Podcast episode 29: Interview with Marcin Kilarski on the study of North American languages

In this interview, we talk to Marcin Kilarski about the history of the documentation and description of the languages of North America.

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References for Episode 29

Primary sources

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1946. “Algonquian”. Linguistic structures of native America ed. by Harry Hoijer, 85-129. New York: Viking Fund.

Boas, Franz & Ella Cara Deloria. 1941. Dakota grammar. Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office.

Deloria, Ella Cara. 1932. Dakota texts. (= Publications of the American Ethnological Society 14.) New York: G. E. Stechert. (Reprinted with an introduction by Raymond J. DeMallie, 2006, Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press).

Deloria, Ella Cara. 1988. Waterlily. New edition, 2009, with an introduction by Susan Gardner, a biographical sketch by Agnes Picotte and an afterword by Raymond J. DeMallie. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen & John Heckewelder. 1819. “A correspondence between the Rev. John Heckewelder, of Bethlehem, and Peter S. Duponceau, Esq. corresponding secretary of the Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society, respecting the languages of the American Indians”. Transactions of the Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society 1.351-448.

Edwards, Jonathan. 1788. Observations on the language of the Muhhekaneew Indians: In which the extent of that language in North-America is shewn, its genius is grammatically traced, some of its peculiarities, and some instances of analogy between that and the Hebrew are pointed out. New Haven, Conn.: Printed by Josiah Meigs. (New ed. by John Pickering, Boston: Phelps and Farnham, 1823; Repr. in American Linguistics, vol. I. London: Routledge, 1997.).

Eliot, John. 1666. The Indian grammar begun: Or, an essay to bring the Indian language into rules, for the help of such as desire to learn the same, for the furtherance of the Gospel among them. Cambridge, Mass.: Marmaduke Johnson. (New ed. with an introduction by John Pickering and commentary by Peter S. Du Ponceau, Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, 2nd series, vol. 9, 247-312, Boston, 1822; Repr. in American Linguistics, vol. I. London: Routledge, 1997).

Gallatin, Albert. 1836. “A synopsis of the Indian tribes within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, and in the British and Russian possessions in North America”. Archaeologia Americana: Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society 2.1-422.

Hewitt, J.N.B. 1903. “Iroquoian cosmology: First part”. Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1899-1900 21.127-339. (Issued separately, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904).

Hewitt, J.N.B. 1928. “Iroquoian cosmology: Second part”. Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1925-26 43.449-819. (Issued separately, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1928).

Hewitt, J[ohn] N[apoleon] B[rinton]. 1893. “Polysynthesis in the languages of the American Indians”. American Anthropologist 6:4.381-407. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1893.6.4.02a00050

Humboldt, Wilhelm von. 2013. Nordamerikanische Grammatiken. Edited by Micaela Verlato. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh.

Jones, William. 1788. “The third anniversary discourse, delivered 2 February, 1786”. Asiatick Researches 1.415-431.

Powell, J[ohn] W[esley]. 1891. “Indian linguistic families of America north of Mexico”. Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1885-86 7.1-142.

Sagard, Gabriel Theodat. 1632. Le grand voyage du pays des Hvrons, situé en l’Amérique vers la Mer douce, és derniers confins de la nouuelle France, dite Canada. […] Auec vn Dictionaire de la langue Huronne, pour la commodité de ceux qui ont à voyager dans le pays, & n’ont l’intelligence d’icelle langue. Paris: Chez Denys Moreav. (Repr. as Le grand voyage du pays des Hurons, suivi du Dictionnaire de la langue huronne ed. by Jack Warwick, Montréal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1998; Transl. as The long journey to the country of the Hurons by H. H. Langton, Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1939.).

Spencer, Herbert. 1884 [1876]. The principles of sociology. Vol. 1. New York: D. Appleton. (1st ed., London: Williams & Norgate, 1876.).

