequently played
prominent roles. The “alchemy of interpretation,” in James Merrell’s compelling formulation, was “the very essence of the American encounter.”5
The crucible of colonization transmuted its distinct elements into something new.
At the same time, Native people used their languages to mediate colonization. Old words that were applied to Christian ideas, for instance, often
retained older meanings, thereby molding new concepts into shapes that fit
indigenous frames of reference. How Native communities named European
trade goods reveals how they incorporated new items into older ways of life.
Confused and often contradictory attempts at classifying languages and
their speakers reveal Europeans’ efforts at control and their failure to achieve
ical Concept,” History of European Ideas 34, no. 4 (2008): 388–410. More recently,
Jace Weaver, The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern
World, 1000–1927 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), has
provided an answer.
4. Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (New
York: Routledge, 1990), 16–39; David Murray, Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing and
Representation in North American Indian Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1991); Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality, and Colonization (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995); Eric
Cheyfitz, Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to
Tarzan, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997); Jill Lepore,
The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York:
Knopf, 1998); Edward G. Gray, New World Babel: Languages and Nations in Early
America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999). For a global perspective, see
Frances Karttunen and Alfred W. Crosby, “Language Death, Language Genesis,
and World History,” Journal of World History 6, no. 2 (1995): 157–74.
5. James H. Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania
Frontier (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 32.

446 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
it, even as they occasionally alluded to Native understandings of linguistic
relationships. Fifteen years ago, Laura Murray identified the Indian vocabulary as an “elusive” literary genre.6 Her article evokes the contradictory facets
of colonial attempts to grasp, use, and even transform indigenous languages.
Yet in uncovering the range of methods that diverse peoples employed to
communicate with one another, the contexts that shaped the meanings of
the words and messages exchanged, and the broader significance of those
exchanges for figures far from the point of encounter, a remarkable interdisciplinary effort has made those texts more intelligible. Indian tongues were
not only erased through colonialism but also preserved in ways that demonstrate the significance of language encounters—efforts at translation and
taxonomy, the varied uses of divergent literacies, and the transit of information from borderland to metropole—to the histories of Native America and
the Atlantic world.
Scholars of early America have been less attuned to these issues, and
their cumulative significance, at least in part because relevant studies have
appeared across a range of disciplines and historical subfields. Linguistic
anthropology, sociolinguistics, literary criticism, intellectual history, the histories of several European empires and the early United States, ethnohistory, and Native American and indigenous studies have all addressed facets
of linguistic contact, exchange, and negotiation, but seldom in conversation
with one another. As early as 2000 Edward Gray noted that many episodes
and pursuits—from kidnapping potential interpreters to evangelization to
philosophical conjecture—should be understood as different facets of “the
language encounter in the Americas.” But little has been done to consider
those multifarious projects in light of another, even as studies of each have
proliferated and deepened.7
Colonial-indigenous language encounters and the texts and commentaries that flowed from efforts at language learning and linguistic collection
bear testimony to ways Native languages shaped Euro-American intellectual, cultural, and religious history. Meanwhile, they transform previous
rubrics for understanding American Indian resistance to linguistic imperialism into a social fact with an archive and a material history. Those same
6. Laura J. Murray, “Vocabularies of Native American Languages: A Literary
and Historical Approach to an Elusive Genre,” American Quarterly 53, no. 4 (2001):
7. Edward G. Gray, introduction to Edward G. Gray and Norman Fiering, eds.,
The Language Encounter in the Americas, 1492–1800: A Collection of Essays (New
York: Berghahn Books, 2000), 1–11.

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 447
encounters influenced the cultural and intellectual history of Native individuals and communities, perniciously in many instances, but also by providing
new media for linguistic expression and new frames through which to consider their own tongues.
Scholarly awareness of early American interest in indigenous languages is
not entirely new. There has been long-standing interest in European languages’ incorporation of thousands of indigenous words into their own lexicons.8 Sporadic calls for increased attention to other linguistic facets of
colonization appeared in the middle decades of the twentieth century, emanating in no small part from scholars familiar with the extensive linguistic
collections of the American Philosophical Society, the preeminent learned
society of colonial British America and the early United States, and the one
most closely linked to American Indian philology and linguistics.9 In these
same years, historians of linguistics began to draw scholars’ focus to the
richness of available materials for studying missionaries’ struggles, preoccupations, and successes in the study of Native languages.10 By the last quarter
of the century, scholars working on Mesoamerica began using Nativelanguage texts to reevaluate understandings of colonization as part of a
8. For a concise and lively overview of the “new world of words,” see Colin G.
Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 172–77. See also Charles Cutler, O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English (Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1994).
9. Franklin Edgerton, “Notes on Early American Work in Linguistics,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 87, no. 1 (1943): 25–34; Mabel Morris,
“Jefferson and the Language of the American Indian,” Modern Language Quarterly
6, no. 1 (1945): 31–34; John C. Greene, “Early Scientific Interst in the American
Indian: Comparative Linguistics,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society
104, no. 5 (1960): 511–17; H. Christoph Wolfart, “Notes on the Early History of
American Indian Linguistics,” Folia Linguistica 1, nos. 3/4 (1967): 153–71; William
Cowan, “Native Languages of North America: The European Response,” American
Indian Culture and Research Journal 1, no. 1 (1974): 3–10; Raoul N. Smith, “The
Interest in Language and Languages in Colonial and Federal America,” Proceedings
of the American Philosophical Society 123, no. 1 (1979): 29–46.
10. Victor Egon Hanzeli, Missionary Linguistics in New France: A Study of
Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century Descriptions of American Indian Languages (The
Hague: De Gruyter, 1969). For a review of the surge in attention to missionary
linguistics beginning in the 1990s, see Otto Zwartjes, “The Historiography of Missionary Linguistics: Present State and Further Research Opportunities,” Historiographia Linguistica 39, nos. 2/3 (2012): 185–242.
448 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
scholarly movement that has been called the New Philology. By employing
Nahuatl sources, mundane local records in addition to the well-known codices, James Lockhart and other ethnohistorians recovered Native roles in the
Spanish conquest and the contours of Nahua culture in colonial Mexico,
and they inspired other scholars to turn to sources in other indigenous languages.11 Some scholars of northeastern North America also turned their
attention to compiling texts, as Ives Goddard and Kathleen J. Bragdon did
those composed in Massachusett, for the purpose of illuminating historical
changes both in the language and in the lives of its speakers. The increased
attention to the documentary record of Native literacy—at this point imagined in a singular, alphabetic sense—pushed scholars such as James Axtell
and Peter Wogan to examine in greater detail initial, and changing, Native
reactions to European uses of writing.12 Further, the “linguistic turn” in
history and literary criticism, which built on the theories of language and
power in the work of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Edward Said
to open language philosophy and linguistics as fruitful fields of research,
converged with the quincentennial of the Reconquista and Christopher
Columbus’s arrival in the Americas to draw substantial attention to linguistic features of intercultural encounters and colonization, the content of philosophical theories and ideologies regarding Native languages, and how
these intersected with language-based national, imperial, theological, and
philosophical projects in early modern Europe and early America.13
11. Matthew Restall, “A History of the New Philology and the New Philology
in History,” Latin American Studies Review 38, no. 1 (2003): 113–34, points to the
beginning of this scholarship in two works: Arthur Anderson, Frances Berdan, and
James Lockhart, Beyond the Codices (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976);
Frances Karttunen and James Lockhart, Nahuatl in the Middle Years: Language Contact Phenomena in Texts of the Colonial Period (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1976).
12. Ives Goddard and Kathleen J. Bragdon, Native Writings in Massachusett
(Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1988); James Axtell, “The Power of
Print in the Eastern Woodlands,” William and Mary Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1987):
300–309; Peter Wogan, “Perceptions of European Literacy in Early Contact Situations,” Ethnohistory 41, no. 3 (1994): 407–29.
13. E. F. K. Koerner, Toward a History of American Linguistics (London: Taylor
and Francis, 2002), 18–19, observes the importance of the five hundredth anniversary. For important work in this line, see the works cited in n. 4. For calls to
approach language philosophy and linguistics as a field of intellectual history, see
Hans Aarsleff, The Study of Language in England, 1780–1860 (1967; repr., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), v–vii, 3–11; Wolfart, “Notes on the
Early History of American Indian Linguistics,” 153, and as an area of social history,
see Karttunen and Crosby, “Language Death, Language Genesis, and World His-

