Savage Languages

Introducing a series on eighteenth-century vocabularies of Native American languages, between proto-ethnographical curiosity, temporal conceptualisations, and colonial exploitation

This post inaugurates a series on vocabularies of Native American languages published as part of the travel accounts written by explorers, traders and colonial policymakers in North America over the eighteenth century.

Ever since their first contacts with the peoples of North America, the accounts of European travellers included vocabularies, dictionaries, and lists of words and/or phrases of common use as sections within the text, or as appendixes.[1] Whether they were explorers, missionaries, traders, colonial administrators, surveyors or policymakers, from Jacques Cartier’s Relations (published from 1545) and Gabriel Sagard’s Grand Voyage (1632), the habit of including in travelogues a vocabulary of ‘savage languages’ was continued in following centuries.[2]

Eighteenth-century examples include Lahontan’s Nouveau Voyages (1703), John Lawson’s New Voyage (1709), Cadwallader Colden’s History of the Five Indian Nations (1727), Jonathan Carver’s Three Years Travels (1778), to the account of James Cook’s third voyage (1784), George Dixon’s A voyage round the world (1789) and John Long’s Voyages and Travels (1791). These lists of French or English words, with their respective translations in languages such as Huron, Iroquois, Tuscarora or Woccon, under a typographic presentation designed to project an idea of objective registration, eloquently reveal the cultural attitudes with which European observers perceived and portrayed their Native American interlocutors.

The primary aim of this series is to consider what these compilations tell us about the nature of European encounters with individuals and societies seen as less civilised than the writers’, presenting a fascinating Other that could encourage the observer to problematise his own culture. The choices that our writers made to include or exclude specific terms and semantic spheres, work as epiphenomena of a conception of historical time in which societies were hierarchised.

New ideas of time emerging in the eighteenth-century European mind led to the ‘savage’ being considered as an example of a universal humanity, though distinct from the more refined, ‘civilised’ European. This series will analyse the temporal conceptualisations underpinning vocabularies of ‘savage languages’, looking at time both in terms of a frame in which historical and diachronic gaps and differences were located, and as a cultural construct framing human experience.

Especially when phrases and expressions accompany the list of words, these vocabularies offer insights into communicative exchanges which are less mediated than the ones presented by narrative accounts, where a more conscious thematisation of the writer’s subjectivity and a more controlled self-representation are usually to be found. Furthermore, they throw light on translation practices and cultural mediation processes, whereas in accounts and letters the good interpreter is usually invisible.[3]

The focus will be on a selection of texts written in English by colonial administrators and policy makers, explorers and traders in eighteenth-century North America, against a cultural backdrop in which secondary sources written in other languages, such as Lahontan’s Nouveau Voyages, were widely known to (and sometimes borrowed by) British and American-British writers, in the original versions or through English translations. The source base is shaped by a primary interest towards a secularised culture, considered as a vantage point from which to observe the functioning of ideas of historical time increasingly far from Biblical eschatological and parousistic perspectives.[4]

By placing at centre stage the relationships between travel relations and linguistic compilations, and devoting specific attention to intertextual genealogies and connections, eighteenth-century testimonies will offer a rich case study to foreground the interaction between pre-existent cultural notions and first-hand observations, allowing for a better understanding of how ideas about history and time work in cultural practices different from antiquarian-historical and philosophical-historical writing.

Linguistic and traductological aspects lie at the intersection of a multitude of issues characterising European contact with North America since its early stages. Scholars have called attention to the role of interpreters as cultural brokers, have traced the debates regarding the problematic translation of Christian faith and doctrine in cultural-linguistic contexts far from the European one, and have highlighted the gradual exclusion of Central and Meso-American languages by the Castilian and Portuguese monarchic authorities.[5] Along with studies interested in language and rhetoric in relation to the construction and projection of imperial power, the linguistic aspects of the European encounter with the New World have been subject of inquiry especially as regards the historical debates surrounding the admissibility of native languages and systems for tracing and registering the past – e.g. Inca quipus, and logogrammatic-syllabic writing systems or systems based on glyphs – as legitimate tools for transmitting knowledge of the past and of the ‘new’ continent’s inhabitants, and for evangelising.[6]

The relationship between language and civilisation processes, as well as conjectural histories of languages, and the role played by languages in disputes over the origins of humanity in America have also received much scholarly attention in recent years.[7] Existing studies have investigated how travel accounts were used in treatises about the origins of language by Rousseau and Lord Monboddo, or in John Locke’s natural history of man. The vocabularies, however, have received far less consideration.[8] Historical linguistics has produced some useful analysis of these lists of words and expressions, regarded not so much as trustworthy samples of the languages they were supposed to be recording, but as testimonies of contacts, often documenting borrowings, trade jargons, pidgins, and short-term accommodations.[9]

Complex negotiations often took place in journals and travel accounts between empirical observation and pre-existing cultural categories and stereotypes, between experience and written sources of knowledge, and between scientific ambitions, and colonial and imperial cultural agencies interacting in a specific political-geographical context. The close reading of a number of ‘savage vocabularies’ scarcely considered by existing scholarship will take place against this backdrop.[10]

The next post in this series will offer some elements for a periodisation of vocabularies compiled between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century.


[1] For general background on European cultural encounters with the ‘new world’: Guido Abbattista, ‘European Encounters in the Age of Expansion’, in EGO – European History Online, <>; Guido Abbattista (ed.), Encountering Otherness: Diversities and Transcultural Experiences in Early Modern European Culture (Trieste, 2011); John Elliott, The Old World and the New: 1491-1650 (1970; Cambridge, 1992); Anthony Pagden, The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology, second ed. (London and New York, 1986); Joan-Pau Rubiés, ‘Texts, images, and the perception of “savages” in Early Modern Europe: what we can learn from White and Harriot’, in Kim Sloan (ed.), European Visions: American Voices (London, 2009), pp. 120–130; Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, foreword by Anthony Pagden (Norman, OK, 2005).