Secondary sources

Kilarski, Marcin. 2021. A History of the Study of the Indigenous Languages of North America. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

McElvenny, James. 2019. “Alternating sounds and the formal franchise in phonology”. Form and formalism in linguistics ed. by James McElvenny, 35-58. Berlin: Language Science Press.

Merriam, Kathryn Lavely. 2010. The preservation of Iroquois thought: J.N.B. Hewitt’s legacy of scholarship for his people. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Mithun, Marianne. In press. “Native American languages at the threshold of the new millennium”. Handbook of North American Indians ed. by Igor Krupnik, vol. 1: Introduction Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Steckley, John [L.], ed. 2010. Gabriel Sagard’s dictionary of Huron. (= American Language Reprints Supplement Series 2.) Merchantville, N.J.: Evolution Publishing.

Thomason, Lucy. 2022. “26,000 pages of thoughts in Meskwaki by Meskwakis: The National Anthropological Archives’ Truman Michelson collection”. Paper presented at the Joint Session of the Linguistic Society of America and the North American Association for the History of the Language Sciences, 96th Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, Washington, D.C., 6 Jan., 2022.

Thwaites, Reuben Gold, ed. 1896-1901. The Jesuit relations and allied documents: Travels and explorations of the Jesuit missionaries in New France, 1610-1791. The original French, Latin, and Italian texts, with English translations and notes. 73 vols. Cleveland, Ohio: Burrows Brothers.

Trudgill, Peter. 2017. “The anthropological setting of polysynthesis”. The Oxford handbook of polysynthesis ed. by Michael Fortescue, Marianne Mithun & Nicholas Evans, 186-202. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199683208.013.13

Transcript by Luca Dinu

JMc: Hi, I’m James McElvenny, and you’re listening to the History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences Podcast, online at hiphilangsci.net. [00:20] There you can find links and references to all the literature we discuss. [00:25] In the previous episode, we spoke about Franz Boas and his contributions to the study of American languages, and of the development of the modern fields of anthropology and linguistics in America more generally [00:38]. In this episode, we’re going to zoom out and take a panoramic view of the documentation and description of the Indigenous languages of the Americas. [00:48] To guide us through this topic, we’re joined today by Marcin Kilarski, Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Poznań. [00:57] Marcin has just published a book on the very subject of this episode, his 2021 A History of the Study of the Indigenous Languages of North America. [01:09] So, Marcin, can you draw back the curtain for us on the grand vista of the description of the languages of the Americas? [01:16] When did the documentation and description of American languages start, and are there identifiable periods and schools in the study of American languages and, if so, what are their defining features? [01:30]