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 449
Scholars have demonstrated how varied empires used language as a
means to power over indigenous populations. For some, such as Stephen
Greenblatt and Walter Mignolo, the relationship between language and
empire was straightforward, as officials and missionaries sought to impose
their own language—and in so doing their faith, their social practices, and
their political order—on Native communities. Although Native languages
were occasionally conceived as vernaculars comparable to those of Europe,
one of the most pervasive forms of ethnographic description to emerge from
colonization was the definition of indigenous languages through what they
lacked relative to colonizers’ tongues. From the sixteenth century onward,
however, European empires also appropriated indigenous languages as vehicles of cultural transformation, as lingua francas for imperial administration,
as a foundational form of knowledge that allowed deeper understanding and
more effective control of peoples.14 Recognition of these goals, methods,
and ideologies is necessary, but not sufficient, for understanding colonization.
Another set of scholars has sketched the contours of various linguistic
borderlands within and between imperial claims. However much traders,
missionaries, officials, or scholars might imagine the continent as a blank
tory.” See also Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967); Michel
Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (1970; repr.,
New York: Vintage, 1994); Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage,
1978); John E. Toews, “Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience,” American Historical Review
92, no. 4 (1987): 879–907.
14. Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 16–39; Mignolo, Darker Side of the Renaissance. For the Americas, see also James Axtell, The Invasion Within: The Contest of
Cultures in Colonial North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985),
179–84; Frances Karttunen, “Interpreters Snatched from the Shore: The Successful
and the Others,” and Kathleen J. Bragdon, “Native Languages as Spoken and Written: Views from Southern New England,” both in Gray and Fiering, Language
Encounter in the Americas, 215–29, 173–88. Joseph Errington, Linguistics in a Colonial World: A Story of Language, Meaning and Power (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell,
2008), provides an excellent overview of the broader pattern. See also Johannes
Fabian, Language and Colonial Power: The Appropriation of Swahili in the Former
Belgian Congo, 1880–1938 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986);
Vicente L. Rafael, Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in
Tagalog Society under Early Spanish Rule (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993);
Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), chap. 2; Sara Pugach, Africa in
Translation: A History of Colonial Linguistics in Germany and Beyond, 1814–1945
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).

450 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
canvas, the reality was far different. Linguistic anthropologists, sociolinguists, and ethnohistorians have done much to elucidate the forms of
nonverbal communication and the use of jargons and pidgins—tongues dramatically simplified in lexicon, morphology, and in some cases phonology
—that allowed linguistically diverse Natives and newcomers to bridge the
communication gap and facilitate trade and other forms of exchange. In the
sixteenth century Portuguese trade with speakers of closely related Tupı´-
Guaranı´ languages on the coast of Brazil led to the spread of a lingua franca
(the lı´ngua geral), which Jesuit priests later used in the region’s missions
(reducciones). Over the course of the seventeenth century, European explorers and colonists to North America infused the indigenous landscape with
Dutch, Swedish, English, and French, creating numerous pidgin forms of
Algonquian.15 Other forms of contact communication that could very well
have preceded colonization, such as Mobilian Jargon and Plains Indian Sign
Language, also served these functions.16 In some places, over time, new
forms of linguistic intermixture arose, as Natives adapted the words of the
15. On lı´ngua geral, see Denny Moore, “Historical Development of Nheengetu
(Lı´ngua Geral Amazoˆnica),” and M. Kittiya Lee, “Language and Conquest: TupiGuarani Expansion in the European Colonization of Brazil and Amazonia,” both
in Salikoko S. Mufwene, ed., Iberian Imperialism and Language Evolution in Latin
America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 108–42, 143–67. For overviews of North America, see James Axtell, “Babel of Tongues: Communicating with
the Indians in Eastern North America,” and Ives Goddard, “The Use of Pidgins
and Jargons on the East Coast of North America,” in Gray and Fiering, Language
Encounter in the Americas, 15–60, 61–78; Michael Silverstein, “Dynamics of Linguistic Contact,” in Ives Goddard, comp., Handbook of the North American Indians,
vol. 17, Languages, gen. ed. William C. Sturtevant (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1996). On nonverbal communication, see Ce´line Carayon, “Beyond
Words: Nonverbal Communication, Performance, and Acculturation in the Early
French-Indian Atlantic” (Ph.D. diss., College of William and Mary, 2010); Justyna
Olko, “Body Language in the Preconquest and Colonial Nahua World,” Ethnohistory 61, no. 1 (2014): 149–79. For a look at one trader’s experiences amid diversity,
see Sean P. Harvey, “An Eighteenth-century Linguistic Borderland,” Pennsylvania
Magazine of History and Biography 136, no. 4 (2012): 495–98.
16. On precolonization Native contact languages, see Sarah Grey Thomson,
“On Interpreting ‘The Indian Interpreter,’ ” Language in Society 9, no. 2 (1980):
167–93; Emanuel J. Dreschel, Mobilian Jargon: Linguistic and Sociohistorical Aspects
of a Native American Pidgin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Allan R.
Taylor, “Nonspeech Communication Systems,” in Goddard, Handbook of the North
American Indians, vol. 17. On a European pidgin, see Peter Bakker, “ ‘The Language
of the Coast Tribes Is Half Basque’: A Basque-American Indian Pidgin in Use
between Europeans and Native Americans in North America, ca. 1540–ca. 1640,”
Anthropological Linguistics 31, nos. 3/4 (1989): 117–47.

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 451
newcomers into their own languages and as indigenous words for things
previously unknown in Europe transformed the tongues of the colonizers.
Beyond the proliferation of linguistic borrowing, even more dramatic were
those cases in which Europeans and Native people jointly came to use forms
of speech that emerged from the collision of diverse tongues. In some
instances, exchange and intermarriage among diverse populations over the
course of generations gave rise to creole languages (pidgins that acquired
increasing grammatical complexity and became, in effect, the native tongue
of communities, as some argue is the case with Chinook Jargon, or Chinuk
Wawa) and, in at least one instance, Algonquian and Romance languages
so thoroughly “intertwined” that Michif, spoken among Me´tis in the Red
River region, is composed primarily of Cree verbs and French nouns.
Records of, and in, these tongues are evidence of linguistic aspects of
broader patterns of ethnogenesis.17
Both reflecting and contributing to a broader reevaluation of the degree
to which Native people incorporated colonies and empires into preexisting
structures of power, some scholarship has stressed how Native people controlled networks of information and much of the space that they crossed, as
Katherine Grandjean and Alejandra Dubcovsky have shown for New
England and the southeast, respectively.18 Some groups even controlled the
17. For overviews, see Calloway, New Worlds for All, 172–77; John K. Thornton,
A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250–1820 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 315–41. For focused accounts of linguistic intermixture, see
Peter Bakker, A Language of Our Own: The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Language of
the Canadian Me´tis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); George Lang, Making Wawa: The Genesis of Chinook Jargon (Vancouver: University of British Columbia
Press, 2008). For comparative views, see Karttunen and Crosby, “Language Death,
Language Genesis, and World History”; Natalie Zemon Davis, “Creole Languages
and Their Uses: The Example of Colonial Suriname,” Historical Research 82, no.
216 (2009): 268–84. On ethnogenesis, see James Sidbury and Jorge Can˜izaresEsguerra et al., “Forum: Ethnogenesis,” William and Mary Quarterly 68, no. 2
(2011): 181–246.
18. On Native information networks, see Alejandra Dubcovsky, “One Hundred
Sixty-one Knots, Two Plates, and One Emperor: Creek Information Networks in
the Era of the Yamasee War,” Ethnohistory 59 (Summer 2012): 489–513; Dubcovsky, Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016). For particular emphasis on Iroquois control of space
for the transit of information, see Jon Parmenter, The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia,
1534–1701 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2011). On the significance of Native, especially Wabanaki, spatial conceptions, see Lisa Brooks, The
Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 2008). On the changing balance of control of communications

452 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
medium of communication in the first centuries of colonization. Nahuatl
and Quechua, for instance, served as the respective lingua franca in the
Aztec and Inca empires and, in turn, became crucial to the imposition of
Spanish rule in Mexico and Peru. Besides being a language that officials
and missionaries relied on for their particular colonial purposes, Nahuatl
was also widely used by less influential men and women in Mexico, though
significant distance separated the literary Nahuatl of friar-linguists from the
far more limited language, centered on useful words and phrases, acquired
by ordinary Spanish colonizers in an indigenous world.19 Farther north, as
Native powers—such as the Comanches of the southern Plains or the Anishinaabeg of the Great Lakes—rose, they could effectively impose their
tongue, at least temporarily, on those who sought to trade with them. Even
after decades of colonization, Native languages were still used as mediums
of intercultural communication in places where settlers were outnumbered
by Indians. Settlers communicated with Wampanoags, Narragansetts, and
Mohegans in one or another of mutually intelligible southern New England
Algonquian languages in the mid-seventeenth century, often in the Pequot
learned from the enslaved people who were widely held in settler households after the Pequot War.20
in space, see Katherine Grandjean, American Passage: The Communications Frontier
in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), chap. 3.
19. For a vivid description of the significance of linguistic difference and shared
speech in the precolonial Andes, see Inca Garcilasso de la Vega, The Royal Commentaries of Peru, in Two Parts, part I, trans. Paul Rycaut (London, 1688), 10, 251. On
Quechua, see Bruce Mannheim, The Language of the Inka since the European Invasion (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991); Sabine MacCormack, On the Wings
of Time: Rome, the Incas, Spain, and Peru (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
2006), chap. 6; Alan Durston, Pastoral Quechua: The History of Christian Translation
in Colonial Peru, 1550–1650 (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press,
2007). On the use of nonliterary Nahuatl in Mexico, see Martin Nesvig, “Spanish
Men, Indigenous Language, and Informal Interpreters in Postcontact Mexico,”
Ethnohistory 59, no. 4 (2012): 739–64, esp. 747–50. This article appears in an excellent special issue titled “A Language of Empire, a Quotidian Tongue: The Uses of
Nahuatl in New Spain,” which also features articles by Yanna Yannakakis, John F.
Schwaller, Mark Z. Christensen, Robert C. Schwaller, Laura E. Matthew and Sergio F. Romero, and Caterina Pizzigoni.
20. On Comanche and Ojibwe as lingua francas, see, respectively, Pekka Ha¨ma¨-
la¨inen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 171;
Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early
North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 11. On settlers’ knowledge of southern New England Algonquian languages, see Julie Fisher,

