Vocabularies, Accounts, (Hi)Stories

Remarks on linguistic historicisation, concluding the Languages and/in time series

By paying close attention to the relationship between the vocabularies and the narrative accounts in travel journals, it is possible to trace the subtle changes gradually taking place in the relationship between the use of written sources and the value placed on direct observation. Writings such as Sagard and Carver’s represent different stages in a process of complex negotiation between first-hand experience as a validating factor of knowledge and pre-existing cultural notions. Far from being a linear process, this negotiation produced different outcomes in each case, making it necessary for an in-depth analysis of each source within its specific cultural and historical context. These early vocabularies are a fascinating example of the thematisation of issues connected to how orality is documented, and of the axiological and temporal hierarchisation of linguistic forms and media, as the Dixon-Beresford account makes particularly evident. Vocabularies also reflect the gradual definition of a system of scientific disciplines from which indigenous American forms of knowledge are excluded. As made plain by Colden and Carver’s reluctant use of French sources, this, in turn, helped to consolidate the idea of a distinct European – and, later, Euro-American – cultural identity and civilisation, notwithstanding the existence of competing imperial projects.

While the way these lists are presented indicates a certain degree of objectivity in the way they were compiled, they are also evidence of the communicative common ground which the writer wished and/or was able to construct. They reveal the traveller’s interests and they faithfully reflect the specific circumstances of the encounters which occurred. These encounters might or might not have fulfilled the writer’s professed ambitions, as was particularly evident in the widely differing experiences of Long and Dixon. In other words, the range and content of each vocabulary reflects the specific nature of the setting in which the collection was made – whether it was a fleeting encounter, kept short by other commitments, or a prolonged sojourn, with the purpose of talking about the soul and winning the savages over to Christianity, or a meeting designed to create stable networks for trading and political alliances. Until the end of the eighteenth century, many of these encounters were the very first contacts between Euro-Americans and native Americans. From Lawson’s to North Carolina and the travels of Carver, to Cook and Portlock and Dixon’s North Pacific coast expeditions and the exploration of the surrounding areas by Lewis and Clark, the compilers of these lists had often no European precedents to refer to.

Through what appeared in them and, above all, through what did not appear, these vocabularies represent the linguistic companion piece to the conceptualisation of the indigenous Americans as ‘primitives’. As Lahontan and Lawson made quite clear with their remarks, the language of these ‘savages’, still to be civilised, was interpreted as a reflection of their extraneousness to the arts and sciences, of their inability to think in abstract terms, and of an ability to reason as yet uncultivated. From this perspective, during the eighteenth century, the vocabularies are simply the continuation of long-lasting, pre-existing stereotypes which led to the temporal collocation of the first peoples of America in a stage of development located in the past with respect to the European one. Of course, linguistic compilations are also the result of increasing curiosity about human diversity around the world and of fresh attempts to study and classify this diversity.

Whether these efforts to take a systematic approach resulted in a destabilisation of the ethnocentric point of view of the Old World, or in a hierarchy that reinforced European primacy are not mutually exclusive options: nor are they always clearly distinct – as Lahontan’s ‘good savage’ and his Romanticised descendants make clear.[1] In conclusion, while a close reading of the primary sources makes clear the importance of avoiding any over-simplified reading of these processes, it also makes it possible to identify recurrent conceptual tropes and assign a central role to the historicisation of the Native American within the wider process of cultural construction of a global Europeanness.


[1] Tim Fulford, Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture 1756-1830 (Oxford, 2006).


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.

Access the full text in open access on the publisher’s website at this EXTERNAL LINK.

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Cite this blog post
Giulia Iannuzzi (2022, February 1). Vocabularies, Accounts, (Hi)Stories. Geographies of Time. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/prz1

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