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New World Babel
Languages and Nations in Early America
By Edward G. Gray
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1999 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
New World Babel
According to Genesis 2, God felled the Tower of Babel as a punishment for human hubris. It was for this reason that Christians have regarded the resulting confusion of tongues as something of a deliberate curse, leaving in its wake a global patchwork of peoples, cultures, and nations without which there would be none of the antagonisms, hatreds, and misunderstandings that made a unified humanity seem like utter fancy. "For when men cannot communicate their thoughts to each other, simply because of difference of language," wrote Saint Augustine, "all the similarity of their common human nature is of no avail to unite them in fellowship. So true is this that a man would be more cheerful with his dog for company than with a foreigner." Genesis had left little doubt that, as the seventh-century encyclopedist Isidorus of Seville observed, "nations have arisen from tongues, not tongues from nations." To conceive of a nation in early modern Europe was thus to conceive of a congruence in language and material culture across a broad expanse of space. "Maps show the borders of states," Leibniz wrote, "but not those of nations, which the harmony of languages more clearly makes evident." The perceived correlation between language and nation was only enhanced with the emergence of perhaps the most revolutionary technology of the early modern era: printing. As much as any more general social or political development, the printing press made possible wide-scale literacy in a select number of vernacular tongues, which in turn became increasingly identified with specific nation-states.
A similar tendency to associate linguistic and national difference, it should be said, predated Christianity. From Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas and beyond, the primary category in which Europeans placed foreigners and non-Europeans was that of the "barbarian." For the Greeks, the word distinguished true Greek speakers from those who either spoke altogether different languages or spoke vulgarized dialects of Greek. And for the Greeks, the concept had a distinctly ethnocentric cast. As Anthony Pagden has explained, "For the Hellenistic Greeks ... an inability to speak Greek was regarded not merely as a linguistic shortcoming, for a close association in the Greek mind between intelligible speech and reason made it possible to take the view that those who were devoid of logos in one sense might also be devoid of it in another." By the sixteenth century, the idea had changed only in its breadth. Montaigne, for instance, wrote, "Each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in." To be a barbarian was thus not merely to speak differently but also to live differently. It was, in essence, to be of another nation.
None of this should obscure the fact that—contrary to the modern nationalist conceit—the boundaries of language and government dominion almost never match. There are, of course, "national" or dominant languages, but these tongues almost never exist to the exclusion of minority languages, much as English now exists in the polyglot United States. Further, these languages achieve dominance because of government policy and economic necessity. And, indeed, it was these factors, along with printing, that meant that by the middle of the eighteenth century Europeans could, for the first time, say that Britain was an English-speaking nation; France, a French-speaking one; and Spain, Spanish-speaking—however imaginary and impossible such an ideal may in fact have been.
For European observers this perceived congruence between language and nation appeared to have almost no validity when applied to the indigenous nations of North America. From one town to the next, peoples with no obvious difference in manner, dress, or character often spoke mutually unintelligible tongues. Of perhaps more significance, there often appeared to be no dominant tongue or lingua franca to facilitate communication among different Native American towns. This bewildering linguistic landscape stimulated a wonder and confusion like almost nothing else about the New World, but it posed only a partial challenge to inherited explanations for the diversity of the world's languages. Throughout much of the early modern era, Europeans explained the linguistic landscape of the Americas much as they explained that of Europe: a diversity of languages resulted from the failure of societies to preserve an original and perfect God-given tongue. If, as Anthony Grafton has suggested, the European encounter with America stripped classical learning of its "aura of completeness," it did so only in a gradual and partial fashion.
Upon first landing in the West Indies, Columbus concluded that the peoples he had seen were of one nation, sharing as they did a common language. On his second visit, he experienced greater linguistic variation, and by his fourth voyage—which took him to what is now the Costa Rican coast—he had concluded that "although the villages are very close together, each has a different language, and consequently the people of one do not understand those of another, any more than we understand the Arabs." What is striking about this observation is that it came from a man no doubt familiar with polyglot societies. Late medieval and early modern Europe remained a patchwork of distinct languages, dialects, and patois.