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 453
With increasing appreciation of the mechanics of intercultural communication has come a growing awareness of the importance of those figures who
acted as conduits among linguistically diverse peoples as well as a deeper
examination of the ways in which language barriers provided dangers and
opportunities for Natives and settlers. This may have been especially true in
places where no single Native language possessed wide geographic breadth
or preponderant political authority, or where neighboring tongues were not
mutually intelligible. Scholars have stressed the importance of official interpreters and other intercultural go-betweens for creating the means of communication, exchange, and conflict resolution between Native communities and
European colonies. Many of these were traders who took Native wives or the
children who resulted from those unions. In other instances, Euro-American
children who grew up near or within Native communities—as captives, children of missionaries, boys learning the fur trade, or youths being groomed as
mediators—learned to speak indigenous languages.21 Through such figures
information flowed, not all of it reliable. Native languages, like their European
counterparts, often conveyed rumors, which motivated decisions and often
provided Indians the means to influence settlers, traders, missionaries, and
officials, and for those groups to exert pressure on Native communities.22
These same figures were also crucial for the formal, ritualized diplomacy that
structured official relations of Native peoples with empires and their colonies.
At these treaty councils, trained orators spoke, and the peoples who assembled
expected to hear the sentiments of other attendees in their own language,
“Speaking ‘Indian’ and English: The Bilinguals of Seventeenth-century New
England, 1636–1680” (Ph.D. diss., University of Delaware, forthcoming).
21. On intermarriage and language learning, see Laura J. Murray, “Fur Traders
in Conversation,” Ethnohistory 50, no. 2 (2003): 285–314. On cultural brokers and
go-betweens, see Daniel K. Richter, “Cultural Brokers and Intercultural Politics:
New York–Iroquois Relations, 1664–1701,” Journal of American History 75, no. 1
(1988): 40–67; Nancy L. Hagedorn, “ ‘A Friend to Go between Them’: The Interpreter as Cultural Broker during Anglo-Iroquois Councils, 1740–70,” Ethnohistory
35, no. 1 (1988): 60–80; Margaret Connell Szasz, Between Indian and White Worlds:
The Cultural Broker (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994); Frances E.
Karttunen, Between Worlds: Interpreters, Guides, and Survivors (New Brunswick,
N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994); Merrell, Into the American Woods.
22. On rumor, see Gregory Evans Dowd, “The Panic of 1751: The Significance
of Rumors on the South Carolina–Cherokee Frontier,” William and Mary Quarterly
53, no. 3 (1996): 527–60; Tom Arne Midtrød, “Strange and Disturbing News:
Rumor and Diplomacy in the Colonial Hudson Valley,” Ethnohistory 58, no. 1
(2011): 91–112; Grandjean, American Passage, chap. 3.

454 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
which made the services of a reliable interpreter crucial to the often tense
coexistence of diverse peoples. Moments of communication were frequently
moments when diverse peoples performed perceived differences for themselves and their counterparts, and the very fact that relatively few could match
the linguistic virtuosity of interpreters made the translating and recording of
what was said a fraught process, both for those at the time and for modern
scholars who wish to find Native voices in the documentary record. Occasionally interpreters deliberately conveyed sentiments that differed from what an
orator had expressed, and scribes sometimes recorded what colonial or imperial officials wished to hear.23
The linguistic exchanges that emerged in Christian missions have been
the subject of an especially deep and impressive body of work. One set of
scholars, those interested primarily in historical documentation of indigenous languages and in the history of linguistics, have focused considerable
attention on the linguistic efforts of Franciscans, Jesuits, Puritans, Moravians, and other missionaries in the Americas; numerous articles have
appeared in specialized journals such as Historiographia Linguistica and in
essay collections, including the five volumes (and counting) of Missionary
Linguistics/Lingu¨ı´stica misionera.
24 Historians have turned their attention to
23. On the forms of diplomacy, see Francis Jennings et al., eds., The History and
Culture of Iroquois Diplomacy: An Interdisciplinary Guide to the Treaties of the Six
Nations and Their League (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1985); Patricia
Galloway, “Talking with Indians: Interpreters and Diplomacy in French Louisiana,”
in Winthrop D. Jordan and Sheila L. Skemp, eds., Race and Family in the Colonial
South (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987); Merrell, Into the American
Woods, 253–301. On performance of differences, see Jane T. Merritt, “Metaphor,
Meaning, and Misunderstanding: Language and Power on the Pennsylvania Frontier,” in Andrew R. L. Cayton and Fredrika J. Teute, eds., Contact Points: American
Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750–1830 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Nancy Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness: Becoming
Red and White in Eighteenth-century North America (New York: Oxford University
Press, 2004), 61–81. On deliberate mistranslations, see David L. Ghere, “Mistranslations and Misinformation on the Maine Frontier, 1725–1755,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 8, no. 4 (1984): 3–26. On the need for scholars to triangulate
multiple accounts of a given speech, see James H. Merrell, “‘I Desire All That I Have
Said . . . May Be Taken Down Aright’: Revisiting Teedyuscung’s 1756 Treaty Council
Speeches,” William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 4 (2006): 777–826.
24. Hanzeli, Missionary Linguistics in New France, ranks among the first and
most important. For especially strong collections, see Even Hovdhaugen, ed., . . .
And the Word Was God: Missionary Linguistics and Missionary Grammar (Mu¨nster:
Nodus, 1996); Elke Nowak, ed., Languages Different in All Their Sounds . . . :
Descriptive Approaches to Indigenous Languages of the Americas, 1500–1800 (Mu¨nster:

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 455
missionaries’ linguistic work for different reasons. Missionaries’ approaches
to language learning have offered insight into the efforts of Euro-American
evangelists to make their message intelligible to the indigenous peoples the
missionaries hoped to convert. Eschewing pidgins and jargons, Catholic
and Protestant missionaries sought ways to convey what they believed to be
universal truths. On a practical level, acquiring indigenous languages
required diverse efforts aimed at distinguishing sounds and choosing characters that could represent them, and not only learning words but also rules
for modifying them to denote particular circumstances, arranging them
intelligibly, and using them in socially appropriate ways. Beyond a matter
of simple pragmatism, some scholars see in these efforts important examples
of missionaries’ accommodation to the expectations of Native people. Others, however, urge us to recognize that the increased familiarity that fluent
communication allowed could produce heightened tension when it elucidated incompatible goals among Indians and evangelists. Euro-American
efforts at learning languages depended on Native participation. Certainly,
not all Indians chose to be teachers. European accounts are littered with
references to Indians unwilling to provide the services that Europeans
sought. In such cases impatience, distrust, or recognition of the desirability
of cultural distance prevailed. Instead of teaching Euro-Americans, these
Indians mocked their efforts, refused to answer their queries, or deliberately
fed them misinformation.25 In other instances, however, Native individuals
chose to bridge the linguistic gap. Native men and women offered names
for things, though unclear questions or unknown phenomena frequently
stymied collectors and consultants. Whether seeking desirable goods, spiritual power, or influential friends, Native tutors—too often, when considered
at all, misunderstood as “assistants”—instructed missionary students in
sounds, words, grammar, and usage.26
Nodus, 1999); Otto Zwartjes and Even Hovdhaugen, eds., Missionary Linguistics/
Lingu¨ı´stica misionera: Selected Papers from the First International Conference on Missionary Linguistics, Oslo, 13–16 March 2003 (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2004).
Zwartjes, “Historiography of Missionary Linguistics,” surveys this work.
25. For examples, see Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied
Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 73 vols.
(Cleveland: Burrows Bros., 1896–1901), 7:57, 61; George Dixon, A Voyage Round
the World; But More Particularly to the North-west Coast of America: Performed in
1785, 1786, 1787, and 1788, in the King George and Queen Charlotte (London,
1789), 227–28.
26. On (limited) missionary accommodation, see Axtell, Invasion Within, 71–72,
81–83; Margaret J. Leahy, “ ‘Comment peut un muet prescher l’e´vangile?’ Jesuit
Missionaries and the Native Languages of New France,” French Historical Studies

