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Title: American Languages, and Why We Should Study Them
Author: Brinton, Daniel Garrison, 1837-1899
Language: English
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Transcriber’s Note

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  ĕ  e with breve



  MARCH 9, 1885,







I appear before you to-night to enter a plea for one of the most
neglected branches of learning, for a study usually considered
hopelessly dry and unproductive,--that of American aboriginal languages.

It might be thought that such a topic, in America and among Americans,
would attract a reasonably large number of students. The interest which
attaches to our native soil and to the homes of our ancestors--an
interest which it is the praiseworthy purpose of this Society to
inculcate and cherish--this interest might be supposed to extend to the
languages of those nations who for uncounted generations possessed the
land which we have occupied relatively so short a time.

This supposition would seem the more reasonable in view of the fact that
in one sense these languages have not died out among us. True, they are
no longer media of intercourse, but they survive in thousands of
geographical names all over our land. In the State of Connecticut alone
there are over six hundred, and even more in Pennsylvania.

Certainly it would be a most legitimate anxiety which should direct
itself to the preservation of the correct forms and precise meanings of
these numerous and peculiarly national designations. One would think
that this alone would not fail to excite something more than a languid
curiosity in American linguistics, at least in our institutions of
learning and societies for historical research.

Such a motive applies to the future as well as to the past. We have yet
thousands of names to affix to localities, ships, cars, country-seats,
and the like. Why should we fall back on the dreary repetition of the
Old World nomenclature? I turn to a Gazetteer of the United States, and
I find the name Athens repeated 34 times to as many villages and towns
in our land, Rome and Palmyra each 29 times, Troy 58 times, not to speak
of Washington, which is entered for 331 different places in this

What poverty of invention does this manifest!

Evidently the forefathers of our christened West were, like Sir John
Falstaff, at a loss where a commodity of good names was to be had.

Yet it lay immediately at their hands. The native tongues supply an
inexhaustible store of sonorous, appropriate, and unused names. As has
well been said by an earlier writer, “No class of terms could be applied
more expressive and more American. The titles of the Old World certainly
need not be copied, when those that are fresh and fragrant with our
natal soil await adoption.”[1]

That this study has received so slight attention I attribute to the
comparatively recent understanding of the value of the study of
languages in general, and more particularly to the fact that no one, so
far as I know, has set forth the purposes for which we should
investigate these tongues, and the results which we expect to reach by
means of them. This it is my present purpose to attempt, so far as it
can be accomplished in the scope of an evening address.

The time has not long passed when the only good reasons for studying a
language were held to be either that we might thereby acquaint ourselves
with its literature; or that certain business, trading, or political
interests might be subserved; or that the nation speaking it might be
made acquainted with the blessings of civilization and Christianity.
These were all good and sufficient reasons, but I cannot adduce any one
of them in support of my plea to-night; for the languages I shall speak
of have no literature; all transactions with their people can be carried
on as well or better in European tongues; and, in fact, many of these
people are no longer in existence. They have died out or amalgamated
with others. What I have to argue for is the study of the dead languages
of extinct and barbarous tribes.

You will readily see that my arguments must be drawn from other
considerations than those of immediate utility. I must seek them in the
broader fields of ethnology and philosophy; I must appeal to your
interest in man as a race, as a member of a common species, as
possessing in all his families and tribes the same mind, the same soul.
It was the proud prerogative of Christianity first to proclaim this
great truth, to break down the distinctions of race and the prejudices
of nationalities, in order to erect upon their ruins that catholic
temple of universal brotherhood which excludes no man as a stranger or
an alien. After eighteen hundred years of labor, science has reached
that point which the religious instinct divined, and it is in the name
of science that I claim for these neglected monuments of man’s powers
that attention which they deserve.

_Anthropology_ is the science which studies man as a species;
_Ethnology_, that which studies the various nations which make up the
species. To both of these the science of Linguistics is more and more
perceived to be a powerful, an indispensable auxiliary. Through it we
get nearer to the real man, his inner self, than by any other avenue of
approach, and it needs no argument to show that nothing more closely
binds men into a social unit than a common language. Without it, indeed,
there can be no true national unity. The affinities of speech, properly
analyzed and valued, are our most trustworthy guides in tracing the
relationship and descent of nations.