MK: Hi, James. [01:30] Thanks for having me. [01:31] So, the description of North American languages has a long history going back to the first word lists of St. Lawrence Iroquoian, a Northern Iroquoian language that was spoken along the St. Lawrence River, and which were compiled in the 1530s. [01:47] And these were followed during the 16th century by vocabularies of languages belonging to the Algonquian and Eskimo-Aleut families spoken in North Carolina and on Baffin Island, respectively. [01:59] So, we are looking at nearly five centuries of documentation and description, and what can be described as a complex, heterogeneous tradition that is only marginally shorter than the study of Mesoamerican languages, and includes several local or ‘national’ traditions such as the French, British, and Danish traditions. [02:18] Note by the way that I’m using the term ‘North America’ with reference to the Indigenous languages and cultures north of the civilizations of central Mexico. [02:26] So, three periods are usually distinguished in the history of the Americanist tradition. [02:31] The first period extends from the 1530s till the late 18th century. [02:36] It is often referred to as the missionary period since most scholars who worked on the languages were missionaries, but the languages were also described by explorers and other scholars. [02:45] Since the period covers over 250 years, we can distinguish several phases within it, depending on the time, location, and richness of scholarship but also the background of the commentators and the phenomena they were concerned with. [02:59] Thus, the 16th-century word lists that I’ve mentioned were followed by grammatical descriptions of Algonquian and Iroquoian languages in the 17th century, including the reports from missionaries in New France that were published in the Jesuit Relations and the grammar of Massachusett by John Eliot, published in 1666, and finally grammars of Greenlandic and vocabularies of the languages of the Southeast that appeared in the second half of the 18th century. [03:28] The second much shorter period extends from 1788, that is, from the publication of the grammar of Mahican by Jonathan Edwards, Jr., till the 1840s, a decade that witnessed growing institutionalization of scholarship in the United States, and the establishment of several societies, such as the American Ethnological Society and the American Oriental Society, both founded in 1842, as well as the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1846. [04:00] For many reasons, this short period deserves to be treated separately. [04:04] Several original descriptions were published in this period, including the grammar by Edwards that I just mentioned, together with editions of earlier studies published by Peter Stephen Du Ponceau and John Pickering, both of whom corresponded with Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose grammars of Massachusett, Mahican and Onondaga have recently been published. [04:25] These scholars made an important contribution to linguistics. [04:29] For example, Jonathan Edwards proposed in a lecture given in 1787 that Algonquian languages are related as “dialects of the same original language”, and this happened before the publication in 1788 of the famous statement by Sir William Jones about the common source of Sanskrit and European languages. [04:51] Our present understanding of polysynthetic languages largely derives from this period, as it was Du Ponceau who introduced the term ‘polysynthetic’ with reference to a manner of compounding or combination of concepts that are expressed in other languages by several words. [05:08] According to him, this was a common characteristic of “all the Indian languages from Greenland to Cape Horn”. [05:15] And finally, the third period extends from the mid-19th century to the present. [05:21] In the context of the institutionalization of linguistics and anthropology in the mid-19th century, one should also mention the Bureau of Ethnology, founded in 1879, and subsequently renamed as the Bureau of American Ethnology. [05:36] Seminal contributions were made in this period to the classification of North American languages by Albert Gallatin and John Wesley Powell. [05:44] Powell himself saw Gallatin’s “Synopsis of the Indian Tribes” as the beginning of a new era. [05:50] In turn, the arrival of Franz Boas in the United States in 1886 can be said to mark the end of the shift in American linguistics, and the beginning of a continuous tradition that lasts to the present day, and encompasses the work of Boas and his students, in particular Edward Sapir, as well as such scholars as Leonard Bloomfield and Charles Hockett. [06:11] The research carried out in this period reflects the preoccupations of earlier scholars, which can be described as the defining features of the Americanist tradition. [06:20] These include an emphasis on fieldwork and collaboration with Indigenous consultants, together with the early inclusion of women scholars such as Erminnie Adele Smith and Alice Cunningham Fletcher. [06:32] Viewed from the present perspective, Marianne Mithun, in her paper on “Native American languages at the threshold of the new millennium”, found in the forthcoming volume 1 of the Handbook of North American Indians, concludes that “the Indigenous languages are now cherished more than ever across North America”, with extensive work on documentation, description, maintenance, and revitalization that is often carried out in collaboration between Indigenous consultants and outside linguists. [07:02]

JMc: So what challenges did scholars coming from European grammatical traditions face when they were describing the languages of the Americas? [07:11]