456 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
The individuals, Native and European, who met in these language
encounters and acted as intermediaries, moreover, produced a wealth of
Native-language texts, which a number of scholars have examined with
important results. An impressive body of research has demonstrated that
these texts were the products of cross-cultural exchanges and the means for
furthering such exchanges. Scholars have found in these texts convincing
evidence of how Native people used their languages to mediate Christianity,
using them to “filter,” in David Silverman’s useful formulation, missionaries’
teachings of components too much at odds with traditional views. Indigenous “assistants,” therefore, played crucial roles in shaping Native Christianities.27 Native linguists, such as the Nahua priest Antonio del Rinco´n,
who produced the first Jesuit grammar in New Spain, were Native intellectuals. As the interdisciplinary work of Alejandra Dubcovsky and Aaron
Broadwell has shown, moreover, careful attention to the content of a given
text, such as unwitting changes in dialect by a missionary author, can provide evidence of Native coauthorship that has been silenced in the historical
record.28 Just as significantly, as Philip Round has stressed, Native instructors, translators, and printers learned strategies of resistance and resignification through their linguistic labors, from the seventeenth to the
nineteenth centuries and beyond.29 These coproduced texts aided EuroAmericans who sought to communicate messages, but they also facilitated
—and provide evidence of—missionaries listening. As Robert Michael
19, no. 1 (1995): 105–32. On increased communication producing widening senses
of difference, see Merrell, Into the American Woods; Robert Michael Morrissey, “ ‘I
Speak It Well’: Language, Cultural Understanding, and the End of a Missionary
Middle Ground in Illinois Country, 1673–1712,” Early American Studies 9, no. 3
(2011): 617–48.
27. David J. Silverman, “Indians, Missionaries, and Religious Translation: Creating Wampanoag Christianity on Seventeenth-century Martha’s Vineyard,” William and Mary Quarterly 52, no. 2 (2005): 146; John L. Steckley, Words of the Huron
(Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier, 2007); Tracy Neale Leavelle, “ ‘Bad Things’ and
‘Good Hearts’: Mediation, Meaning, and the Language of Illinois Christianity,”
Church History 76, no. 2 (2007): 363–94; Glenda Goodman, “ ‘But they differ from
us in sound’: Indian Psalmody and the Soundscape of Colonialism, 1651–75,” William and Mary Quarterly 69, no. 4 (2012): 793–822. On Rinco´n, see Kelly S.
McDonough, “Indigenous Intellectuals in Early Colonial Mexico: The Case of
Antonio del Rinco´n, Nahua Grammarian and Priest,” Colonial Latin American
Review 20, no. 2 (2011): 145–65.
28. Alejandra Dubcovskyand George Aaron Broadwell, “Writing Timucua:
Recovering and Interrogating Indigenous Authorship,” in this issue.
29. Round, Removable Type.

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 457
Morrissey has perceptively noted, dictionaries in which the Native words
are arranged in alphabetical order, such as that of Illinois composed by the
Jesuit missionary Jacques Gravier, aided missionaries seeking to understand
Native speakers.30
Moving beyond older debates about the awe that European writing
inspired in Indians and when it yielded to more critical or pragmatic views,
and older narrative trajectories of the replacement of orality with literacy, it
seems increasingly clear that Native responses to and uses of such texts
were shaped by Native use of graphic systems that long predated European
colonization. Ethnohistorians have documented indigenous use of multiple
graphic systems from the quipus of the Andes and the syllabic glyphs and
pictographic codices of Mesoamerica to the petroglyphs, painted buffalo
hides, doodem representations, birch bark scrolls, and wampum in use farther north.31 Influenced by such approaches, literary scholars such as Walter
Mignolo, Germaine Warkentin, Matt Cohen, and Andrew Newman have
challenged the traditional binary between oral and written cultures. Going
further, Kristina Bross and Hilary Wyss, Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Philip
Round, Robert Gunn, and Sarah Rivett have pushed scholars to recognize
the variety of nonalphabetic indigenous literacies that coexisted alongside,
and were actively integrated into, selective learning and use of European
literacy and its accompanying textual forms.32
30. Morrissey, “ ‘I Speak It Well,’ ” 639.
31. For an excellent sample of ethnohistorical work on graphic pluralism, see the
contributions of Frank Salomon and Sabine Hyland, Heidi Bohaker, Kathleen J.
Bragdon, Kevin Terraciano, David Tava´rez, John F. Chuchiak IV, Galen Brokaw,
Gary Urton, Sabine Hyland, and Margaret Bender in a special issue of Ethnohistory
57, no. 1 (2010).
32. Matt Cohen, The Networked Wilderness: Communicating in Early New
England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Kristina Bross, Dry
Bones and Indian Sermons: Praying Indians and Colonial America (Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 2004); Kristina Bross and Hillary E. Wyss, eds., Early Native
Literacies in New England: A Documentary and Critical Anthology (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008); Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Queequeg’s Coffin:
Indigenous Literacies and Early American Literature (Durham: Duke University
Press, 2012); Round, Removable Type; Andrew Newman, On Records: Delaware
Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 2012); Hillary E. Wyss, English Letters and Indian Literacies: Reading, Writing, and New England Missionary Schools (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Robert L. Gunn, Ethnology and Empire: Languages, Literatures, and the Making of the North American Borderlands (New York: New York
University Press, 2015); Sarah Rivett, “Learning to Write Algonquian Letters: The

458 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
Many scholars have looked to Native language texts less to examine
instances of religious exchange and more to recover indigenous cultures and
how they received and adapted European things and people. Indeed, in
some studies, not only such texts but even Native languages themselves have
been used as evidence. John Steckley’s studies of Huron have been based
on deep knowledge of Jesuit materials about those people and linguistic
knowledge of the Huron language. Kathleen Bragdon has been especially
explicit about not only using commentary in Native languages as a source
for her studies of southern New England Algonquians from the sixteenth
to the mid-eighteenth centuries, but also analyzing languages themselves
as lenses into the lives and beliefs of Native speakers.33 That culturalanthropological premise, the subject of continuing debate among scholars
in a variety of disciplines, has emerged from centuries of linguistic and psychological theorization, much of it involving Native languages, but the ethnohistorical combination of linguistic virtuosity and mastery of the archival
record has yielded tremendous insights.34 Even when based on more superficial familiarity with Native words for particular things, other scholars have
turned to colonial-era Native-language texts for Native terminology. Brett
Rushforth has recovered conceptual links between slaves and dogs in
Algonquian and Siouan languages; Heidi Bohaker and Michael Witgen
have explained understandings of kinship, place, and alliance among Anishinaabeg; and Robert Michael Morrissey has sketched the adaptation of
buffalo hunting among the Illinois. Those indigenous frames of reference,
in turn, shaped the forms that colonization took.35 In the intention to use
Indigenous Place of Language Philosophy in the Seventeenth-century Atlantic
World,” William and Mary Quarterly 71, no. 4 (2014): 549–88.
33. Steckley, Words of the Huron; Kathleen J. Bragdon, Native Peoples of Southern
New England, 1500–1650 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996); Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England, 1650–1775 (Norman: University of
Oklahoma Press, 2009).
34. For recent salvos in the debate on linguistic relativity (also known as the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), see Guy Deutscher, Through the Language Glass: Why the
World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Picador, 2010); John H.
McWhorter, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language
(New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
35. Bragdon, Native Peoples of Southern New England, 1500–1650, 29–30; Brett
Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 15–71, 383–91; Heidi
Bohaker, “Nindoodemag: The Significance of Algonquian Kinship Networks in the
Eastern Great Lakes Region, 1600–1701,” William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 1
(2006): 23–52; Witgen, Infinity of Nations, 371–73; Robert Michael Morrissey,