If this is true in general, it is particularly so in the ethnology of
America. Language is almost our only clue to discover the kinship of
those countless scattered hordes who roamed the forests of this broad
continent. Their traditions are vague or lost, written records they had
none, their customs and arts are misleading, their religions
misunderstood, their languages alone remain to testify to a oneness of
blood often seemingly repudiated by an internecine hostility.

I am well aware of the limits which a wise caution assigns to the
employment of linguistics in ethnology, and I am only too familiar with
the many foolish, unscientific attempts to employ it with reference to
the American race. But in spite of all this, I repeat that it is the
surest and almost our only means to trace the ancient connection and
migrations of nations in America.

Through its aid alone we have reached a positive knowledge that most of
the area of South America, including the whole of the West Indies, was
occupied by three great families of nations, not one of which had formed
any important settlement on the northern continent. By similar evidence
we know that the tribe which greeted Penn, when he landed on the site of
this city where I now speak, was a member of one vast family,--the great
Algonkin stock,--whose various clans extended from the palmetto swamps
of Carolina to the snow-clad hills of Labrador, and from the easternmost
cape of Newfoundland to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, over 20° of
latitude and 60° of longitude. We also know that the general trend of
migration in the northern continent has been from north to south, and
that this is true not only of the more savage tribes, as the Algonkins,
Iroquois, and Athapascas, but also of those who, in the favored southern
lands, approached a form of civilization, the Aztecs, the Mayas, and the
Quiche. These and many minor ethnologic facts have already been obtained
by the study of American languages.

But such external information is only a small part of what they are
capable of disclosing. We can turn them, like the reflector of a
microscope, on the secret and hidden mysteries of the aboriginal man,
and discover his inmost motives, his impulses, his concealed hopes and
fears, those that gave rise to his customs and laws, his schemes of
social life, his superstitions and his religions.

The life-work of that eminent antiquary, the late Mr. Lewis H. Morgan,
was based entirely on linguistics. He attempted, by an exhaustive
analysis of the terms of relationship in American tribes, to reconstruct
their primitive theory of the social compact, and to extend this to the
framework of ancient society in general. If, like most students enamored
of an idea, he carried its application too far, the many correct results
he obtained will ever remain as prized possessions of American

Personal names, family names, titles, forms of salutation, methods of
address, terms of endearment, respect, and reproach, words expressing
the emotions, these are what infallibly reveal the daily social family
life of a community, and the way in which its members regard one
another. They are precisely as correct when applied to the investigation
of the American race as elsewhere, and they are the more valuable just
there, because his deep-seated distrust of the white invaders--for
which, let us acknowledge, he had abundant cause--led the Indian to
practise concealment and equivocation on these personal topics.

In no other way can the history of the development of his arts be
reached. You are doubtless aware that diligent students of the Aryan
languages have succeeded in faithfully depicting the arts and habits of
that ancient community in which the common ancestors of Greek and Roman,
Persian and Dane, Brahmin and Irishman dwelt together as of one blood
and one speech. This has been done by ascertaining what household words
are common to all these tongues, and therefore must have been in use
among the primeval horde from which they are all descended. The method
is conclusive, and yields positive results. There is no reason why it
should not be addressed to American languages, and we may be sure that
it would be most fruitful. How valuable it would be to take even a few
words, as maize, tobacco, pipe, bow, arrow, and the like, each
representing a widespread art or custom, and trace their derivations and
affinities through the languages of the whole continent! We may be sure
that striking and unexpected results would be obtained.

Similar lines of research suggest themselves in other directions. You
all know what a fuss has lately been made about the great Pyramid as
designed to preserve the linear measure of the ancient Egyptians. The
ascertaining of such measures is certainly a valuable historical point,
as all artistic advance depends upon the use of instruments of
precision. Mathematical methods have been applied to American
architectural remains for the same purpose. But the study of words of
measurement and their origin is an efficient auxiliary. By comparing
such in the languages of three architectural people, the Aztecs of
Mexico, the Mayas of Yucatan, and the Cakchiquel of Guatemala, I have
found that the latter used the span and the two former the foot, and
that this foot was just about one-fiftieth less than the ordinary foot
of our standard. Certainly this is a useful result.

