Should the readers become traveller themselves

Unwittingly documenting the finding of some common linguistic ground: vocabularies of North American languages, and elements for a periodisation

Vocabularies of American languages and lists of words in translation are to be found in travel literature since Jacques Cartier’s sixteenth-century journey to Canada, or Jean de Lery’s to Brazil. The transcribed word gave a name to an object unknown in Europe, for which there was no word available in the writer’s mother tongue. In so doing, it attested to the truthfulness of the account, presenting a notion that the author would have been unable to learn about without actually visiting the places described. The exotic unfamiliarity of the transcribed sounds might also have appealed to the reader’s sense of wonder and fascination.[1]

Since they were discrete appendixes which supplemented the main text while also being relatively distinct in typographical terms, often coming at the end and marked by a stand-alone title page, vocabularies also indicate that different agencies were involved in the construction of the book. An apt example is the French-Indian lexicon included in Cartier’s first relation on Canada (1534), probably the first to be written in French in the age of explorations after the French translation of fifty Brazilian and Patagonian words in Pigafetta (1525). Cartier collects Onondaga, Mohawk and Huron words, while some terms not belonging to any of these groups seem to point to the existence of the variety of “iroquoien laurentien” mentioned by the author.[2] The list is not always included in coeval copies: it was first added in Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s Italian version.[3]

It will come as no surprise that a list such as Cartier’s shows a preponderant majority of words related to spheres of the physical world (i.e. body parts, objects tied to the physical surroundings, and food). The list is structured around semantic clusters, which seem almost to have been organised on the basis of free association. Of the two words in the list that refer to a temporal dimension – giorno (day) and notte (night) – only the second is translated into Huron (Aiagla).[4] Also, the word Iddio (God), despite being the first in the list, shows a blank in the Huron column. There are no words for abstract semantic fields, an omission which, while in all likelihood derived from the practical circumstances of elicitation and collection of linguistic evidence, also confirmed the long-term prejudice that Native Americans were incapable of abstract thought.[5]

A similar lacking is also in Gabriel Sagard’s Dictionaire de la langue huronne appended in 1632 to Le Grand voyage du pays des Hurons, a fine example of proto-ethnographic curiosity written after the author had been a Franciscan missionary in Canada between 1623 and 1624.[6] Containing around 2,500 words and expressions, with a separate title-page and preface, Sagard’s Dictionaire explicitly presents the Huron language not only as rich in local varieties, but also constantly fluid and changing, a feature typical of imperfect languages just beginning on their path towards refinement.[7]

Our Hurons, and generally all the other Nations, present the same instability of language, and change their words so much that, with the passing of time, the old Huron is almost entirely different from that of the present, and it is still changing, according to what I was able to conjecture and learn by talking to them: for the mind becomes more subtle, and growing older corrects things and brings them to their perfection.[8]

It is the very savage nature of the Huron language that prevented the author from compiling a definite set of grammar rules:

[I]t is an issue of savage language, almost without rules, and so imperfect that even someone more competent than me would have had a hard time […] doing any better.[9]

The confusion as regards tenses is seen as a sign of intellectual infancy, and while there are words and expressions which place events in a familiar temporal dimension, there is no sense of historical stratification.[10]

Similarly, no other abstract sphere is represented except for those connected to missionary work (i.e. teaching and learning and the Christian religion) and linguistic curiosity (i.e. expressions for asking the meaning of words, or the French and/or Huron equivalent of terms) which complete the portrayal of everyday Huron life. Sagard’s dictionary thus reinforces a conceptualisation of indigenous Americans as being at the beginning of a process of refinement. This is thematised in his narrative by parallels between the Hurons and the ancient Spartans, while the Hurons’ simple mode of dressing is reminiscent of that of Franciscan friars, so that a missionary might feel closer to them than to many of his fellow Frenchmen and women.[11] While the main narrative body of Sagard’s Voyage is highly indebted to previous written sources such as the works by Samuel de Champlain and Marc Lescarbot, the dictionary shows greater originality and reveals the author’s proto-ethnographic curiosity and his ability to observe his interlocutors with a fresh eye.[12]

Is it possible to individuate an eighteenth-century phase within the longer history of the textual genre linguistic collections annexed to travelogues? Between the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, vocabularies began to portray an expanding variety of contact situations, bearing witness to the increasing diversity of European actors and their objectives in North America.[13] While the wordlists still served to reinforce the credibility of the account and pique the reader’s interest, more practical aims started to become prominent. They gradually became stores of useful expressions, toolboxes for the readers should they become traveller themselves, and they often contained ready-to-use formulaic expressions recording typical conversational exchanges.