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 459
Native-authored texts to provide a fuller understanding of colonization and,
more particularly, how Native people understood it, experienced it, and
shaped it, this work resembles the New Philology most associated with
colonial Mesoamerica. In studies of ethnographic North America, however,
comparatively fewer scholars have moved beyond examining discrete words
to become more deeply conversant in indigenous languages.
Arguably the greatest linguistic effect of colonization was the dramatic
spread of English, Spanish, French, and other European languages at the
expense of the Native languages of the Americas. By the late seventeenth
century this process stoked the frustration of those opposed to the practices
and increasing influence of colonizers. According to one account of the
Pueblo Revolt, for example, a prohibition on the teaching of Castilian
accompanied the expulsion of the Spanish and the destruction of Christian
symbols.36 The process of what is often sanitized as “language shift” or
grimly prophesied as “language death” was complex and uneven, the product of the demographic consequences of the Columbian exchange; the
increasing usefulness and prestige of European languages and literacy, especially in Native communities subject to the political power of settlers or
imperial officials; and the deliberate efforts of settler colonies and nations
to impose their own tongues on the colonized. The United States, from the
late nineteenth into the twentieth century, even sought to eliminate Native
languages altogether.37 Though few would dispute the claim that Native
people used the languages of colonizers for their own ends, and some have
even called for the recognition of language shift as a means of resistance,
others have stressed the importance of language preservation and revitalization for maintaining the cultural and political strength of Native communities. Those linguistic programs have gained strength from the perceived
connectedness of peoplehood, place, and speech.38
Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 20–25.
36. “Declaration of the Indian Juan,” in Charles Wilson Hackett, ed., Revolt of
the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Otermı´n’s Attempted Reconquest, 1680–1682
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1942), 235.
37. On the English colonies and the United States, see Axtell, Invasion Within,
179–84; Gray, New World Babel, 80–84; Harvey, Native Tongues, 115–19, 169–80;
Ruth Spack, America’s Second Tongue: American Indian Education and the Ownership
of English, 1860–1900 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002).
38. On English as an Indian language, and on language shift as a form of resistance, see Simon J. Ortiz, “Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism,” MELUS 8 (Summer 1981): 7–12, esp. 10, and Jace Weaver,
Craig Womack, and Robert Allen Warrior, American Indian Literary Nationalism

460 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
When viewed as a whole, variegated work on linguistic aspects of colonization provides glimpses of cross-cultural exchanges and language as an
instrument of empire in the Atlantic world. The rubric of the encounter
links the histories of ideas, religion, and colonialism to different forms of
indigenous resistance, perseverance, and survival, as these ideologies were
enacted on the ground. They also prod us to examine how these confrontations and exchanges posed questions to Natives and newcomers alike and
The language encounter occurred at a significant moment in the intellectual
influenced the answers that individuals devised.
and cultural history of Europe. Given the confluence of intellectual shifts
in Europe with colonization, connections between the two demand deeper
examination, particularly in light of our dramatically expanded understanding of the dynamics of the language encounter. Evidence suggests the language encounter produced new forms of knowledge, but work remains to
be done.
Protestant reformers believed in language’s mystical potential; they promoted the recuperation of an Adamic language consisting of words that
would have a clear and unequivocal referent in the natural world, which
would in turn signify new knowledge of God.39 Soon after they arrived on
the Eastern Seaboard of North America, the religious quest to reestablish
the moment in Genesis 11:1 when a great harmony existed between word
and thing became a philosophical project as much as a Christian millennial
enterprise. To collect the Earth’s disparate languages, to trace derivative
(Albequerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006), xviii, 120. For a contrasting
emphasis on the necessity of maintaining Native languages for cultural and political
strength, see Scott Richard Lyons, “There’s No Translation for It: The Rhetorical
Sovereignty of Indigenous Languages,” in Bruce Horner, Min-Zhan Lu, and Paul
Kei Matsuda, eds., Cross-Language Relations in Composition (Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press, 2010), 129, 139.
39. See Allison Coudert, “Some Theories of a Natural Language from the Renaissance to the Seventeenth Century,” in Wilhelm-Gottfried-Leibniz-Gesellschaft,
ed., Magia naturalis und die Entstehung der modernen Naturwissenschaften (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner, 1978), 56–114; David Cram, “Linguistic Eschatology: Babel
and Pentecost in Seventeenth-century Linguistic Thought,” Language and History
56, no. 1 (2013): 44–56; and Daniel Droixhe, De l’origine du langage aux langues du
monde: Etudes sur les XVIIe et XVIIIe sie`cles (Tu¨bingen: G. Narr, 1987); Patrick M.
Erben, A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early
Pennsylvania (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 461
dialects to mother tongues, and to translate key Christian texts into a diversity of tongues both effectively spread the gospel among the Earth’s inhabitants and advanced humanity toward a collective millennial hope for the
second coming.
In Europe’s primarily Catholic nations, Latin maintained its stronghold
more firmly as the primary international language than it did in England,
Scotland, and the Netherlands. This was due largely to the primacy that the
Catholic Church placed on reading sacred texts in Latin and to the usefulness of a medium common to the republic of letters, especially for scholars
whose vernaculars possessed relatively few speakers. Its use began to decline
in the mid-seventeenth century and plummeted a century later. Latin faced
competition from vernaculars, especially, in the early modern era, those dialects spoken in the lands of ambitious monarchs. Antonio de Nebrija’s linking of language and empire, for example, resonated in the Americas, but it
appeared in his grammar of Castilian, the first published grammar of a
vernacular tongue, which appeared in the same the year as the final stage of
the Reconquista and of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage. In the midsixteenth century Spanish missionaries began a massive effort to compile,
organize, and record indigenous tongues. One text among dozens that came
out of Mexico City in the 1540s and 1550s, Pedro de Gante’s Doctrina
Cristiana, translates Christian doctrine into Nahuatl in the hopes of increasing knowledge of Nahuatl among missionaries in New Spain. Spanish
translation efforts set the stage for parallel endeavors among the French,
English, Dutch, and Germans in North America. French became codified
through the Academy of Language in 1635, which consolidated efforts to
eliminate impurities within the language and thus shore up and standardize
the vernacular.40
In the mid- to late seventeenth century missionary language activity
spiked in confluence with a European devotion to reexamining the semiotic
resonance of words as links between the natural and the spiritual worlds.
Languages became one of the most important skills that a missionary could
have. Beyond the practical challenges of language learning, missionaries
were called on, through trial and error, to reevaluate what they thought
they knew about the relationship between word and spirit as promoted by
Reformation and Counter-Reformation theologies, while also maintaining
their commitment to a notion of language as residing between natural and
40. Peter Burke, Languages and Communities in Early Modern Europe (New York:
Cambridge University Press, 2004), 48–60, 94–100.

462 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
supernatural, visible and invisible realms. To manage the problem that missionary linguistics presented to the seamless transparency of the Christian
cosmos, clerics produced a wealth of texts, including dictionaries, catechisms, prayer books, vocabularies, grammars, Indian primers, and Bible
translations. The language encounter provided both an enticing epistemological opportunity for increasing Christian knowledge and an unsettling
way of challenging that knowledge.
European travelers and traders sought words to ease communication,
facilitate exchange, and satisfy curiosity, but what they learned could
prompt deep reflection. Even the pidgins that came into use in the seventeenth century prodded missionaries to consider everything from colonial
social relations to the origin of language. These hybrid forms of speech
could seem to represent a linguistic middle ground and a form of degeneracy. According to Joseph-Franc¸ois Lafitau, the French and Iroquois were
out of necessity “forced, equally on both sides, to approach each other in
their own language,” which led them to a combination of gesture and
“words, which are of neither language because they are corrupted, forming
a speech without rhyme or reason.” Familiarity with it, combined with his
knowledge of the considerable grammatical difference of European tongues
from Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan languages, challenged Lafitau’s
understanding of language and its significance. He acknowledged the reality
of the confusion of tongues at Babel, but he also granted that “languages
can be multiplied to as many as there are nations.” He saw “God’s finger”
in Indian languages, but he recognized that words were “arbitrary . . . only
signs adopted to represent the things to which they have been attached.”
He thought a distinctive “way of thinking and tricks of expression” characterized all Native speech and distanced the Indians from Europeans, but he
continued to assert that the “operations of the soul” were common across
humanity and that “ideas . . . are everywhere almost the same for all men.”41
Although initially stunned by the linguistic diversity of North America,
Europeans deployed classifications to organize indigenous tongues to colonial, imperial, and national advantage. Numerous scholars have cataloged
the attempts of the learned to link indigenous languages with those of the
old world, particularly Hebrew but also Phoenician, Welsh, Chinese, and
vaguely known Tatar tongues. Aural differences and complexities thwarted
the process of language collecting, undermining both traditional notions
41. Joseph-Franc¸ois Lafitau, Customs of the American Indians Compared the Customs of Primitive Times (1724), ed. William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore, 2
vols. (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1977), 2:261, 253, 267, 264.