I have made some collections for a study of a different character. Of
all the traits of a nation, the most decisive on its social life and
destiny is the estimate it places upon women,--that is, upon the
relation of the sexes. This is faithfully mirrored in language; and by
collecting and analyzing all words expressing the sexual relations, all
salutations of men to women and women to men, all peculiarities of the
diction of each, we can ascertain far more exactly than by any mere
description of usages what were the feelings which existed between them.
Did they know love as something else than lust? Were the pre-eminently
civilizing traits of the feminine nature recognized and allowed room for
action? These are crucial questions, and their answer is contained in
the spoken language of every tribe.

Nowhere, however, is an analytic scrutiny of words more essential than
in comparative mythology. It alone enables us to reach the meaning of
rites, the foundations of myths, the covert import of symbols. It is
useless for any one to write about the religion of an American tribe who
has not prepared himself by a study of its language, and acquainted
himself with the applications of linguistics to mythology. Very few have
taken this trouble, and the result is that all the current ideas on this
subject are entirely erroneous. We hear about a Good Spirit and a Bad
Spirit, about polytheism, fetichism, and animism, about sun worship and
serpent worship, and the like. No tribe worshipped a Good and a Bad
Spirit, and the other vague terms I have quoted do not at all express
the sentiment manifested in the native religious exercises. What this
was we can satisfactorily ascertain by analyzing the names applied to
their divinities, the epithets they use in their prayers and
invocations, and the primitive sense of words which have become obscured
by alterations of sounds.

A singular example of the last is presented by the tribes to whom I have
already referred as occupying this area,--the Algonkins. Wherever they
were met, whether far up in Canada, along the shores of Lake Superior,
on the banks of the Delaware, by the Virginia streams, or in the pine
woods of Maine, they always had a tale to tell of the Great Hare, the
wonderful Rabbit which in times long ago created the world, became the
father of the race, taught his children the arts of life and the chase,
and still lives somewhere far to the East where the sun rises. What
debasing animal worship! you will say, and so many others have said. Not
at all. It is a simple result of verbal ambiguity. The word for rabbit
in Algonkin is almost identical with that for _light_, and when these
savages applied this word to their divinity, they agreed with him who
said, “God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all.”

These languages offer also an entertaining field to the psychologist.

On account of their transparency, as I may call it, the clearness with
which they retain the primitive forms of their radicals, they allow us
to trace out the growth of words, and thus reveal the operations of the
native mind by a series of witnesses whose testimony cannot be
questioned. Often curious associations of ideas are thus disclosed, very
instructive to the student of mankind. Many illustrations of this could
be given, but I do not wish to assail your ears by a host of unknown
sounds, so I will content myself with one, and that taken from the
language of the Lenāpé, or Delaware Indians, who, as you know, lived
where we now are.

I will endeavor to trace out one single radical in that language, and
show you how many, and how strangely diverse ideas were built up upon

The radical which I select is the personal pronoun of the first person,
_I_, Latin _Ego_. In Delaware this is a single syllable, a slight nasal,
_Nĕ_, or _Ni_.

Let me premise by informing you that this is both a personal and a
possessive pronoun; it means both _I_ and _mine_. It is also both
singular and plural, both _I_ and _we_, _mine_ and _our_.

The changes of the application of this root are made by adding suffixes
to it.

I begin with _ni´hillan_, literally, “mine, it is so,” or “she, it, is
truly mine,” the accent being on the first syllable, _ni´_, mine. But
the common meaning of this verb in Delaware is more significant of
ownership than this tame expression. It is an active animate verb, and
means “I beat, or strike, somebody.” To the rude minds of the framers of
that tongue, ownership meant the right to beat what one owned.

We might hope this sense was confined to the lower animals; but not so.
Change the accent from the first to the second syllable, _ni´hillan_, to
_nihil´lan_, and you have the animate active verb with an intensive
force, which signifies “to beat to death,” “to kill some person;” and
from this, by another suffix, you have _nihil´lowen_, to murder, and
_nihil´lowet_, murderer. The bad sense of the root is here pushed to its

But the root also developed in a nobler direction. Add to _ni´hillan_
the termination _ape_, which means a male, and you have _nihillape_,
literally, “I, it is true, a man,” which, as an adjective, means free,
independent, one’s own master, “I am my own man.” From this are derived
the noun, _nihillapewit_, a freeman; the verb, _nihillapewin_, to be
free; and the abstract, _nihillasowagan_, freedom, liberty,
independence. These are glorious words; but I can go even farther. From
this same theme is derived the verb _nihillape-wheu_, to set free, to
liberate, to redeem; and from this the missionaries framed the word
_nihillape-whoalid_, the Redeemer, the Saviour.

