Zanna Van Loon
University of Leuven
Instead of imposing European languages, Catholic friars conducting missions in the Americas in the early modern period opted to learn indigenous tongues to more efficiently teach local communities the religious doctrine. To guarantee the success of their missions, many missionaries systematically studied native languages and recorded the knowledge they acquired in religious texts, grammars, wordlists and other sorts of linguistic instruments. By storing all that they had learned on paper, missionary friars made linguistic knowledge available to others, and opened up the possibility of passing it onto successors. They were often among the first and sometimes the only ones who accumulated, codified, and distributed knowledge on Amerindian languages, pioneering work that set in motion the circulation of linguistic knowledge on these languages. In particular, the Jesuits who dominated the missionary field in New France since the 1630s – which encompasses the area covering Hudson Bay in the north, the St. Lawrence River in the east, and the Great Lakes in the west of North America – produced several documents dealing with the native languages they encountered to advance their proselytizing efforts.
Pierre-Philippe Potier (1708-1781), born in Blandain in present-day Belgium, was one of the Jesuits who left France, where he had studied and taught, for New France to perform missionary work. Potier arrived in Quebec in October 1743, and, in September 1744, he joined the Huron mission of father Armand de La Richardie at l’Île aux Bois-Blancs, near Detroit. In 1747, La Richardie established a new mission post in Pointe de Montréal, which is where Potier erected a church in 1749, and founded the first parish of Ontario in 1767, Notre-Dame de l’Assomption. He continued to minister to the Huron population in his new parish until his death in 1781.
During his missionary work, Pierre-Philippe Potier dedicated much of his time to assembling texts, some of which recorded information about the Huron language. A couple of Huron manuscripts in Potier’s handwriting have survived to this day, making his works a particularly interesting part of the early modern missionary linguistics in New France. Moreover, with the Jesuit order’s suppression in France in the 1760s greatly influencing missionary work in the Americas, Potier is considered one of the last known early modern French Jesuits to have written material in Huron (Hanzeli 1969, 29–30). This blogpost explores how his extant linguistic documentation adds to our understanding of the circulation of missionary linguistic knowledge in New France. Read more ›