In the dominions of the English king alone, no fewer than five mutually unintelligible languages and numerous dialects—of varying degrees of mutual intelligibility—were spoken in the sixteenth century. Indeed, as a general rule, the farther one moved from the power centers of western Europe, the greater the language diversity one was likely to encounter. Writing of the late medieval era, the historian Robert Bartlett has noted, "The interplay of languages was ... a common and sharply recognizable feature of the frontiers of Latin Europe." The significance of Columbus's remark is thus in the degree of difference it suggested. Native American villages differed in speech not as Spaniards from Portuguese but as Spaniards from Arabs. This degree of linguistic difference appears to have provoked a certain amount of anxiety in Columbus. Rather than accept the possibility that it prevailed across what he hoped to be part of Asia, Columbus concluded that a confusion of tongues was characteristic of "the uncivilized people on the sea-coast but not of those of the interior." The statement suggests that Columbus had doubts that a people in such a state of linguistic disorder could generate the kinds of treasures known to be present in the heart of the Far East. Columbus was not alone in these general perceptions.
Having been sent north from Mexico City to conquer New Mexico and retrieve its rumored riches, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado found little more than hardship. One reason, he explained to his king, was language. "As I have been obliged to send captains and soldiers to many places in this country to find out whether there was anything by which your majesty could be served," he wrote in 1541, "the diversity of languages spoken in this land and the lack of people who understand them has been a great handicap to me, since the people in each town speake their own." Again, we can assume that such a diversity of language was not unfamiliar to the Spanish conquistaders. Throughout the Americas they encountered a patchwork of Indian communities, each speaking distinct mother tongues. In central Mexico, however, an Aztec empire imposed far-reaching imperial institutions through which Europeans could acquire and disseminate information. Among these was Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec nobility. The tongue served as an imperial lingua franca, which the Spaniards—much like the Aztec nobility themselves—used to extend their colonial authority. Something similar occurred in Peru, where the Inca empire had established Quechua as a language of dominion. In the American Southwest, the far reaches of Aztec influence, however, there was no comparable lingua franca—or at least none that was revealed to Europeans. This is not to say that Europeans found themselves completely unable to communicate with the peoples of North America. The first European to traverse an extensive portion of the continent, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, noted that although he and his companions "passed through many and dissimilar tongues [as they traversed the North American Gulf Coast,] our Lord granted us favor with the people who spoke them, for they always understood us, and we them." But that rudimentary understanding did not come from the spoken word: "We questioned them, and received their answers by signs, just as if they spoke our language and we theirs."
With so much linguistic variation, it is no wonder that one of Coronado's henchmen would come to describe isolated groups of native peoples not as "nations" or "tribes" but as "languages." Upon asking his guide who inhabited the Colorado River banks along which he trekked, he learned "by this man that it was inhabited by 23 languages ... besides others not far off, and that there were besides these 23 languages, other people also which hee knewe not, above the river." What is telling here is that the commentator refers not to towns or nations but to languages, suggesting that in fact this is what his guide referred to—perhaps an indication of the centrality of language to Native American group identity.
The variation of tongues appeared almost as dramatic in the central and eastern parts of the North American continent as in the Southwest. Father Louis Hennepin, a Recollect missionary who claimed to have traveled in the early 1680s among Dakotan- and Miami-Illinois-speaking peoples in the northern Mississippi valley, remarked that "'tis very strange that every Nation of the Savages of the Northern America should have a peculiar language; for though some of them live not ten leagues one from another, they must use an Interpreter to talk together, there being no universal language amongst them; as one may call the Lingua Franca." Observers had a similar sense about the East Coast. In the late sixteenth century, Thomas Harriot, the official reporter of the Virginia Company, complained that the "language of every [Indian] government is different from any other, and the farther they are distant the greater is the difference." And in 1624 a Dutch observer remarked that the languages of the peoples of the Hudson River valley "vary frequently not over five or six leagues; forthwith comes another language; if they meet they can hardly understand one another." William Wood, a promoter of New England settlement, shared this sentiment. "Every [American] country," he commented, "differ [s] in their speech, even as our northern [British] peoples do from southern, and western from them."
Even those Christians seeking to "normalize" Native Americans, or to see them as in no fundamental way different, could not help but be struck by this state of affairs. In his History of New France (1618), for example, the lawyer, historian, and ex-patriot immigrant to New France Marc Lescarbot initially asserted that, as in Europe, "the effects of the confusion of Babel have reached these tribes whereof we speak.... For I see that the Patagonians speak another language than the Brazilians, and these otherwise than the Peruvians, and the Peruvians are distinct from the Mexicans; the isles likewise have their peculiar speech: in Florida they speak not as they do in Virginia." But Lescarbot could only conclude that in polyglot Europe there was nowhere near the confusion that appeared to prevail in an America where "every nation is divided by language; yea in one and the selfsame province languages differ, even as in Gaul the Fleming, the peoples of lower Brittany, the Gascon, and the Basque do not agree."