Here is an unexpected antithesis, the words for a murderer and the
Saviour both from one root! It illustrates how strange is the
concatenation of human thoughts.

These are by no means all the derivatives from the root _ni_, I.

When reduplicated as _nĕnĕ_, it has a plural and strengthened form, like
“our own.” With a pardonable and well-nigh universal weakness, which we
share with them, the nation who spoke that language believed themselves
the first created of mortals and the most favored by the Creator. Hence
whatever they designated as “ours” was both older and better than others
of its kind. Hence _nenni_ came to mean ancient, primordial, indigenous,
and as such it is a frequent prefix in the Delaware language. Again, as
they considered themselves the first and only true men, others being
barbarians, enemies, or strangers, _nenno_ was understood to be one of
us, a man like ourselves, of our nation.

In their different dialects the sounds of _n_, _l_, and _r_ were
alternated, so that while Thomas Campanius, who translated the Catechism
into Delaware about 1645, wrote that word _rhennus_, later writers have
given it _lenno_, and translate it “man.” This is the word which we find
in the name Lenni Lenape, which, by its derivation, means “we, we men.”
The antecedent _lenni_ is superfluous. The proper name of the Delaware
nation was and still is _Len âpé_, “we men,” or “our men,” and those
critics who have maintained that this was a misnomer, introduced by Mr.
Heckewelder, have been mistaken in their facts.

I have not done with the root _nĕ_. I might go on and show you how it
is at the base of the demonstrative pronouns, this, that, those, in
Delaware; how it is the radical of the words for thinking, reflecting,
and meditating; how it also gives rise to words expressing similarity
and identity; how it means to be foremost, to stand ahead of others; and
finally, how it signifies to come to me, to unify or congregate
together. But doubtless I have trespassed on your ears long enough with
unfamiliar words.

Such suggestions as these will give you some idea of the value of
American languages to American ethnology. But I should be doing
injustice to my subject were I to confine my arguments in favor of their
study to this horizon. If they are essential to a comprehension of the
red race, not less so are they to the science of linguistics in general.
This science deals not with languages, but with _language_. It looks at
the idiom of a nation, not as a dry catalogue of words and grammatical
rules, but as the living expression of the thinking power of man, as the
highest manifestation of that spiritual energy which has lifted him from
the level of the brute, the complete definition of which, in its origin
and evolution, is the loftiest aim of universal history. As the
intention of all speech is the expression of thought, and as the final
purpose of all thinking is the discovery of truth, so the ideal of
language, the point toward which it strives, is the absolute form for
the realization of intellectual function.

In this high quest no tongue can be overlooked, none can be left out of
account. One is just as important as another. Goethe once said that he
who knows but one language knows none; we may extend the apothegm, and
say that so long as there is a single language on the globe not
understood and analyzed, the science of language will be incomplete and
illusory. It has often proved the case that the investigation of a
single, narrow, obscure dialect has changed the most important theories
of history. What has done more than anything else to overthrow, or, at
least, seriously to shake, the time-honored notion that the White Race
first came from Central Asia? It was the study of the Lithuanian dialect
on the Baltic Sea, a language of peasants, without literature or
culture, but which displays forms more archaic than the Sanscrit. What
has led to a complete change of views as to the prehistoric population
of Southern Europe? The study of the Basque, a language unknown out of a
few secluded valleys in the Pyrenees.

There are many reasons why unwritten languages, like those of America,
are more interesting, more promising in results, to the student of
linguistics than those which for generations have been cast in the
conventional moulds of written speech.

Their structure is more direct, simple, transparent; they reveal more
clearly the laws of the linguistic powers in their daily exercise; they
are less tied down to hereditary formulæ and meaningless repetitions.

Would we explain the complicated structure of highly-organized tongues
like our own, would we learn the laws which have assigned to it its
material and formal elements, we must turn to the naïve speech of
savages, there to see in their nakedness those processes which are too
obscure in our own.

If the much-debated question of the origin of language engages us, we
must seek its solution in the simple radicals of savage idioms; and if
we wish to institute a comparison between the relative powers of
languages, we can by no means omit them from our list. They offer to us
the raw material, the essential and indispensable requisites of
articulate communication.

