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.

Contact me if you wish to receive a pdf.

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Vocabularies, Accounts, (Hi)Stories," in Geographies of Time, 01/02/2022, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1910.

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

Trade, Curiosity and Colonial Exploitation in Eighteenth-Century Vocabularies

Geographical and/as chronological distance: a new post in the languages and/in time series

In 1703, the second volume of Lahontan’s Nouveaux voyages dans l’Amerique Septentrionale – a work destined to immediate wide circulation – featured a ‘Petit Dictionaire de la Langue des Sauvages’ based on the Algonquin language which, thanks to references made to it and numerous cases of plagiarism, enjoyed some success in its own right.[1] According to Lahontan, all the other Canadian languages resemble the Algonquin just as Italian resembles Spanish. The title page of the first English edition (printed in London in 1703), emphasises the idea of Algonquin being a vehicular language, describing the vocabulary as ‘a dictionary of the Algonkine language, which is generally spoken in North-America’ (title page of the first volume) and ‘A short dictionary of the most universal language of the savages’ (second volume). The idea is further reinforced by passages comparing the role of the Algonquin language in North America to that of Latin and Greek in Europe.[2] Current scholarship have read this hierarchisation both as the result of applying European classification criteria to the American context – thereby serving the purpose of cultural domination – as well as the Baron’s attempt to show off his knowledge of linguistic derivation theories.[3] As for its content, Lahontan’s ‘Petit Dictionaire’ includes words of frequent usage, with particular attention devoted to the fields of commerce and trade, military life, and the exploration and surveying of lands.[4] Elsewhere, in his Mémoires de l’Amérique septentrionale, Lahontan foregrounds the simplicity of the language, claiming it has no stress or accents, and that the limited vocabulary  regarding the arts and sciences reflects the speakers’ ignorance of such subjects – an assumption already made by earlier commentators, including the authors of the Jesuit relations.[5] The absence of any of the rhetorical ceremonial speech and flowery compliments, so common in European languages, also points to the speakers’ simplicity of customs and manners.

A similar approach was adopted a few years later by John Lawson, explorer and founder of two of the oldest European settlements in North Carolina, with interests in medicine, botany and natural history.[6] In his Voyage to North Carolina, Lawson inserted a brief vocabulary giving the English translation of words in Tuskeruro (Tuscarora), Pampticough (Pamlico), and Woccon.[7] The first of these, belonging to the Iroquois family, is a widespread trade language, while the second, part of the Algonquin family, is now extinct, meaning that Lawson’s testimony is one of the very few ever transcribed before the speakers’ community was decimated by smallpox and wars against the British and ended up being absorbed by the Tuscarora. As for Woccon, which belongs to the Siouan-Catawban family of languages, Lawson’s is still today the only surviving testimony.[8] Along with numerals, and goods and objects in everyday use, Lawson’s vocabulary includes expressions such as ‘I will sell you goods very cheap’, or ‘All the Indians are drunk’, which gives a more vivid idea of the context of his contacts with them. Of course, as current scholarship has pointed out, it also gives us a sense of the writer’s mixture of appreciation and contempt for his interlocutors.[9] While Lawson pays no systematic attention to linguistic genealogies and/or translation problems, his comments on indigenous American language skills are dismissive in the extreme. ‘Indians’ express themselves in a very rude manner.[10] Travel accounts reporting of eloquence and elegant style are not trustworthy:

To repeat more of this Indian Jargon, would be to trouble the Reader; and as an Account how imperfect they are in their Moods and Tenses, has been given by several already, I shall only add, that their Languages or Tongues are so deficient, that you cannot suppose the Indians ever could express themselves in such a Flight of Stile, as Authors would have you believe. They are so far from it, that they are but just able to make one another understand readily what they talk about.[11]

According to Lawson, the notable difference in the languages used by neighbours ‘causes Jealousies and Fears amongst them, which bring wars, wherein they destroy one another’, ultimately favouring the Europeans.[12] The language also bears witness to the influence that the European presence had already had: swearing is the first thing that natives pick up from the English, and they had no term for sodomy, before Europeans introduced the practice along with the word. The observation of language adds to the idea of the indigenous American as a good savage. Indeed, on the one hand he is to be pitied for being unpolished, uncivilised, and incapable of abstraction; on the other, he should be held up as an example of a man less corrupt than the European, possessing a pristine innocence. Lawson also makes the connection between knowledge of the American languages and plans to peacefully assimilate indigenous American cultures. A more enlightened colonial government would seek alliances with the native peoples by presenting the European – or, rather, the English – as a positive model:

[W]e should be let into a better Understanding of the Indian Tongue, by our new Converts; and the whole Body of these People would arrive to the Knowledge of our Religion and Customs, and become as one People with us […] we might civilize a great many other Nations of the Savages, and daily add to our Strength in Trade, and Interest; so that we might be sufficiently enabled to conquer, or maintain our Ground, against all the Enemies to the Crown of England in America, both Christian and Savage.[13]

Lawson, A New Voyage (1709), page225
Lawson, A New Voyage (1709), 225, ‘… here I shall insert a small dictionary of every Tongue, though not Alphabetically digested’. Copy at John Carter Brown Library.