This linguistic diversity was the source of almost endless frustration for European missionaries. Working in French North America during the early eighteenth century, the Jesuit Father Sebastien Rasles, for example, complained that "each savage tribe has its own special tongue; thus the Abnakis, the Hurons, the Iroquois, the Algonkins, the Illinois, the Miamis, and others, have each their own language." Rasles went to great pains to demonstrate that this was no simple matter of different dialects. He translated a stanza from a sacred hymn into some of these languages to show that few could examine these passages without recognizing "how little resemblance there is between them." Another Jesuit, Father Jacques Marquette, reported to his superiors that in an encounter with a group of Indians in Illinois country, "I spoke to them in six different languages, of which they understood none."
Making matters more confusing for Europeans, in America the geographic limits of tongues were—as they are in most places—everchanging. One reason was the ongoing creation of pidgins and trade jargons, a process that appears to have accelerated with the arrival of European traders. In the fur-trading regions of the Northeast, for example, broken versions of Huron and Algonquian arose, but pidginized forms of European tongues also emerged as widely used lingua francas. Remembering an experience he had while voyaging in New England in 1623 and 1624, Captain Christopher Levettwrote of "a time the governour was at my house, and brought with himn a salvage who lived about 70 miles from the place which I have made choice of, who talking with another savage thwy were glad to use broken English to express their mind to each other, not being able to understand one another in their language."
Among European observers, there was much disagreement about the precise degree of difference in Native American languages—disagreement that no doubt reflects the fluid meaning of the terms dialect and language. In their common usage, these terms describe degrees of mutual intelligibility. Differences in dialect, for instance, are generally understood to afford high degrees of mutual intelligibility, while differences in language are understood to afford low degrees of mutual intelligibility. This appears to have been the assumption of the dissenting New England Puritan Roger Williams when he wrote that in southern New England "there is a mixture of this language North and South, from the place of my abode, about six hundred miles; yet within two hundred miles ... their dialects doe exceedingly differ; yet not so, but (within that compasse) a man may, [with the aid of Williams's A Key into the Languages of America], converse with thousands of Natives all over the Country." Such statements are difficult to evaluate, since it is possible for speakers of very different languages, (say, Italian and Spanish) to grasp each other's meaning, while speakers of the same language who hail from different regions, (say, English speakers from working-class Glasgow and English speakers from working-class Detroit) may have considerable difficulty understanding each other. As it turns out, linguists now describe most of what was spoken in southern New England not as dialects but as distinct—although not unrelated—languages. Massachusett, Narragansett, Mohegan-Pequot, Mahican, and others are all members of the Eastern Algonquian family of languages. And while there was probably some mutual intelligibility afforded by these languages, there is little testimony to suggest that Williams's Key actually eased communications in the region.
In colonized regions outside of the Americas, Europeans often found different and in fact less daunting linguistic configurations. In China, for example, the pioneer Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, explained that although the people spoke a wide variety of languages, a logographic writing system transcended differences in the varieties of spoken Chinese. In addition, although "each province hath its owne [language] ... all hath one common tongue besides, which they call Quonhoa, or the Court Language used in courts and by their learned." Despite the immense diversity of languages and dialects in China, that is, a universally understood writing system and a court lingua franca simplified communications. More important, the writing system facilitated missionary activity for figures like Ricci. The capacity to write Chinese provided immediate access to literate souls all across China. Indeed, in the seventeenth century, the universality of written Chinese captured the imagination of Europeans searching for just such a universal language—a written language that could transcend differences in human speech. In Africa, too, Europeans who traveled in the north and along the Atlantic coast found communications to be simpler than in America—despite the similar abundance of distinct languages. One writer observed that much like the tribal groups of America, the peoples of sub-Saharan, coastal Africa were widely dispersed into "hundreds of progenies and innumerable habitations." But unlike the native peoples of North America, they also "use all one kind of language called by them ... the noble tongue."
Excerpted from New World Babel by Edward G. Gray. Copyright © 1999 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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