As the structure of a language reflects in a measure, and as, on the
other hand, it in a measure controls and directs the mental workings of
those who speak it, the student of psychology must occupy himself with
the speech of the most illiterate races in order to understand their
theory of things, their notions of what is about them. They teach him
the undisturbed evolution of the untrained mind.

As the biologist in pursuit of that marvellous something which we call
“the vital principle” turns from the complex organisms of the higher
animals and plants to life in its simplest expression in microbes and
single cells, so in the future will the linguist find that he is nearest
the solution of the most weighty problems of his science when he directs
his attention to the least cultivated languages.

Convinced as I am of the correctness of this analogy, I venture to
predict that in the future the analysis of the American languages will
be regarded as one of the most important fields in linguistic study, and
will modify most materially the findings of that science. And I make
this prediction the more confidently, as I am supported in it by the
great authority of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who for twenty years devoted
himself to their investigation.

As I am advocating so warmly that more attention should be devoted to
these languages, it is but fair that you should require me to say
something descriptive about them, to explain some of their peculiarities
of structure. To do this properly I should require not the fag end of
one lecture, but a whole course of lectures. Yet perhaps I can say
enough now to show you how much there is in them worth studying.

Before I turn to this, however, I should like to combat a prejudice
which I fear you may entertain. It is that same ancient prejudice which
led the old Greeks to call all those who did not speak their sonorous
idioms _barbarians_; for that word meant nothing more nor less than
babblers (Βαλβαλοι), people who spoke an unintelligible tongue. Modern
civilized nations hold that prejudice yet, in the sense that each
insists that its own language is the best one extant, the highest in the
scale, and that wherein others differ from it in structure they are

So unfortunately placed is this prejudice with reference to my subject,
that in the very volume issued by our government at Washington to
encourage the study of the Indian languages, there is a long essay to
prove that English is the noblest, most perfect language in the world,
while all the native languages are, in comparison, of a very low grade

The essayist draws his arguments chiefly from the absence of inflections
in English. Yet many of the profoundest linguists of this century have
maintained that a fully inflected language, like the Greek or Latin, is
for that very reason ahead of all others. We may suspect that when a
writer lauds his native tongue at the expense of others, he is
influenced by a prejudice in its favor and an absence of facility in the

Those best acquainted with American tongues praise them most highly for
flexibility, accuracy, and resources of expression. They place some of
them above any Aryan language. But what is this to those who do not
know them? To him who cannot bend the bow of Ulysses it naturally seems
a useless and awkward weapon.

I do not ask you to accept this opinion either; but I do ask that you
rid your minds of bias, and that you do not condemn a tongue because it
differs widely from that which you speak.

American tongues do, indeed, differ very widely from those familiar to
Aryan ears. Not that they are all alike in structure. That was a hasty
generalization, dating from a time when they were less known. Yet the
great majority of them have certain characteristics in common,
sufficient to place them in a linguistic class by themselves. I shall
name and explain some of these.

As of the first importance I would mention the prominence they assign to
pronouns and pronominal forms. Indeed, an eminent linguist has been so
impressed with this feature that he has proposed to classify them
distinctively as “pronominal languages.” They have many classes of
pronouns, sometimes as many as eighteen, which is more than twice as
many as the Greek. There is often no distinction between a noun and a
verb other than the pronoun which governs it. That is, if a word is
employed with one form of the pronoun it becomes a noun, if with another
pronoun, it becomes a verb.

We have something of the same kind in English. In the phrase “I love,”
love is a verb; but in “my love,” it is a noun. It is noteworthy that
this treatment of words as either nouns or verbs, as we please to employ
them, was carried further by Shakespeare than by any other English
writer. He seemed to divine in such a trait of language vast resources
for varied and pointed expression. If I may venture a suggestion as to
how it does confer peculiar strength to expressions, it is that it
brings into especial prominence the idea of Personality; it directs all
subjects of discourse by the notion of an individual, a living, personal
unit. This imparts vividness to narratives, and directness and life to

Of these pronouns, that of the first person is usually the most
developed. From it, in many dialects, are derived the demonstratives and
relatives, which in Aryan languages were taken from the third person.
This prominence of the _Ego_, this confidence in self, is a trait of the
race as well as of their speech. It forms part of that savage
independence of character which prevented them coalescing into great
nations, and led them to prefer death to servitude.