MK: So, what I’ve tried to do in my book was to trace the history of the description of these languages through the lens of some of their most characteristic features, including the sound systems, morphology and syntax, and the lexicon, and focusing in each case on the challenges that scholars have faced. [07:28] Although we deal with different kinds of issues regarding different components of language structure, in many cases the challenges are interrelated. [07:37] In the first place, up until the late 19th century, describing sounds in unwritten languages was hindered by an absence of basic tools and terms such as methods of phonetic transcription and an understanding of phonemic contrasts and different types of variation. [07:52] This had consequences for the description of languages with phonetic inventories that were both more and less complex than those found in European languages, and which in both cases were evaluated in terms of typical European inventories – or rather, alphabets, due to an orthographic understanding of phonology. [08:11] Several enduring motifs can be distinguished in phonetic accounts, for example the notion that sounds lack consistency or fixedness. [08:20] The motif goes back to Gabriel Sagard’s account of variation in pronunciation in his Huron phrase book of 1632, where he mentioned an “instability of language”. [08:32] According to John Steckley, Sagard in fact recorded not only distinct dialects of Huron but speakers of another language, St. Lawrence Iroquoian. [08:43] However, his comments were frequently mentioned in reports on languages viewed as ‘primitive’ or ‘exotic’. [08:48] As you showed in a recent paper, published in 2019, this interpretation was eventually dismissed by Boas as an effect of the native language of the commentators. [08:59] And finally, inaccurate phonetic analysis made it impossible to describe the structure of words, and, since the languages have complex polysynthetic morphology, to understand how they express lexical and grammatical meanings. [09:12] So, morphology and syntax pose another challenge, and here we need to emphasize the degree of complexity that we’re dealing with in most North American languages. [09:22] In a paper in the 2017 Handbook of Polysynthesis, Peter Trudgill has usefully collected expressions that linguists use to describe the complexity of polysynthetic languages, including the adjectives ‘exuberant’, ‘daunting’, ‘spectacular’ and ‘legendary’. [09:38] Considering the fact that even with the terminological baggage that we’re now equipped, the analysis of polysynthetic words is a difficult task, it’s amazing how well some pre-20th-century scholars coped with it, including the first grammatical accounts from the 17th century. [09:54] For example, French missionaries working on Huron described it as complex and beautiful: Jean de Brébeuf in his 1636 Relation referred to the variety of what he called ‘compound words’ as “the key to the secret of their Language”. [10:09] Gabriel Sagard made similar comments about Huron, but future readers of his phrasebook preferred to cite his more negative evaluations of the language such as his reference to “a savage language, almost without rules and likewise imperfect” and also his comments about the lack of consistency in pronunciation. [10:33] Similarly to the effects of inaccurate phonetic analysis that I’ve mentioned, inaccurate morphological analysis hindered the description of lexical meanings. [10:42] In a common motif, verb forms expressing grammatical meanings were interpreted as ‘different verbs’ or ‘different words’. [10:50] This allowed further reinterpretations, where languages such as Cherokee were attributed with an abundance of specific terms as well as a lack of generic terms, both assumed characteristics viewed as evidence of their ‘poverty’. [11:04] Such evaluations of Cherokee are common until the 20th century and complement a related notion according to which the languages lack abstract terms. [11:13] Challenges in descriptions of vocabulary are also illustrated by the Eskimo words for snow, a paragon example of sloppy methodology that encapsulates several typical features of the examples that I discuss in the book. [11:27] These include complex life cycles in their history, a rhetorical versatility that allows commentators to employ them as evidence of often contradictory claims about the languages and their speakers, and finally a certain timelessness of linguistic examples and the related stereotypes of the speakers that are disconnected from their present nature. [11:46]

JMc: Can you tell us what linguistic scholarship or linguistic innovations, if I can put it that way, were made by speakers of American languages themselves? [11:56] So one famous example is perhaps the Cherokee syllabary invented by Sequoyah. [12:02] Could you tell us about this and other comparable efforts? [12:05]