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 463
of how the world’s tongues might be reduced to a scriptural account and
Enlightenment theories of discernable linguistic links between the Americas and Asia. Scholars have paid comparatively less attention to EuroAmerican efforts to use language to determine relationships among Indians.
Yet linguistic similarities suggested avenues for the extension of trade and
evangelization, and, for many, they promised a key to understanding lines
of alliance. From the seventeenth century onward, colonial accounts are
littered not only with observations about the linguistic similarities of neighboring and even of widely separated peoples, but also with the accompanying deduction that those similarities were the result of speakers sharing a
common lineage. Iroquois, Hurons, and Neutrals represented a “family,”
Wampanoags and Powhatans a “race.”42 As Sean Harvey has shown, classifying relations among Indians remained a crucial goal for colonizers through
the nineteenth century. In the early U.S. republic, recognition of linguistic
difference provided a basis for denominating particular groups as “nations”
or “tribes” that could cede land, though the taxonomic attempts to use language to simplify complexity outweighed occasional efforts to rely on
linguistic difference to exploit diversity. Repeatedly spilling beyond the
boundaries of any taxonomic scheme imposed on them, moreover, indigenous languages defied such efforts. In addition, Native people often frustrated Euro-Americans’ impulse to map homologies among linguistic,
cultural, and political differences, which hindered colonialist administration
and the coherence of developing notions of race. Indians possessed their
own understanding of linguistic relationships, which did not always correspond to the theories of scholars or more practically minded classifiers.
Ambitions to reduce Native diversity were thus frustrated both by linguistic
multiplicity and by Native communities’ determination to maintain their
Native tongues. Classification was as ambivalent a project as the task of
translation, but we would benefit from a deeper understanding of EuroAmerican ideas—both correct and incorrect—about relationships among
Native languages and how they thought those connections corresponded to
Native peoples.43
42. Thwaites, Jesuit Relations, 21:195; Champlin Burrage, ed., John Pory’s Lost
Description of Plymouth Colony in the Earliest Days of the Pilgrim Fathers, Together
with Contemporary Accounts of English Colonization Elsewhere in New England and
the Bermudas (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), 50.
43. Harvey, Native Tongues, 65–79, 185–94, 204–19. On classification in imperialism, see Judith T. Irvine and Susan Gal, “Language Ideology and Linguistic
Differentiation,” in Paul V. Kroskrity, ed., Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities,
and Identities (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2000); Sara Pugach,

464 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
Importantly, language encounters and conjectures were not limited to
individuals of Native and European descent. The historical record offers
glimpses of African Americans facing, and overcoming, linguistic multiplicity and the reflections that followed from such experiences. A Narrative of
the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (1785) contains
details of his learning Cherokee from a hunter and using it in prayer to
avert a pending execution. While a previous examination of this account
has cast it as a “Pentecostal moment,” it might be seen, rather, as a striking
instance of Native linguistic instruction and canny strategic deployment of
a linguistic skill, though one that prompted Marrant to ponder diversity,
Mosaic writings, and global evangelization. He closed the narrative with a
set of hopes, which included one that a “vast multitude of hard tongues,
and strange speech, may learn the language of Canaan.” The contours of
such exchanges, and their significance for African American intellectual history, await deeper study.44
Those engaged in projects of learning indigenous languages transmitted
their ideas across the Atlantic in official reports to superiors and in accounts
aimed at the reading public of their journeys, their work, and the peoples
they encountered. Philosophers, in turn, drew on circulating knowledge
of Native tongues as components of diverse theories about the nature
of speech, the progress of society, and the ancestry or abilities of peoples.
The primal scenes of linguistic origins that were peppered throughout
eighteenth-century language philosophy borrowed from the travel accounts
of others. Greek and Roman authors were certainly a mainstay of human
histories, but the Americas also became a key scene for envisioning the
origins of language in the long eighteenth century. Apart from a general
“Carl Meinhof and the German Influence on Nicholas van Warmelo’s Ethnological
and Linguistic Writing, 1927–1935,” Journal of Southern African Studies 30, no. 4
(2004): 825–45; Errington, Linguistics in a Colonial World, 83–88.
44. John Marrant, A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black (Now Going to Preach the Gospel in Nova Scotia) Born in New-York,
North-America . . . , 2nd ed. (London, 1785), 21–24, 38. On the “Pentecostal
moment,” see Sandra Gustafson, Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in
Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 103. On
Marrant, see also Edward E. Andrews, Native Apostles: Black and Indian Missionaries in the British Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013),
206–8. On the significance of Indians in black intellectual history, mainly in a
slightly later period, see Arika Easley-Houser, “ ‘The Indian Image in the Black
Mind’: Representing Native Americans in Antebellum African American Public
Culture” (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 2014).

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 465
acknowledgment of this pattern and a deeper sense of particular leading
philosophers such as John Locke, considerably more work is needed to trace
how the intellectual results of particular social interactions in the colonies
flowed as information to European capitals, courts, and colleges.45 The
bonds of empire facilitated but did not limit circulation, as some of the era’s
most influential texts demonstrate. Locke’s editions of An Essay concerning
Human Understanding (1690; 1706) cited Peter Martyr’s De orbe novo decades (1530), Jean de Le´ry’s Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Bre´sil
(1578), and Nicola´s del Techo’s Historia provinciae Paraquariae (1673),
among others; references to Inca Garcilaso de la Vega’s Comentarios reales de
los Incas (1609), Joseph-Franc¸ois Lafitau’s Moeurs des sauvages ame´riquains,
compare´es aux moeurs des premiers temps (1724), and Se´bastien Rale’s Lettres
e´difiantes et curieuses (1723) appear in Johann Gottfried Herder’s Abhandlung u¨ber den Ursprung der Sprache (1772). By the time Johann Severin
Vater published the third volume of the polyglot philological compendium
Mithridates, oder allgemeine Sprachenkunde mit dem Vater Unser als Sprachprobe in bey nahe fu¨nf hundert Sprachen und Mundarten (1816), which treated
the languages of North America, he cited information from U.S. explorers
such as Lewis and Clark, as well as U.S. publications such as Jonathan
Edwards Jr.’s Observations on the Language of the Muhhekaneew Indians
(1788) and Benjamin S. Barton’s New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and
Nations of America (1797).
Whether peered through like windows into the minds of indigenous peoples, or imagined as lasting evidence of their origins, migrations, and kinships, languages became crucial bases for scholars, officials, missionaries,
and settlers to narrate justifications of conquest and control. What resulted
was a constellation of (thoroughly inconsistent) European notions concerning the peculiarity and rudeness of Native languages, conceptions frequently
molded to be compatible with scriptural accounts of the confusion of
tongues and dispersal of nations at Babel. Though some conceived of these
45. For a general overview, see Gray, New World Babel, chap. 4; Lieve Jooken,
“Descriptions of American Indian Word Forms in Colonial Missionary Grammars,”
and Rudiger Schreyer, “ ‘Savage’ Languages in Eighteenth-century Theoretical History of Language,” in Gray and Fiering, Language Encounter in the Americas, 293–
309, 310–26; Ce´line Carayon, “The Gesture Speech of Mankind: Old and New
Entanglements in the Histories of Indian and European Sign Languages,” American
Historical Review 121, no. 2 (2016), 461–91. For a good study of a specific philosopher’s debt to particular sources, see David Paxman, “Adam in a Strange Country:
Locke’s Language Theory and Travel Literature,” Modern Philology 92, no. 4 (1995):

466 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
traits in terms of essential and fixed racial difference, many philosophers,
philologists, and linguists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
insisted on a hierarchy that ranked the speech and thought of colonizer and
colonized, while also viewing “savagery” or “barbarism” as reflecting either
some imagined postlapsarian nadir or an origin point for humanity. Native
languages provided the mirror with which to gaze on an “Indian mind” and
European modernity at the same time.46 While often distorted from the
original account to serve the ideological aims of the language philosopher,
these theories were not fabricated from whole cloth. Native strategies in
intercultural communication, diplomatic incorporation, and missionary
translation, in turn, played a central role in what Europeans came to know
about Native languages, from notions of linguistic poverty to stereotypes of
eloquence or harangues, to comprehension of the substantial differences
that characterized indigenous and European languages.47 Peeling back layers
of history allows scholars to discover anew not just the primary texts undergirding Enlightenment philosophy and ideologies, but also the parameters
of the original encounter.
These diverse Euro-American linguistic projects depended on Native
people’s willingly sharing their linguistic knowledge. Even beyond the work
of Native interpreters and so-called assistants to missionaries, as the desire
to obtain more “philosophical” or “scientific” understanding of Native languages grew in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Native consultants
provided detailed knowledge of which Native languages they recognized to
be related to their own and of variations in the grammatical features that
different indigenous languages shared or that separated one from another.
Peter S. Du Ponceau, arguably the most important philologist of the nineteenth century, was particularly explicit about such debts. Not least, he recognized that indigenous sources provided a foundation for philosophical
46. On ideas of the deficiency of Native languages, see Julie Tetel Andresen,
Linguistics in America, 1769–1924: A Critical History (New York: Routledge, 1990),
83–119; Anthony Pagden, European Encounters with the New World: From Renaissance to Romanticism (New Haven: Yale Universisty Press, 1993), 126–40; Mignolo,
Darker Side of the Renaissance; Gray, New World Babel; Schreyer, “ ‘Savage’ Languages in Eighteenth-century Theoretical History of Language”; David B. Paxman,
“Language and Difference: The Problem of Abstraction in Eighteenth-century
Language Study,” Journal of the History of Ideas 54 (1993): 19–36. On primitiveness
as a crucial component of language ideologies, see Richard Bauman and Charles L.
Briggs, Voices of Modernity: Language Ideologies and the Politics of Inequality (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2003). On the spiritual importance of Babel
among Moravians and other pietists, see Erben, Harmony of the Spirits.
47. For an overview see Harvey, Native Tongues, chap. 1.