Another characteristic, which at one time was supposed to be universal
on this continent, is what Mr. Peter S. Du Ponceau named
_polysynthesis_. He meant by this a power of running several words into
one, dropping parts of them and retaining only the significant
syllables. Long descriptive names of all objects of civilized life new
to the Indians were thus coined with the greatest ease. Some of these
are curious enough. The Pavant Indians call a school-house by one word,
which means “a stopping-place where sorcery is practised;” their notion
of book-learning being that it belongs to the uncanny arts. The Delaware
word for horse means “the four-footed animal which carries on his back.”

This method of coining words is, however, by no means universal in
American languages. It prevails in most of those in British America and
the United States, in Aztec and various South American idioms; but in
others, as the dialects found in Yucatan and Guatemala, and in the Tupi
of Brazil, the Otomi of Mexico, and the Klamath of the Pacific coast, it
is scarcely or not at all present.

Another trait, however, which was confounded with this by Mr. Du
Ponceau, but really belongs in a different category of grammatical
structure, is truly distinctive of the languages of the continent, and I
am not sure that any one of them has been shown to be wholly devoid of
it. This is what is called _incorporation_. It includes in the verb, or
in the verbal expression, the object and manner of the action.

This is effected by making the subject of the verb an inseparable
prefix, and by inserting between it and the verb itself, or sometimes
directly in the latter, between its syllables, the object, direct or
remote, and the particles indicating mode. The time or tense particles,
on the other hand, will be placed at one end of this compound, either as
prefixes or suffixes, thus placing the whole expression strictly within
the limits of a verbal form of speech.

Both the above characteristics, I mean Polysynthesis and Incorporation,
are unconscious efforts to carry out a certain theory of speech which
has aptly enough been termed _holophrasis_, or the putting the whole of
a phrase into a single word. This is the aim of each of them, though
each endeavors to accomplish it by different means. Incorporation
confines itself exclusively to verbal forms, while polysynthesis
embraces both nouns and verbs.

Suppose we carry the analysis further, and see if we can obtain an
answer to the query. Why did this effort at blending forms of speech
obtain so widely? Such an inquiry will indicate how valuable to
linguistic research would prove the study of this group of languages.

I think there is no doubt but that it points unmistakably to that very
ancient, to that primordial period of human utterance when men had not
yet learned to connect words into sentences, when their utmost efforts
at articulate speech did not go beyond single words, which, aided by
gestures and signs, served to convey their limited intellectual
converse. Such single vocables did not belong to any particular part of
speech. There was no grammar to that antique tongue. Its disconnected
exclamations mean whole sentences in themselves.

A large part of the human race, notably, but not exclusively, the
aborigines of this continent, continued the tradition of this mode of
expression in the structure of their tongues long after the union of
thought and sound in audible speech had been brought to a high degree of

Although I thus regard one of the most prominent peculiarities of
American languages as a survival from an exceedingly low stage of human
development, it by no means follows that this is an evidence of their

The Chinese, who made no effort to combine the primitive vocables into
one, but range them nakedly side by side, succeeded no better than the
American Indians; and there is not much beyond assertion to prove that
the Aryans, who, through their inflections, marked the relation of each
word in the sentence by numerous tags of case, gender, number, etc., got
any nearer the ideal perfection of language.

If we apply what is certainly a very fair test, to wit: the uses to
which a language is and can be put, I cannot see that a well-developed
American tongue, such as the Aztec or the Algonkin, in any way falls
short of, say French or English.

It is true that in many of these tongues there is no distinction made
between expressions, which with us are carefully separated, and are so
in thought. Thus, in the Tupi of Brazil and elsewhere, there is but one
word for the three expressions, “his father,” “he is a father,” and “he
has a father;” in many, the simple form of the verb may convey three
different ideas, as in Ute, where the word for “he seizes” means also
“the seizer,” and as a descriptive noun, “a bear,” the animal which

This has been charged against these languages as a lack of
“differentiation.” Grammatically this is so, but the same charge applies
with almost equal force to the English language, where the same word may
belong to any of four, five, even six parts of speech, dependent
entirely on the connection in which it is used.

As a set-off, the American languages avoid confusions of expression
which prevail in European tongues.