The increasing presence of a proto-ethnographical curiosity shaped the recording of the language as part of a broader cognitive project as regards the American otherness. Vocabularies embody the coming together of a whole range of different objectives, scientific and communicative, religious and commercial. They lay bare the ties that bind the systematisation of knowledge as regards the customs and manners of peoples across the globe and projects of colonial dominance and expansion. While the partitioning of disciplinary-academic knowledge – including linguistics and ethno-anthropological sciences – would come to full fruition in the nineteenth-century, the curiosity about North American languages of eighteenth-century explorers, traders, and administrators, needs to be seen against the backdrop of broader reflections on human diversity and attempts to systematise it. In Anthony Pagden’s words:

In the eighteenth century […] the discussion over the languages of the “primitive”, the “savage”, the “barbarian”, became a key register in which theories of evolution and development were established – as well as the relative worth and hence possible commensurability of American societies.[14]

In the North American context, hopes of tracing back the obscure origins of the American populations and identifying affinities between different nations often rested upon linguistic genealogies. Those who compiled vocabularies based on first-hand experiences of contact were often aware that their contribution might have an impact on ongoing debates on the origins and nature of the American societies by bringing new evidence to light. In a system of knowledge in which there was still no clear-cut distinction between scholars and amateurs, it was not uncommon for authors of travel accounts to put forward opinions regarding the possible history of languages, and, on the basis of linguistic similarities, argue for example that the origin of the indigenous American nations lay in China or Israel.

From the end of the eighteenth century onwards, several wide-ranging initiatives were set in motion, such as that of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, in particular during Catherine II’s reign (1762-1796), and with specific regard to the geographical area of interest here, the one by Thomas Jefferson, Stephen DuPonceau, and Albert Gallatin.[15]  The latter, with its recording of Native American languages using a uniform standard of written registration, called for a network of correspondents and administrators to cooperate in the initiative, fundamentally contributing to the rise of North American comparative linguistics.[16]

In making a point of separating the lexicographical aspects from the narration of personal experience, Jefferson’s project exemplifies the role of linguistics in the making of a Euro-American identity. In response to Buffon’s denigrations of the ‘New World’, an American culture was being forged which, while appropriating and transposing native cultures, at the same time exploited linguistic facts as a further basis for cultural hierarchisation.[17] Compared to previous examples such as Cartier’s vocabulary, later eighteenth-century compilations retain a conceptual and typographical structure which places two (or more) languages facing each other, divided by punctuation marks, or by the empty space in their respective columns. As Laura J. Murray has argued in what is still one of the most informative contribution on this topic, the visual appearance of the page suggests the existence of two different codes, between which semantic equivalence (or the lack of it) is recorded.[18] Of course, what might be more revealing is what lies in the blank spaces between the columns.

Along with the first-hand observations by writers lamenting the difficulties involved in collecting and transcribing samples of languages, historical linguistics has shown how vocabularies and lists of terms and expressions are produced through a cultural and linguistic contact, often unwittingly documenting the finding of some common linguistic ground, including the birth and development of trade jargons and pidgins.[19]


Notes

[1]  Murray, ‘Vocabularies’, pp. 593 and 617, note 4.

[2] Bruce G. Trigger (ed.), Handbook of North American Indians, vol. XV, Northeast (Washington, DC, 1978), pp. 334–343. On Cartier: Fernand Braudel (ed.), Le monde de Jacques Cartier: L’aventure au XVIe siècle (Montréal et Paris, 1984); Bruce G. Trigger, Children of Aataentsic: A History of the Huron People to 1660 (Kingston and Montreal, 1976), pp. 177–207; on linguistic issues and for a comparison with later sources: Marius Barbeau, The Language of Canada in the Voyages of Jacques Cartier (1534-1538) (part of National Museum of Canada, Bulletin 173, pp. 108–229, Ottawa, 1959).

[3] Jacques Cartier, Relations (Montréal, 1986), p. 224.

[4] Entries in Italian according to Ramusio’s version reproduced in Cartier, Relations, pp. 225–226.

[5] Murray, ‘Vocabularies’, p. 598. On translation and religion during the Seventeenth and the Eighteenth centuries: Kim, Strange Names of God; Martin Mulsow, ‘An “Our Father” for the Hottentots: Religion, Language, and the Consensus Gentium’, in Carlo Ginzburg, Lucio Biasiori (eds), A Historical Approach to Casuistry: Norms and Exceptions in a Comparative Perspective (London and New York, 2019), pp. 239–261, esp. pp. 246–247 on the question de la raison and the consensus gentium. On the connection between the ability to use language, the ability to reason, and civil society: Pagden, The Fall, 15–16; Pocock, Savages and Empires, pp. 2–3, 158–171; Landucci, I filosofi e i selvaggi, p. 4.