A similar connection between apprehension of the Indian nations’ customs and languages, and colonial administration and policies can be found in Cadwallader Colden’s History of the Five Indian Nations, partly based on written sources, and partly on the author’s first-hand experience as surveyor general of the New York province.[14] Colden’s text is preceded by a short vocabulary of French names, with the English and/or Iroquois translation. His aim was to enable his readers ‘to read the French Accounts or compare them with the Accounts now published’.[15] In Colden’s work the linguistic viewpoint is, in a sense, similar to the geographical one, and just as important in forming a knowledge of the territory and its history: they are both deemed essential to the success of the colonial project. The vocabulary includes names of nations, tribes, areas, villages and settlements, while footnotes are reserved for objects and activities pertaining to the everyday life, system of government and customs of the Five Nations. Subsequent reflections on Indian eloquence – from Cornelius de Pauw to Hugh Blair – did not usually devote much attention to Colden’s small vocabulary, borrowing rather from his transcriptions of speeches, being Indian eloquence the subject of much debate between fascination and scepticism.[16] In later years, Colden became familiar with Raynal’s Histoire deux Indes, a work rich in remarks on savage languages reflecting an infant mind and a vivid and profound imagination, consistent with Colden’s comparison of Native American powerful and sublime speeches to those of ancient Romans and Greeks, part of a broader employment of tropes intertwining geographical and chronological distance, i.e. drawing analogies between Native American costumes, manners, character, and virtues and those of the Europeans’ ancestors.[17]

After the Seven Year War, Jonathan Carver offered another example. A soldier and explorer born in Weymouth (today in Massachusetts), Carver published his Three years Travels through the Interior Parts of North-America in 1778. In just a few years, his account was translated into German, French and Dutch, and went through numerous editions on both sides of the Atlantic.[18] The appendixes to the travel book include ‘A short Vocabulary of the Chipeway Language’ and ‘A short Vocabulary of the Naudowessie Language’. As regards the former, it seems likely that Carver borrowed heavily from Lahontan, although a mere case of plagiarism would not explain the slight differences between the two compilations in a few instances, especially some regarding vowels, which might indicate the insertion of features from other sources and corrections based on first-hand knowledge.[19] In this respect, Carver’s Chippeway vocabulary is emblematic of his relationship with his Francophone sources: notwithstanding an open dislike for the French, he was familiar with their writings and drew upon them when needed.[20] His vocabulary of the Naudowessie, on the other hand, is the first – however short – vocabulary of the Dakota language ever to appear in print.[21] Carver documents a Dakota pidgin, learned according to an elementary process, as a set of ‘labels’ to be applied to ‘things’, without a grasp of grammar and rules. Entries include the common names of natural resources, terms to describe the environment, body parts, family names and social functions, and simple everyday activities. Sentences given as examples of how words are connected, are ‘correct in English, with the best possible substitutions of Dakota words as Carver knew them’.[22]

A man and woman of the Naudowessie; Carver, Travels through the interior parts of North America in the years 1766, 1767 and 1768 (1778), engraving, plate 3, following page 230. The Naudowessie would later be better known as Sioux or Dakota. The depiction includes various artefacts (bow and arrows, decorative bands and necklaces, a feather ornament for the head, a basket and teepees in the background. The illustration may be attributed to John Coakley Lettsom, who was involved in the editing of the 1778 London edition. Copy at Smithsonian Libraries.

In these eighteenth-century journals and travel accounts, the linguistic repertoires do not necessarily indicate an in-depth study of indigenous American cultures, but do reveal a growing interest in kinship systems, social organisation, and forms of government, which could all be useful to colonial policymakers for building alliances and gaining a foothold in a territory to make the European presence more secure. The compilation criteria adopted make it clear that the priority was to consolidate trade commerce and the exchange of goods, and extend the spaces of social interaction. There was an increasing awareness on the part of the British that good relations with indigenous American nations was a key factor in gaining the upper hand against competitors from different imperial structures.