Thus in none of these latter, when I say “the love of God,” “l’amour de
Dieu,” “amor Dei,” can you understand what I mean. You do not know
whether I intend the love which we have or should have toward God, or
God’s love toward us. Yet in the Mexican language (and many other
American tongues) these two quite opposite ideas are so clearly
distinguished that, as Father Carochi warns his readers in his Mexican
Grammar, to confound them would not merely be a grievous solecism in
speech, but a formidable heresy as well.

Another example. What can you make out of this sentence, which is
strictly correct by English grammar: “John told Robert’s son that he
must help him”? You can make nothing out of it. It may have any one of
six different meanings, depending on the persons referred to by the
pronouns “he” and “him.” No such lamentable confusion could occur in any
American tongue known to me. The Chippeway, for instance, has three
pronouns of the third person, which designate the near and the remote
antecedents with the most lucid accuracy.

There is another point that I must mention in this connection, because I
find that it has almost always been overlooked or misunderstood by
critics of these languages. These have been free in condemning the
synthetic forms of construction. But they seem to be ignorant that their
use is largely optional. Thus, in Mexican, one can arrange the same
sentence in an analytic or a synthetic form, and this is also the case,
in a less degree, in the Algonkin. By this means a remarkable richness
is added to the language. The higher the grade of synthesis employed,
the more striking, elevated, and pointed becomes the expression. In
common life long compounds are rare, while in the native Mexican poetry
each line is often but one word.

Turning now from the structure of these languages to their vocabularies,
I must correct a widespread notion that they are scanty in extent and
deficient in the means to express lofty or abstract ideas.

Of course, there are many tracts of thought and learning familiar to us
now which were utterly unknown to the American aborigines, and not less
so to our own forefathers a few centuries ago. It would be very unfair
to compare the dictionary of an Indian language with the last edition of
Webster’s Unabridged. But take the English dictionaries of the latter
half of the sixteenth century, before Spenser and Shakespeare wrote, and
compare them with the Mexican vocabulary of Molina, which contains
about 13,000 words, or with the Maya vocabulary of the convent of
Motul, which presents over 20,000, both prepared at that date, and your
procedure will be just, and you will find it not disadvantageous to the
American side of the question.

The deficiency in abstract terms is generally true of these languages.
They did not have them, because they had no use for them,--and the more
blessed was their condition. European languages have been loaded with
several thousand such by metaphysics and mysticism, and it has required
several generations to discover that they are empty wind-bags, full of
sound and signifying nothing.

Yet it is well known to students that the power of forming abstracts is
possessed in a remarkable degree by many native languages. The most
recondite formulæ of dogmatic religion, such as the definition of the
Trinity and the difference between consubstantiation and
transubstantiation, have been translated into many of them without
introducing foreign words, and in entire conformity with their
grammatical structure. Indeed, Dr. Augustin de la Rosa, of the
University of Guadalajara, who is now the only living professor of any
American language, says the Mexican is peculiarly adapted to render
these metaphysical subtleties.

I have been astonished that some writers should bring up the primary
meaning of a word in an American language in order to infer the
coarseness of its secondary meaning. This is a strangely unfair
proceeding, and could be directed with equal effect against our own
tongues. Thus, I read lately a traveller who spoke hardly of an Indian
tribe because their word for “to love” was a derivative from that
meaning “to buy,” and thence “to prize.” But what did the Latin _amare_,
and the English _to love_, first mean? Carnally living together is what
they first meant, and this is not a nobler derivation than that of the
Indian. Even yet, when the most polished of European nations, that one
which most exalts _la grande passion_, does not distinguish in language
between loving their wives and liking their dinners, but uses the same
word for both emotions, it is scarcely wise for us to indulge in much
latitude of inference from such etymologies.

Such is the general character of American languages, and such are the
reasons why they should be preserved and studied. The field is vast and
demands many laborers to reap all the fruit that it promises. It is
believed at present that there are about two hundred wholly independent
stocks of languages among the aborigines of this continent. They vary
most widely in vocabulary, and seemingly scarcely less so in grammar.

Besides this, each of these stocks is subdivided into dialects, each
distinguished by its own series of phonetic changes, and its own new
words. What an opportunity is thus offered for the study of the natural
evolution of language, unfettered by the petrifying art of writing!