[6] Gabriel Sagard, Le Grand voyage du pays des Hurons suivi du Dictionaire de la langue huronne (Montréal, QC, 1998); Dictionary of Canadian Biography, I, 1000-1700 (Toronto, 1966), electronic ed. 2019, <http://www.biographi.ca/>, s.v. ‘Sagard, Gabriel’, by Jean de la Croix Rioux. On proto-ethnography: Rolando Minuti, ‘L’anthropologie dans l’Encyclopédie méthodique: Les sauvages de Jean-Nicolas Démeunier’, in Martine Groult and Luigi Delia (eds), Panckoucke et l’Encyclopédie méthodique: Ordre de matières et transversalité (Paris, 2019), pp. 367–381, esp. pp. 367–369. See also Christopher Fox, Roy Porter, and Robert Wokler (eds), Inventing Human Science: Eighteenth-Century Domains (Berkley, Los Angeles, 1995).

[7] For a discussion of Sagard’s Dictionaire from a linguistic standpoint: John L. Steckley, ‘Trade goods and nations in Sagard’s Dictionary: A St. Lawrence Iroquoian perspective’, Ontario History, 104/2 (2012), pp. 139–154. It is probably the title-page that causes the Dictionaire to be sometimes listed as an autonomous work, but the reference to it in the Voyage’s main title leaves no doubt as to it being the author’s intention to include it in the account. See Thomas W. Field, An Essay towards an Indian Bibliography (New York, 1873), p. 342.

[8] Sagard, Le Grand voyage, p. 346, translations by the author.

[9] Sagard, Le Grand voyage, pp. 347, 148.

[10] Sagard, Le Grand voyage, p. 345.

[11] Sagard, Le Grand voyage, pp. 199–200 and 233–234. On the ‘well-established sixteenth-century literary genre, which traced the resemblances between a modern language and an ancient to prove the nobility of the former’, see Carlo Ginzburg, ‘Provincializing the world: Europeans, Indians, Jews (1704)’, Postcolonial Studies, 14/2 (2011), pp. 135–150; quote on page 136.

[12] Samuel de Champlain, Œuvres complètes de Champlain (Québec, 2019) 2 vols; Marc Lescarbot, Histoire de la Nouvelle France, édition augmentée (Paris, 1617). For a discussion of de Champlain and Lescarbot in Sagard see the notes by Jack Warwick in the above-mentioned editionSagard, Le Grand voyage, and the footnotes by Ugo Piscopo in Gabriel Sagard, Grande viaggio nel paese degli Uroni 1623-1624 (Milan, 1972). On Sagard’s Voyage as the attainment of a collective experience: Jack Warwick, ‘Introduction’, in Sagard, Le Grand voyage, pp. 7–72, see pp. 35–40. For the dictionary, the existence of unpublished sources cannot be ruled out, but as of today this remains a hypothesis, and possible sources have not yet been identified.

[13] See Mulsow, ‘An “Our Father” for the Hottentots’.

[14] Anthony Pagden, European Encounters in the New World (New Haven and London, 1993), p. 120.

[15] Peter Simon Pallas [Hartwig L. C. Bacmeister, and Christian G. Arndt], Linguarum totius orbis vocabularia comparativa (Petropoli, 1786); Harriet E. Manelis Klein and Herbert S. Klein, ‘The “Russian collection” of Amerindian languages in Spanish archives’, International Journal of American Linguistics, 44/2 (1978), pp. 137–144.

[16] Sarah Rivett, Unscripted America: Indigenous Languages and the Origins of a Literary Nation (Oxford, 2017), esp. pp. 182, 223. Jefferson’s project is dealt with in the following pages in connection with the Lewis and Clark expedition.

[17] Antonello Gerbi, La disputa del nuovo mondo: Storia di una polemica: 1750-1900 (new ed., Milan, 2000); Regna Darnell, ‘Language typology and ethnology in nineteenth-century North America: Gallantin, Brinton, Powell’, in Sylvain Auroux, E. F. K. Koerner, Hans-Josef Niederehe, and Kees Versteegh (eds), History of the Language Sciences / Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaften (Berlin and New York, 2001), II, pp. 1443–1452; Regna Darnell, ‘Anthropological linguistics: Early history in North America’, in William Frawley (ed.), International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics (2nd ed., Oxford, 2003), I, AAVE-Esperanto, pp. 95–98. See also Sean P. Harvey, ‘“Must not their languages be savage and barbarous like them?” Philology, Indian removal, and race science’, Journal of the Early Republic, 30/4 (2010), pp. 505–532.

[18] Murray, ‘Vocabularies’, p. 600.

[19] Goddard, ‘The use of pidgin’, p. 62.

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). https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.13138.

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Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Should the readers become traveller themselves," in Geographies of Time, 20/07/2021, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1845.

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