The references to French texts in the writings of British or British-American authors show that there was a dual shift occurring as regards cultural identity: writers like Colden and Carver, despite their dislike and mistrust of French sources, and despite testifying to the open competition existing between imperial projects, still referred to their rivals to supplement their knowledge of American history and geography. The contact with American radical otherness, and the exclusion of indigenous American intelligence from the European system of knowledge gave impetus to the perception of a closeness between cultures of the Old World and ultimately to a sense of Europeanness.

Ideas of a European identity also underpin the practice of using the ‘good savage’ as a mirror in which the defects and shortcomings of the observer’s home society could be reflected. While the ‘Indian’ might be seen as trapped in an infant’s stage of development,[23] the abuses, vices, and wrongs perpetrated by colonisers, as described by Lawson for example, challenge the European example as desirable point of arrival in the process of civilisation.


[1] Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, baron de Lahontan, Nouveaux voyages de Mr. Le Baron de Lahontan dans l’Amérique Septentrionale (A La Haye:, 1703), 2 vols. On Lahontan: Réal Ouellet (ed.), Sur Lahontan: comptes rendus et critiques (1702-1711) (Québec, 1983); on the Voyages circulation: Claudio De Boni, ‘Viaggio alla scoperta del buon selvaggio, ovvero l’immaginario utopico del barone di Lahontan’, Morus: Utopia e Renascimento, 7 (2010), pp. 145–156, see 148; on Lahontan’s vocabulary: Wolfart, ‘The beginnings of Algonquian lexicography’, esp. pp. 120–121.

[2] Lahontan, Nouveaux voyages, II, p. 198.

[3] Ursula Haskins Gonthier, ‘Une colonisation linguistique? Les Mémoires de l’Amérique septentrionale de Lahontan’, Études françaises, 45/2 (2009), pp. 115–129, see p. 119; H. Christoph Wolfart, ‘Lahontan’s Bestseller’, Historiographia Linguistica, 16/1-2 (1989), pp. 1–24, see pp. 4–5.

[4] Lahontan, Nouveaux voyages, II, p. 197; Gonthier, ‘Une colonisation linguistique?’; see the critical edition in Lahontan, OEuvres completes (Montréal, 1990), 2 vols, I, pp. 735–762 for a comparison with Jean-André Cuoq’s Etudes philologiques sur quelques langues sauvages de L’Amérique (1866) and Georges Lemoine’s Dictionnaire Français-Algonquin (1911).

[5] Lahontan, Nouveaux voyages, II, p. 199 ; Denise Cloutier, ‘Lahontan et les langues amérindiennes’, in Lahontan, OEuvres completes, II, pp. 1271–1277, see p. 1274, also for a comparison with Lejeune’s Relation (1634).

[6] Little is known of Lawson’s biography before 1700, see Hugh Talmage Lefler, ‘Introduction’, in Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1967), pp. xi–liv, esp. pp. xv–xxxix.

[7] John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country (London, 1709), see pp. 225–230.

[8] On Tuscarora: Lyle Campbell, American Indian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford and New York, 2000), p. 24, see also p. 151; Marianne Mithun, A Grammar of Tuscarora (New York, 1976); Marianne Mithun, The Languages of Native North America (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 16, 44–46, 100, 189, 199, 253, 388, 467, 532–34, 603, 605; on Pamlico and Woccon: Marianne Mithun, The Languages of Native North America (Cambridge, 1999),pp. 319, 327, 333, 501, 506. On Tuscarora and Woccon see also Harald Hammarström, Robert Forkel, Martin Haspelmath, Glottolog 3.3, <http://glottolog.org>.

[9] Murray, ‘Vocabularies’, 601.

[10] On ‘Indian’: Elizabeth Prine Pauls, ‘Tribal Nomenclature: American Indian, Native American, and First Nation’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 17 January 2008, <https://www.britannica.com>; Michael Yellow Bird, ‘What We Want to Be Called: Indigenous Peoples’ Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic Identity Labels’, American Indian Quarterly, 23/2 (1999), pp. 1–21.

[11] Lawson, A New Voyage, p. 230.

[12] Lawson, A New Voyage, p. 230.

[13] Lawson, A New Voyage, p. 237.

[14] Cadwallader Colden, The History of the Five Indian Nations of Canada, which are dependent on the province of New-York in America (London, 1747), p. xi (first part autonomously published in New York in 1727). On Colden: John M. Dixon, The Enlightenment of Cadwallader Colden: Empire, Science, and Intellectual Culture in British New York (Ithaca and London, 2016); on the correspondence with Benjamin Franklin as regards American Indian nations in New York and Albany: Timothy J. Shannon, Indians and Colonists at the Crossroads of Empire: The Albany Congress of 1754 (Ithaca and London, 2002), pp. 110–111.

[15] Colden, The History, p. xv.