In addition to these native dialects there are the various jargons which
have sprung up by intercourse with the Spanish, English, Dutch,
Portuguese, and French settlers. These are by no means undeserving of
notice. They reveal in an instructive manner the laws of the influence
which is exerted on one another by languages of radically different
formations. A German linguist of eminence, Prof. Schuchardt, of Gratz,
has for years devoted himself to the study of the mixed languages of the
globe, and his results promise to be of the first order of importance
for linguistic science. In America we find examples of such in the
Chinook jargon of the Pacific coast, the Jarocho of Mexico, the “Maya
mestizado“ of Yucatan, the ordinary Lingoa Geral of Brazil, and the
Nahuatl-Spanish of Nicaragua, in which last mentioned jargon, a curious
medley of Mexican and low Spanish, I have lately published a comedy as
written and acted by the natives and half-castes of that country.

All such macaroni dialects must come into consideration, if we wish to
make a full representation of the linguistic riches of this continent.

What now is doing to collect, collate, and digest this vast material? We
may cast our eyes over the civilized world and count upon our fingers
the names of those who are engaged in really serviceable and earnest
work in this department.

In Germany, the land of scholars, we have the traveller von Tschudi, who
has lately published a most excellent volume on the Qquichua of Peru;
Dr. Stoll, of Zurich, who is making a specialty of the languages of
Guatemala; Mr. Julius Platzmann, who has reprinted a number of rare
works; Prof. Friederich Müller, of Vienna; but I know of no other name
to mention. In France, an enlightened interest in the subject has been
kept alive by the creditable labors of the Count de Charencey, M. Lucien
Adam, and a few other students; while the series of American grammars
and dictionaries published by Maisonneuve, and that edited by Alphonse
Pinart, are most commendable monuments of industry. In Italy, the natal
soil of Columbus, in Spain, so long the mistress of the Indies, and in
England, the mother of the bold navigators who explored the coasts of
the New World, I know not a single person who gives his chief interest
to this pursuit.

Would that I could place in sharp contrast to this the state of American
linguistics in our own country! But outside of the official
investigators appointed by the Government Bureau of Ethnology, who merit
the highest praise in their several departments, but who are necessarily
confined to their assigned fields of study, the list is regretfully

There is first the honored name of Dr. John Gilmary Shea. It is a
discredit to this country that his “Library of American Linguistics” was
forced to suspend publication for lack of support. There is Mr. Horatio
Hale, who forty years ago prepared the “Philology of the United States
Exploring Expedition,” and who, “obeying the voice at eve obeyed at
prime,” has within the last two years contributed to American philology
some of the most suggestive studies which have anywhere appeared. Nor
must I omit Dr. J. Hammond Trumbull, whose Algonkin studies are marked
by the truest scientific spirit, and the works on special dialects of
Dr. Washington Matthews, the Abbé Cuoq, and others.

Whatever these worthy students have done, has been prompted solely by a
love of the subject and an appreciation of its scientific value. They
have worked without reward or the hope of reward, without external
stimulus, and almost without recognition.

Not an institution of the higher education in this land has an
instructor in this branch; not one of our learned societies has offered
inducements for its study; no enlightened patron of science of the many
which honor our nation has ever held out that encouragement which is
needed by the scholar who would devote himself to it.

In conclusion, I appeal to you, and through you to all the historical
societies of the United States, to aid in removing this reproach from
American scholarship. Shall we have fellowships and professorships in
abundance for the teaching of the dead languages and dead religions of
another hemisphere, and not one for instruction in those tongues of our
own land, which live in a thousand proper names around us, whose words
we repeat daily, and whose structure is as important to the philosophic
study of speech as any of the dialects of Greece or India?

What is wanted is by offering prizes for essays in this branch, by
having one or more instructors in it at our great universities, and by
providing the funds for editing and publishing the materials for
studying the aboriginal languages, to awaken a wider interest in them,
at the same time that the means is furnished wherewith to gratify and
extend this interest.

This is the case which I present to you, and for which I earnestly
solicit your consideration. And that I may add weight to my appeal, I
close by quoting the words of one of America’s most distinguished
scientists, Professor William Dwight Whitney, of Yale College, who
writes to this effect:

“The study of American languages is the most fruitful and the most
important branch of American Archaeology.”


[Footnote 1: H. R. Schoolcraft.]

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