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 467
authority once filtered through a Euro-American savant. After discussions
with Wyandot and Chickasaw consultants, Du Ponceau became convinced
that Iroquoian and Muskogean languages, seemingly unrelated to Lenni
Lenape and other Algonquian languages, shared the latter’s grammatical
organization. Some missionary-educated Native scholars, however, bridled
at Du Ponceau’s homogenization of all indigenous tongues and corrected
erroneous representations of “Indian” tongues and minds. Numerous Native
scholars found their philological opinions cited in print, such as David
Brown (Cherokee), Eleazer Williams (Mohawk), and Peter Jones (Mississauga Ojibwe). Others, even those unengaged in scholarly philology, published texts themselves. The first published Native-authored grammar of a
Native language north of Mexico, for instance, was the Ojibwe grammar of
John Summerfield (Sahgahjewagahbahweh).48 This Native information, in
turn, shaped how European scholars understood not only the “American
languages” but also the range of human speech, whether imagined in developmental, essentialist, or even broadly relativistic terms. Recognizing the
degree to which Euro-American linguistic knowledge depended on Native
participation, therefore, demands affirmation of the degree to which Native
knowledge and Atlantic networks shaped the development of this realm
of European and American intellectual history.49 Such work has only just
48. The first published, Native-authored grammar in North America is John
Summerfield, alias Sahgahjewagahbahweh, Sketch of Grammar of the Chippeway
Language, to Which Is Added a Vocabulary of Some of the Most Common Words (Cazenovia, N.Y.: Fairchild & Son, 1834). See also Harvey, Native Tongues, 5–6, 14–15,
101–2, 111–14, 160–62.
49. For considerations of Native people as producers of knowledge, see Nancy
Shoemaker, “How Indians Got to Be Red,” American Historical Review 102, no. 3
(1997): 625–44; Susan Scott Parrish, American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History
in the Colonial British Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 2006); Neil Safier, “Global Knowledge on the Move: Itineraries, Amerindian
Narratives, and Deep Histories of Science,” Isis 101, no. 4 (2010): 133–45. On
European dependence on indigenous knowledge in philology and anthropology, see
Thomas R. Trautmann, Languages and Nations: The Dravidian Proof in Colonial
Madras (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Peter Pels and Oscar
Salemink, “Introduction: Locating the Colonial Subjects of Anthropology,” in Pels
and Salemink, eds., Colonial Subjects: Essays on the Practical History of Anthropology
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000); Harvey, Native Tongues. On
Native participation in political-ethnological debates, see Harvey, Native Tongues;
Scott Michaelsen, The Limits of Multiculturalism: Interrogating the Origins of American Anthropology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999); Maureen
Konkle, Writing Indian Nations: Native Intellectuals and the Politics of Historiography,

468 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
Answering questions about what one recent conference called “Translation and Transmission in the Early Americas” entails closer examination of
how Natives’ understandings of language, languages, and literacies shaped
their experience of the language encounter.50 Natives’ views about the intellectual and aesthetic traits of their language, its connection with the people
and their land, and its relationship to other tongues must have had some
bearing on their views of, and actions in, the language encounter, and all
beckon deeper investigation.
There certainly was no single “Indian” understanding of speech: Native
traditions reveal a range of conceptions about languages, their origin, and
their social significance, though all suggest the degree to which language
was crucial to Native senses of peoplehood.51 Some recall ancient times,
when human beings shared language with animals. Many others recorded
the separate emergence of different peoples speaking different languages.
For some, it was not the Great Spirit but, rather, another figure who
invented language. Certain peoples recalled instances of teaching their own
1827–1863 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Paige Raibmon, Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century
Northwest Coast (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).
50. “Translation and Tranmission in the Early Americas: The Fourth Early
Americanist Summit” was held in Washington, D.C., and College Park, Md., June
2–5, 2016. This excellent gathering of scholars of Ibero- and Anglo-America was
cosponsored by the Society of Early Americanists, the Omohundro Institute of
Early American History and Culture, the Kislak Family Foundation, the Buckner
W. Clay Endowment at the University of Virginia Institute of the Humanities &
Global Cultures, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington,
D.C., the Mexican Cultural Institute, and the University of Maryland.
51. For considerations of language and identity, see J. Leitch Wright Jr., Creeks
and Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1986); Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, 1500–
1700 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 320–23; Amy C. Schutt,
“Tribal Identity in the Moravian Missions on the Susquehanna,” Pennsylvania History 66, no. 3 (1999): 378–98, esp. 389–92; Harvey, Native Tongues, 69–70, 74–75,
191–92. For an overview, see Teresa L. McCarty and Ofelia Zepeda, “Native
Americans,” in Joshua A. Fishman and Ofelia Garcı´a, eds., Handbook of Language
and Ethnic Identity, vol. 1, Disciplinary and Regional Perspectives, 2nd ed. (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2010). On language and peoplehood, see Tom Holm, J.
Diane Pearson, and Ben Chavis, “Peoplehood: A Model for the Extension of Sovereignty in American Indian Studies,” Wicazo Sa Review 18, no. 1 (2003): 7–24, esp.
11–13; Thomas Belt and Margaret Bender, “Speaking Difference to Power: The
Importance of Linguistic Sovereignty,” in Ulrike Weithaus, ed., Foundations of First
Peoples’ Sovereignty: History, Education and Culture (New York: Peter Lang, 2007);
Lyons, “There’s No Translation for It.”

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 469
language to another people, or the adoption of one group’s language by
another. Some traditions suggest that new forms of speech developed as
man and woman first met or when peoples speaking different languages
encountered one another and intermarried. Yet others describe linguistic
divergence over time, as rivalries divided peoples, or as different groups
moved apart.52 Whether language was originally different or became so over
time, unintelligibility tended to produce cohesion among some and conflict
with others. Building on the excellent work by Steven Hahn and Joshua
Piker, who have provided models of how Native stories about the past could
represent attempts to project power in the present and order the future,
scholars can examine these stories as aspects of Native intellectual and
sociopolitical history.53
As much as scholars must take seriously those Native perspectives that
seem to differ most sharply from those of the Europeans they encountered,
confronted, and worked with, there is also the important question of seeming correspondences between Native and Euro-American ideas. To take one
example, in the early twentieth century an “old Indian now dead” told the
anthropologist John R. Swanton about the emergence of Alabamas and
Koasatis, two indigenous peoples of the Southeast who eventually became
Creeks: “The Alabama and Koasati came out of the earth on opposite sides
52. Examples of such traditions can be found in Henry R. Schoolcraft, Historical
and Statistical Information respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian
Tribes of the United States, 6 vols. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1851–57),
4:229 (Ho Chunk); Nicolas Perrot, “Memoir on the Manners, Customs, and Religion of the Savages of North America,” in Emma Helen Blair, ed. and trans., The
Indian Tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley and Region of the Great Lakes (Cleveland:
Arthur H. Clark, 1911), 41 (Anishinaabe); Geo. Catlin, Letters and Notes on the
Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians . . . Written during
Eight Years’ Travel amongst the Wildest Tribes of Indians in North America . . . , 2 vols.
(London, 1841), 2:128 (Choctaw); J. G. Kohl, Kitchi-Gami: Wanderings round Lake
Superior (London, 1860), 195–97; John Heckewelder, “An Account of the History,
Manners, and Customs, of the Indian Nations, Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania
and the Neighbouring States,” Transactions of the Historical and Literary Committee
of the American Philosophical Society 1 (1819): 29–35; John Norton, The Journal of
Major John Norton, 1816, ed. Carl F. Klinck and James J. Talman (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1970), 91, 98, 110 (Onondaga), and 46, 82 (Cherokee).
53. Steven C. Hahn, “The Cussita Migration Legend: History, Ideology, and
the Politics of Mythmaking,” in Thomas J. Pluckhahn and Robbie Ethridge, eds.,
Light on the Path: The Anthropology and History of the Southeastern Indians (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006); Joshua Piker, The Four Deaths of Acorn
Whistler: Telling Stories in Colonial America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
2013), 9–15.