[16] Mr. de P*** [Cornelius de Pauw], Recherches philosophiques sur les Américains (Berlin, 1771), tome I, p. 121; Hugh Blair, Essays on Rhetoric (Dublin, 1784), pp. 49–50. As regards Iroquois polity, noteworthy is also Adam Ferguson’s use of Colden’s History in An Essay on the History of Civil Society (London, 1767), pp. 141–143.

[17] Helen Cowie and Kathryn Gray, ‘Nature, nation and nostalgia: Narratives of natural history in Spanish and British America (1750‐1800)’, Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies, 36 (2013), pp. 545–558, see p. 555; Guillaume-Thomas-François Raynal, Histoire philosophique et politique des établissemens et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (Geneva, 1780), 5 vols, see for example IV, chapter ‘VI. Gouvernement, habitudes, vertus, vices, guerres des sauvages, qui habitoient le Canada’. For general reference on conformité, resemblance between the ancients and distant people, between the seventeenth and the eighteenth century: Ginzburg, ‘Provincializing the world’.

[18] Jonathan Carver, Three Years Travels through the Interior Parts of North-America (Philadelphia, 1796); on the publication’s success see: Edward Gaylord Bourne, ‘The travels of Jonathan Carver’, The American Historical Review, 11/2 (1906), pp. 287–302.

[19] Percy G. Adams, Travelers & Travel Liars 1600-1800 (Berkley and Los Angeles, 1962), p. 84; Bourne, ‘The Travels of Jonathan Carver’; John Parker, ‘Introduction’, in Jonathan Carver, The Journals of Jonathan Carver and Related Documents, 1766-1770 (St. Paul, 1976), pp. 1–56.

[20] Carver, Three Years Travels, pp. i, ii.

[21] Raymond J. DeMallie, ‘Appendix II: Carver’s Dakota dictionary’, in Carver, The Journals, pp. 210–221, see p. 210. Naudowessies are also known as Sioux, shortened version of ‘Nadouessioux’, possibly a French variation from an Ojibwe term; Robert Sayre, Modernity and Its Other: The Encounter with North American Indians in the Eighteenth Century (Lincoln and London, 2017), p. 350 note 34; Campbell, American Indian Languages, pp. 88, 399 note 106.

[22]  DeMallie, ‘Appendix’, p. 212.

[23] Alexander Cook, Ned Curthoys, and Shino Konishi, ‘The science and politics of humanity in the eighteenth century: An introduction’, in Cook, Curthoys, and Konishi (eds), Representing Humanity in the Age of Enlightenment (2013; London, 2015), electronic ed.


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.

Contact me if you wish to receive a pdf.

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Trade, Curiosity and Colonial Exploitation in Eighteenth-Century Vocabularies," in Geographies of Time, 10/08/2021, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1883.

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

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]


[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.

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

Contact me if you wish to receive a pdf.

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

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

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, <http://ieg-ego.eu/en>; 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). https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.13138.

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

Contact me if you wish to receive a pdf.

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Savage Languages," in Geographies of Time, 15/06/2021, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1829.

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

Qu’il est question d’une langue sauvage

Phrasebooks for European travellers in eighteenth-century North America and the cultural construction of a global Europeanness.

This article explores the 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. Starting with the renowned Voyages by the Baron de Lahontan, the analysis takes as its endpoint the journals of the famous expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The aim of this study is to foreground what these lexicographic compilations reveal about European encounters with societies categorised as radically different from – and less civilised than – the traveller’s own: an ‘otherness’ sometimes exploited as a mirror and term of comparison that challenged the observer’s ethnocentrism. Drawing on existing scholarship about the cultural history of Euro-American encounters in the modern age, this study puts forward an original analysis of the temporal conceptualisations underpinning vocabularies of ‘savage languages’, in terms of both historical diachronicity and time as a culturally constructed frame of human experience.

This focus on the lists of words and phrases included in travel accounts, journals and relations makes it possible to question the relationship between the recording of linguistic evidence and travel narratives, and explore the complex negotiations between empirical observation and pre-existing cultural categories and stereotypes. A close reading of these often-neglected primary sources helps us to identify recurrent conceptual tropes and assign a central role to the historicisation of the Amerindian within wider processes of cultural construction of a global Europeanness.

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: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/1468-229X.13138

Contact me if you wish to receive a pdf.

Lawson, A New Voyage (1709), page 225
John Lawson, A New Voyage North Carolina: Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of that Country (London, 1709), 225. In his Voyage, Lawson inserted a brief vocabulary giving the English translation of words in Tuskeruro (Tuscarora), Pampticough (Pamlico) and Woccon. Copy at John Carter Brown Library.