Pierre-Philippe Potier’s Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae (1745)

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.

The significance of Potier’s oeuvre

One of Pierre-Philippe Potier’s most interesting writings is the Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae, a 109-page Huron grammar (c. 1745) bound together with a short manual of French phrases ‘pour se faire instruire’, a small Huron vocabulary on kinship, a compendium of Huron word roots (Radices Huronicae III), a census of the Huron population in his mission from 1745, the names of towns in Huron and French etc. Potier clearly intended to combine all of these documents, as he included a Table des Matieres that listed all of the titles present in the binding.

The first page of the Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae (Alexander Fraser ed. 1920: 5).

The manuscript probably forms part of a larger set of documents that Potier had prepared during his first years in French America, including a Huron-French vocabulary bound together with a census list of I’le aux Bois Blancs (c. 1747), sermons in Huron (c. 1747), and three compendia of Huron word roots: Radices Linguae Huronicae from 1743, 1744, and 1751. Interestingly, Potier added ‘III’ to the Radices Huronicae included in the 1745 Elementa, likely implying that it was the third part following the first two compendia. Moreover, these documents are all linguistic tools intended to learn Huron, and are copied from earlier texts in the same neat regular handwriting.

It is clear that the first two Radices Linguae Huronicae are copies, because Potier explicitly recorded that he had finished the two documents in December 1743 and February 1744 respectively. These dates correspond with the time he spent at the Lorette mission in Quebec, before he initiated his missionary activities and had had the chance to master Huron well enough to compose these instruments. It is known that during his first eight months in Quebec, Pierre-Daniel Richer, the Jesuit superior of this mission, had introduced him to the indigenous language, which is probably when he began to gain a profound understanding of Huron. In his Gazettes, a compilation of travel reports, letters and chronologies, Potier recalled how he was writing a lot during his time at the Lorette mission:

“le 16 oct: 1743 juqu’a 24 juin 1744, ce qui fait 8 mois et 8 jours, pendant tout ce tems le P. Richet [sic] eut toutes les attentions possibles pour moy. Il se plaignit quelques fois de ce que j’ecrivois trops […].” (Potier n.d.: 54)

This also applies to his Elementa, which he completed only eleven months later after leaving Quebec. On page 145, Potier recorded that he finished his text on 21 May 1745, indicating that he had compiled these documents before this date. That he was indeed still learning the language in 1745 may be suggested by the inclusion of the short manual in the Elementa that listed French phrases translated into Huron one could use to ask natives in order to be instructed about their language, such as “Je veux apprendre votre langue”, and “Je ne scais point encore le Huron” (Potier 1745: 107). Indeed, in a letter to fellow friar Jean-Baptiste de Saint Pé (1686-1770) in the spring of 1747, Potier, two years after finishing the grammar, admitted that he was still struggling with mastering the basics of the Huron language:

“Je rougis de honte de voir qu’après 2 ans et demi, à peine commençeai-je à bégaier q[uelque] peu de huron. Les progrès dans la langue huronne sont bien lents. […] Vous me supposez habile docteur dans la langue, et au point de n’entendre plus le françois; cela devroit être après 2 ans et demi que je m’y applique, mais je vous dirai à ma grande confusion que je ne fais encore que bégaier.” (Toupin ed. 1996: 624)

He also included a letter from September 1749, in which he had complained to his superior general, Gabriel Marcol, that his progress in the study of Huron was slow, another indication that he was still in the process of learning (Potier n.d.: 90).

Furthermore, the manuscripts reveal later annotations in the same handwriting that attest to how Potier had put his language study into practice: after learning new information about Huron during his mission, Potier would correct, make additions, or adjust the original text. In addition to the corrections and additions he made in the same ink while he was revising his copies, his documents also contain later annotations, written in a different ink either above or next to the original text. Moreover, he occasionally added Latin words in superscript that referred to his experience using the linguistic documents. On page 30 of his Radices Linguae Huronicae of 1743, for example, he added “non aud[itur/ivi]” next to a Huron expression that likely referred to the fact that he had not (yet) heard the word described in the document (Potier 1743: 30). He also included the phrases “non est in usu” (this is not in use), “non utuntur” ([the natives] do not use), and “non dicu[n]tur hic” ([these words] are not said here). In the Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae Potier added “non ilgit” in superscript to a Huron phrase, which is likely an abbreviation for “non intelligitur” ([this] is not understood), indicating that the native population failed to understand this specific written expression.

In some cases, Potier explicitly recorded that he had transcribed his writings from earlier works. In his Huron-French vocabulary, Potier, for example, referred to another dictionary (“vide in dictionario”) (Potier: 193). Moreover, by writing “Transcripta à P. Potier Ex P. Careil” Potier made it clear that the seventeenth-century Jesuit Étienne de Carheil originally wrote the first volume of the Radices Huronicae. In the second volume, Potier added a paragraph under the title “Addita à P. Richet [sic]”, likely referring to additions that Pierre-Daniel Richer had made to the original manuscript. In his compilation of sermons in Huron, Potier explicitly attributed several sermons to Richer and to the seventeenth-century Jesuit Philippe Pierson.