470 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
of the root of a certain tree and settled there in two bodies. Consequently
these differed somewhat in speech, though they always kept near each
other.”54 In its reference to peoples who only “differed somewhat in speech,”
the tradition conveys these peoples’ recognition of the nearness and apartness of their respective tongues, a simultaneous status maintained through
continued proximity or relationship. Although the reference in the story is
to the Cosmic Tree or Tree of Life at the center of the world along the
Alabama River, the association of speech with the roots of a tree, as Swanton well knew, is remarkably consonant with the metaphor that shaped
Euro-American philology: that of the branching tree of languages. This is
just one story that seems to convey the cross-fertilization of indigenous and
Euro-American ideas about language that came about as a result of the
language encounter. Elsewhere in the historical record one can find a Delaware Christian describing the origin of linguistic diversity in a way that
strikingly parallels the Tower of Babel story, or Ojibwe contentions that
their language expresses the essence of nature in Anishinaabewaki.55 Such
claims call out for investigation as something more than Indians asserting
European ideas as traditional knowledge.
Besides Native views of the origins of language and linguistic diversity,
evidence for the tremendous significance of the language encounter for
Native tongues and societies can be found in Native-language texts and
in other sources produced by speakers of indigenous tongues, particularly
missionaries who worked closely with Native instructors and translators.
Experience Mayhew, who learned Wampanoag as a child and used it regularly from the late seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries, observed
that dialectical “difference was something greater than now it is, before our
Indians had the use of the Bible and other Books translated by Mr. Eliot.”56
54. John R. Swanton, Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors,
BAE Bulletin no. 73 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1922), 192.
See also Sheri Marie Shuck-Hall, Journey to the West: The Alabama and Coushatta
Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 27–29.
55. Charles Beatty, Journal of a Two-Months Tour; with a View of Promoting
Religion among the Frontier Inhabitants of Pennsylvania, and of Introducing Christianity among the Indians to the Westward of the Alegh-geny Mountains (London, 1768),
90; Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby), History of the Ojebway Indians; with Especial
Reference to Their Conversion to Christianity (London, 1861), 179. See also Lyons,
“No Translation for It”; Harvey, Native Tongues, 49–51, 162–63.
56. Experience Mayhew, Observations on the Indian Language (1722) (Boston:
D Clapp & Son, 1884), 6; emphasis in original. On literacy and dialectical flattening, see Bragdon, “Native Languages as Spoken and Written,” 181.

Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 471
Apart from the changes brought by missionary elevation of a particular dialect as the standard through the production and dissemination of texts and
the spread of alphabetic literacy, other changes occurred merely as a result
of contact with European tongues. Commenting on scriptural translation
into Cherokee in the early nineteenth century, Daniel Butrick noted that
despite its absence in the “ancient language . . . since the inroads of the
whites, the m sometimes occurs,” though he added that it did so “but seldom, and always grates on the ear of a Cherokee.”57 As a result of Senecas’
“intercourse with the Whites,” Asher Wright observed around midcentury,
“Younger Indians . . . not unfrequently apply the same forms which denote
the male and female of the human species, to animals, but the older Indians
regard this as a corruption of their language.”58 It would be a mistake to
overstate the social and cultural significance of changes to the neglect of
recognizing the underlying patterns by which Native people incorporated
new linguistic practices for their own ends and sometimes in the service of
old ways, just as they did material and spiritual practices. Suggesting the
degree to which some Anishinaabeg understood alphabetic literacy to be
analogous to their own modes of making physical signs to convey information, an unnamed Ojibwe informed the traveler Johan Georg Kohl that his
people used the same word, masinaigan, to refer both to birch bark scrolls
and to white people’s books.59 The question of how Native individuals and
communities experienced these dialectical, phonetic, grammatical, and
graphic changes, and to what extent they either altered or were reconciled
with previous conceptions of their own language or linguistic relationships
with others, however, is an important one.
Some of those same texts, designed for the transformation of Native peoples, have also become resources for linguistic and cultural revitalization. A
Mashpee tribal member, Jessie “Little Doe” Baird, has recounted a dream
in which, over three consecutive nights, she heard a sacred message and saw
the faces of her ancestors. Interpreting her dream as a sign that the ancient
language of the Wampanoag tribe should be reclaimed, she worked in collaboration with the late linguist Kenneth Hale to reconstruct Wampanoag
57. John Howard Payne, The Payne-Butrick Papers, ed. William L. Anderson,
Jane L. Brown, and Anne F. Rogers, 2 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,
2010), 1:11.
58. [Asher Wright], Go ’ wa˘na gwa’ih sat’ hah yon de’ ya˘s dah’ gwah: A SpellingBook in the Seneca Language: With English Definitions (Buffalo-Creek Reservation,
N.Y.: Mission Press, 1842), 81–82.
59. Kohl, Kitchi-Gami, 145.

472 Early American Studies • Summer 2017
from the printed seventeenth-century colonial records. The Myaamia Center in Oxford, Ohio, received a grant to transcribe and translate the contents
of two Miami-Illinois dictionaries composed by Jacques Gravier and JeanBaptiste Le Boullenger. Against prevailing narratives of language death,
such projects have established what Bernard Perley calls “language life” for
the people who spoke these languages.
Language, as a topic of inquiry, is remarkably multivalent. It is a means of
communication, but it also functions as a way to draw lines of inclusion
and exclusion. Learning another language demonstrates a commitment to
understand another person or people, yet increased familiarity can produce
a firmer conviction of underlying difference. Translation implies the commensurability of words, thoughts, and feelings, while also insisting that
what is foreign or different can and perhaps should be converted into terms
more useful for another. One Lakota story tells that Iktomi, a trickster
known for wisdom and foolishness, was responsible for human language.61
It is fitting that its origin would lie in a dualistic figure since language is
both an inborn faculty and a learned institution, which can serve to speak
sincerely or to deceive, to unite people or divide them, as an aspect of colonization and of resistance.
A focus on language offers a unique point of intersection between early
60. Baird, for her work on the Woˆpanaˆak Language Reclamation Project (www, and Daryl Baldwin, for his work at the Myaamia Center (http://myaamia, have both been awarded MacArthur grants. On the importance of conceptualizing “language life,” see Bernard Perley, “Remembering Ancestral Voices:
Emergent Vitalities and the Future of Indigenous Languages,” in Elena Mihas et
al., eds., Responses to Language Endangerment: Essays in Honor of Mickey Noonan
(Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2013), 245. For overviews of revitalization programs
and their theorization, see Michael Harkin, Reassessing Revitalization Movements:
Perspectives from North America and the Pacific Islands (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 2004); Kenneth Hale and Leanne Hinton, The Green Book of Language Revitalization (London: Academic Press, 2001); Leanne Hinton, Bringing
Our Languages Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); and Hinton
with Matt Vera and Nancy Steele, How to Keep Your Language Alive (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2002).
61. Thomas Tyon, William Garnett, Thunder Bear, George Sword, and John
Blunt Horn, “Foundations,” in James R. Walker, Lakota Belief and Ritual, ed. Raymond J. DeMallie and Elaine A. Jahner (1980; repr., Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 1991), 106. For examples of varied traditions, see Harvey, Native
Tongues, 7.
Harvey and Rivett • Colonial-Indigenous Language Encounters in North America 473
modern Atlantic and Native American studies. The linguistic diversity of
both continents lends itself to examining the multipolarity of early America,
moving us farther beyond old binaries of “red” and “white,” European and
Native, Old World and New. Questions of religious translation, diplomatic
interpretation, and intercultural communication networks, however, provide crucial points of access into deeper processes of Native adaptation of
Euro-American words and ways, ideas and institutions. The sounds, words,
and forms of speech, as well as methods of physical preservation and transmission, became crucial elements in how diverse Native people and EuroAmericans understood and articulated perceived differences. The indigenous language collection and translation projects from the colonial period
to the early nineteenth century in North America speak more broadly to the
function of language within human societies. Such projects indicate a will
on the part of Europeans to know and to order languages and speakers,
while at the same time rejecting that effort by demonstrating that any
endeavor to possess another culture’s language can never be complete. An
Atlantic discourse on indigenous languages became crucial to developing
evolutionary notions, nationalist ideologies, and racial theories. All were
facets of broader processes of linguistic colonialism. Native-language texts
also undermined processes of translation, Christianization, taxonomies, and
colonialism. Today such texts have proven instrumental in programs of linguistic revitalization and the maintenance of cultural sovereignty. The documents that have been preserved in archives as integral to such revitalization
movements have become so because of incipient forms of linguistic sovereignty present in colonial indigenous language encounters all along.

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Will anyone find out that I used your services?

We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.

How our Assignment  Help Service Works

1.      Place an order

You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.

2.      Pay for the order

Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.

3.      Track the progress

You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.

4.      Download the paper

The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.

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