MK: Yes, you’re right, the Cherokee syllabary is the most famous example. [12:10] It’s amazing how quickly it was adopted by the Cherokees in the 1820s and how it contributed to a rich literary tradition and a sense of national identity. [12:20] Several periodicals were printed in the syllabary, one of which, the Cherokee Advocate, was published with one break up until the early 20th century. [12:29] The syllabary is also familiar to non-linguists: street signs in the syllabary are part of the linguistic landscape in North Carolina and Oklahoma, and most users of Apple computers are familiar with the Cherokee font that has long been supplied with the operating system. [12:44] It’s worth looking at the historical context of the development and history of the syllabary. [12:50] In 1838, most Cherokees who were still living in their traditional homeland in the southern Appalachia were forcibly removed to what is now the state of Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, which resulted in a heavy loss of life, similarly to the other forced removals of the other so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Southeast. [13:10] There are many poignant reports of the removal, for instance by the missionary Daniel Butrick, who accompanied the Cherokees on the death march. [13:18] It’s also striking to compare the literature printed in the syllabary with the contexts in which the Cherokee language was typically mentioned in European publications in linguistics, ethnology, and sociology in the second half of the 19th century. [13:34] If we look at these surveys, for example The Principles of Sociology by the British sociologist Herbert Spencer, we’ll find a reference to the Cherokees as one of the so-called “inferior races” that are not capable of abstract thought and so their language abounds in specific vocabulary. [13:50] This is one of the common misconceptions I’ve mentioned earlier. [13:54] But apart from the Cherokee syllabary, there were also other writing systems that were developed indigenously. [14:00] There is, for example, the Great Lakes Algonquian Syllabary. [14:03] I only mention it in my book, but Lucy Thomason recently gave a paper about it at a session documenting the contribution of the Smithsonian Institution to American linguistics. [14:13] There is a large corpus of literature in Meskwaki written in the syllabary, known as papepipo, which was collected for the Bureau of American Ethnology by Truman Michelson, and is now found in the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives. [14:28] The manuscripts have been a source of grammars, dictionaries and collections of stories compiled by several generations of scholars, for example Bloomfield’s 1946 sketch of Algonquian. [14:39] As for linguistic work by Indigenous scholars, I’ve already suggested that collaboration with Indigenous consultants can be seen as one of the defining features of the Americanist tradition. [14:50] One should mention John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt, a part-Tuscarora staff member at the Bureau of Ethnology, and later the Bureau of American Ethnology. [15:00] Hewitt initially worked as a consultant to Erminnie Smith, but later became an authority in Iroquoian studies. [15:06] He’s now mostly known for his two-volume “Iroquoian cosmology”. [15:10] Hewitt was a very gifted linguist but unfortunately, he left little published theoretical work, basically one paper on polysynthesis published in 1893. [15:19] His uneven career at the Bureau has been attributed to various factors, including a lack of a college education, his Indigenous heritage, poor communication skills and attention to detail as well as the negative response to his paper on polysynthesis by Daniel Garrison Brinton, professor of archaeology and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and president in 1894 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. [15:48] An apt description of Hewitt’s status was given by William John McGee, Hewitt’s mentor at the Bureau, who described him as “handicapped by unsatisfactory literary methods and practically no ability to express himself orally” but second only to Franz Boas among American scholars in his linguistic knowledge. [16:10] And finally, there are Indigenous scholars who worked with Boas, including William Jones, whose work on Meskwaki was continued by Truman Michelson after Jones was killed while doing fieldwork in the Philippines. [16:23] More well-known is Ella Cara Deloria, who worked with Boas until his death in 1942, and with Ruth Benedict till her death in 1948. [16:34] Her writings fall into three categories: linguistic, in particular the collection of myths and tales Dakota Texts and the Dakota Grammar, which she co-authored with Boas, as well as ethnographic studies and a work of fiction, the novel Waterlily, published in 1988. [16:52] These works were written for different audiences, lay and professional, but all result from her wish to preserve and disseminate knowledge about her people, as documented by herself in conversations and interviews. [17:05] In summary, Indigenous scholars have made an important contribution to linguistics, which, however, remains poorly known to a wider audience. [17:14] There are many scholars whose life and work deserve interest, and it seems it’s now time someone told the story of nearly five centuries of Indigenous scholarship, in a way, to go beyond what I have tried to in my history of European and American scholarship in general. [17:30]

JMc: Well, thank you very much for this tour of Americanist scholarship. [17:34]

MK: Great, thanks. [17:34] I really enjoyed it. [17:36]

Posted in Podcast
One comment on “Podcast episode 29: Interview with Marcin Kilarski on the study of North American languages
  1. Penny Lee says:

    Very interesting. Thank you!

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