[2] Terms such as ‘savage’, as well as exonyms used later in this essay and characteristic of colonial practices are used to conform to primary sources. In so doing, I will retain a historical perspective and challenge the cultural agencies and categories they imply. On the linguistic and conceptual history of the ‘savage’: Sergio Landucci, I filosofi e i selvaggi (Turin, 2014); J.G.A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion (Cambridge, 1999–2015, 6 vols.), vol. 4: Barbarians, Savages and Empires (2005), pp. 2–3, 157–228; Pagden, The Fall; Silvia Sebastiani, The Scottish Enlightenment: Race, Gender, and the Limits of Progress (New York, 2013). On the linguistic confusion in Anglophone and Francophone sources as regards Canadian nations see: Michèle Duchet, Anthropologie et histoire au siècle des Lumières (Paris, 1995), pp. 26–29.

[3] James Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiations on the Pennsylvania Frontier (New York, 2000), especially pp. 27–32; Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London and New York, 1995); William F. Hanks and Carlo Severi, ‘Translating worlds: The epistemological space of translation’, Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 4/2 (2014), pp. 1–16.

[4] Anthony Grafton, ‘Joseph Scaliger and historical chronology: The rise and fall of a discipline’, History and Theory, 14/2 (1975), pp.  156–185; Paolo Rossi, I segni del tempo: Storia della terra e storia delle nazioni da Hooke a Vico (Milano, 1979); Edoardo Tortarolo, ‘L’eutanasia della cronologia biblica’, in Camilla Hermanin and Luisa Simonutti(eds), La centralità del dubbio: Un progetto di Antonio Rotondò, tome I.III, Scritture, ragione e storia (Florence, 2010), pp. 339–359.

[5] Nancy L. Hagedorn, ‘“A friend to go between them”: The interpreter as cultural broker during Anglo-Iroquois councils, 1740-70’, Ethnohistory, 35/1, (1988), pp. 60–80; Milton W. Hamilton, ‘Sir William Johnson: Interpreter of the Iroquois’, Ethnohistory, 10/3, (1963), pp. 270–286; Eric Cheyfitz, The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from The Tempest to Tarzan (New York, 1991); Pagden, The Fall, pp. 127–128, 183–192, 202–209; Todorov, The Conquest; on translation and/of the Christian doctrine, see Sangkeun Kim, Strange Names of God: The Missionary Translation of the Divine Name and the Chinese Responses to Matteo Ricci’s Shangti in Late Ming China, 1583-1644 (New York, 2004); Victor Egon Hanzeli, Missionary Linguistics in New France: A Study of Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century Descriptions of American Indian Languages (The Hague and Paris, 1969).

[6] Peter Burke, ‘America and the rewriting of world history’, in Karen Ordahl Kupperman (ed.), America in European Consciousness (Chapel Hill and London, 1995), pp. 33–51; Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Stanford, 2001), pp. 60–129; Peter Mason, The Lives of Images (London, 2001) on Mexican codices in Europe p. 101, and in general chapters 4 and 5; Giuseppe Marcocci, Indios, cinesi, falsari: Le storie del mondo nel Rinascimento (Rome-Bari, 2016), pp. 38–46.

[7] Saul Jarcho, ‘Origin of the American Indian as suggested by fray Joseph De Acosta (1589)’, Isis, 50/4, (1959), pp. 430–438; Rüdiger Schreyer, ‘“Savage” languages in the eighteenth-century theoretical history of language’, in Edward G. Gray and Norman Fiering (eds), The Language Encounter in the Americas, 1492-1800: A Collection of Essays (New York and Oxford, 2000), pp. 310–326.

[8] On Gabriel Sagard’s account in Monboddo: Rüdiger Schreyer, ‘Gabriel Sagard’s ‘Dictionary of the Huron tongue’ (1632)’, inElke Nowak (ed.), Languages Different in All Their Sounds… Descriptive Approaches to Indigenous Languages of America 1500 to 1800 (Münster, 1999), pp. 101–115; on Locke: Daniel Carey, Locke, Shaftesbury, and Hutcheson: Contesting Diversity in the Enlightenment and Beyond (Cambridge, 2006), especially 17, 88.

[9] Gray and Fiering (eds), The Language Encounter, here especially Ives Goddard, ‘The use of pidgins and jargons on the East Coast of North America’, pp. 61–80; Michael Silverstein, ‘Dynamics of linguistic contact’, in Ives Goddard (ed.), Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 17, Languages (Washington, DC, 1996), pp. 117–136; Agnete Nesse, ‘Trade and language: How did traders communicate across language borders?’, in Wim Blockmans, Mikhail Krom, Justyna (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Maritime Trade around Europe 1300-1600 (London and New York, 2017), pp. 86–100, see pp. 92–93.

[10] Some noteworthy exceptions are: Laura J. Murray, ‘Vocabularies of native American languages: A literary and historical approach to an elusive genre’, American Quarterly, 53/4 (2001), pp. 590–623. H. Christoph Wolfart, ‘The beginnings of Algonquian lexicography’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 132/1 (1988), pp. 119–127; Schreyer, ‘Gabriel Sagard’s “Dictionary”’.

This post is adapted from: Giulia Iannuzzi, “‘Qu’il est question d’une langue sauvage’: Phrasebooks for European Travellers in Eighteenth-Century North America”, History (2021).

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Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Savage Languages," in Geographies of Time, 15/06/2021,

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