In contrast to these documents, Potier did not add the name of a missionary author to the 1745 grammar, which implies that he had copied an anonymous text. Scholars believe Potier had used Jesuit Pierre-Joseph-Marie Chaumonot’s Huron grammar, based on their discovery of a nineteenth-century grammar that has been attributed to Chaumonot (e.g. Lagarde 1980). However, this copy does not bear a reference to a manuscript original, a date, or an author’s name, and no known Huron grammar from Chaumonot has been preserved. Thus, it is likely that someone other than Chaumonot wrote the manuscript original of the nineteenth-century copy or that later adaptations were made to an earlier version of the text, neither of which can be known upon examining the nineteenth-century copy. It is a pity that Potier’s manuscript originals did not survive, making it impossible to study the similarities and differences between works. Issues such as these make it difficult for the modern book historian to find the evidence needed to assess whether a missionary completely authored his own text, or to what extent he relied on the ideas or works of his predecessors.

Manuscript circulation of early modern missionary
linguistic knowledge

The case-study of Pierre Potier’s handwritten oeuvre demonstrates the dynamic nature surrounding the circulation of missionary linguistic knowledge. By transcribing the linguistic instruments of his predecessors, Potier actively participated in a tradition of knowledge building. Missionaries wrote many additional manuscripts in early modern New France, to more efficiently evangelize the natives. In contrast to Spanish missionaries who produced language descriptions, available as manuscripts and in print as early as the 1500s, missionaries in New France only started to compose such texts in the seventeenth century, and mainly in manuscript form due to the absence of a local printing press. Nevertheless, missionaries approached the production of these linguistic tools rather systematically, resulting in a dynamic process of circulation that was characterized by the practice of copying earlier works.

While the first French friars were pioneers in creating a corpus of material on previously unknown native languages, their successors were able to rely on their efforts to better study these languages, producing their own knowledge in new grammars, vocabularies, and religious texts. Since missionaries primarily used these instruments as manuals for acquiring the language skills to communicate with natives, the copying of earlier linguistic material clearly formed part of the missionary activities in French America. Against this background, the early modern circulation of missionary linguistic knowledge in French America can be approached as a continuous cycle: it started with learning to speak and understand a language; missionaries followed this step by composing linguistic tools; finally this allowed others to learn the basic language skills needed, and enabled them to adapt, correct, and create more knowledge by annotating or copying older texts, or by writing completely new tools.

Moreover, this knowledge is still being passed down centuries later, which is illustrated by how the Archives Deschâtelets (Richelieu QC, Canada) of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate have helped to preserve both early modern manuscripts and nineteenth-century copies. Even today, scholars such as John Steckley (2007) make fruitful use of French missionary linguistic material to obtain proficiency in native languages. In order to better preserve one of the only missionary works that deals with the Huron language, Toon Van Hal, Andy Peetermans, and John L. Steckley are currently preparing a forthcoming critical publication of Potier’s Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae.

Primary sources

Potier, Pierre-Philippe. “Radices Linguae Huronicae” (1743), ms. 019, The Archives of the Jesuits of Canada Montréal.

Potier, Pierre-Philippe. “Radices Linguae Huronicae” (1744), ms. 017, TheArchives of the Jesuits of Canada Montréal.

Potier, Pierre-Philippe. “Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae” (1745), ms. 019, The Archives of the Jesuits of Canada Montréal.

Potier, Pierre-Philippe. “Sermons en langue huronne” (1746-1747), ms. 022, The Archives of the Jesuits of Canada Montréal.

Potier, Pierre-Philippe.“Vocabulaire Huron français” (1744-1752), CA M001 BM007-1-D36, Archives de Montréal.

Potier, Pierre-Philippe. “Radices Huronica” (1751), ms. 020, The Archives ofthe Jesuits of Canada Montréal.

Potier, Pierre-Philippe. “Gazettes” (n. d.), ms. 011, The Archives of the Jesuits of Canada Montréal.

Selected bibliography

Fraser, Alexander. Ed. 1920  Fifteenth Report of the Bureau of Archives for the Province of Ontario. Toronto: Clarkson W. James.

Lagarde, Pierrette L. 1980. Le verbe huron. Étude morphologique d’après une description grammaticale de la seconde moitié du XVIIe siècle. Parijs: L’Harmattan.

Hanzeli, Victor Egon. 1969. Missionary Linguistics in New France. A study of seventeenth- and eighteenth- century descriptions of American Indian languages. The Hague and Paris: Mouton.

Steckley, John L. 2007. Words of the Huron. Aboriginal Studies Series. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Toupin, Robert. 1996. ed. Les écrits de Pierre Potier. Collection Amérique française 3. Ottawa: Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa.

Van Hal, Toon, Andy Peetermans, and John L. Steckley. Forthcoming. Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae.

How to cite this post

Van Loon, Zanna. 2018. Pierre-Philippe Potier’s Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae (1745). History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2018/11/28/pierre-philippe-potier/

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Posted in 18th century, America, Article, History, Missionary Linguistics

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