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New World Babel

New World Babel: Languages and Nations in Early America

Edward G. Gray
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    New World Babel
    Book Description:

    New World Babelis an innovative cultural and intellectual history of the languages spoken by the native peoples of North America from the earliest era of European conquest through the beginning of the nineteenth century. By focusing on different aspects of the Euro-American response to indigenous speech, Edward Gray illuminates the ways in which Europeans' changing understanding of "language" shaped their relations with Native Americans. The work also brings to light something no other historian has treated in any sustained fashion: early America was a place of enormous linguistic diversity, with acute social and cultural problems associated with multilingualism.

    Beginning with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and using rarely seen first-hand accounts of colonial missionaries and administrators, the author shows that European explorers and colonists generally regarded American-Indian languages, like all languages, as a divine endowment that bore only a superficial relationship to the distinct cultures of speakers. By relating these accounts to thinkers like Locke, Adam Smith, Jefferson, and others who sought to incorporate their findings into a broader picture of human development, he demonstrates how, during the eighteenth century, this perception gave way to the notion that language was a human innovation, and, as such, reflected the apparent social and intellectual differences of the world's peoples.

    The book is divided into six chronological chapters, each focusing on different aspects of the Euro-American response to indigenous languages.New World Babelwill fascinate historians, anthropologists, and linguists--anyone interested in the history of literacy, print culture, and early ethnological thought.

    Originally published in 1999.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6496-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-7)

    What is the relationship between language and nationhood? The question has preoccupied Americans from Noah Webster to William Safire, both of whom share the conviction that we are how we speak. The cohesion of our society, the clarity of our self-image, the power of our founding ideology are all, in the minds of these men, dependent on our ability to generate and sustain an American idiom. With words, we have the power to remake ourselves, to improve our political and social relationships, and to better our cultural lives.

    Behind these assumptions is the Enlightenment idea that words are social conventions....

  6. CHAPTER I New World Babel
    (pp. 8-27)

    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...

  7. CHAPTER II Language and Conversion
    (pp. 28-55)

    The earliest European ventures to the New World owed as much to the intense Christian desire to combat paganism as they did to any purely economic or military objectives. The rhetoric of conquest was thus often couched in terms of religious warfare: “Your highnesses decided to send me, Christopher Columbus, to see these parts of India and the princes and peoples of those lands and consider the best means for their conversion . . . and your highnesses as Catholic princes and devoted propagators of the holy Christian faith have always been enemies of the sect of Mahomet and of...

  8. CHAPTER III The Burden of Translation
    (pp. 56-84)

    This passage is from the first complete Bible printed in the Western Hemisphere, the first complete Bible printed in a non-European tongue for evangelical purposes, and the first printed Bible for which an entire phonetic writing system was devised. This particular Bible preceded even the first complete Irish Bible by twenty-two years and was preceded in the Anglo-American world by only English-and Welshlanguage Bibles. In addition to being unprecedented at the time of its initial printing in 1663, this Bible, in the Natick dialect of the Massachusett language, would remain the only complete Bible in an indigenous New World tongue...

  9. CHAPTER IV The Savage Word
    (pp. 85-111)

    It is rare that an individual can be singled out for shaping an entire field of study. But that was the case with John Locke, whoseEssay Concerning Human Understandingbecame the foundation for eighteenth-century Anglo-American language philosophy.¹ With that work, Locke gave new validity to the notion that words were pure convention, contrived and shaped by humans through the centuries, and differing through time and space not because of primordial events or moral failure but because of the uniqueness and diversity of human experience itself. As such, they were entirely arbitrary in their relation to reality. They were not...

  10. CHAPTER V Science of the Vanished
    (pp. 112-138)

    On February 10, 1786, the American Revolutionary War hero and citizen of France, the Marquis de Lafayette, sent George Washington a list of words along with a request that Washington add corresponding American-Indian words. Lafayette explained that the American words were to be added to others already collected by the German natural historian Peter Pallas and his patron, the empress Catherine the Great of Russia. Impelled to aid the empress more out of diplomatic expediency than any real interest in her project, Lafayette was somewhat embarrassed about asking so grand a figure as George Washington for such a trifling favor....

  11. CHAPTER VI An American Poetics
    (pp. 139-158)

    Jefferson’s experience as a collector and student of Indian vocabularies was emblematic of the American Founding Fathers’ broader experience in the decades after the Revolution. Language, much like the new national government, went from something that would illuminate the common bonds of humanity to something that obscured those bonds. Visions of a new Utopian epoch, founded above all on a faith in the unity and uniformity of human nature, gave way to cynicism and a despairing sense that fundamental differences in human nature made the world’s cultures incompatible. The possibility that empirical knowledge—in the form of language—could somehow...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 159-168)

    Few White Americans shared Peter Du Ponceau’s determination to find an indigenous American poetics; fewer still were inclined to see in the languages of Native Americans anything particularly artful. More typical were the views of Lewis Cass, a former superintendent of Indian affairs for the Michigan Territory. In a review of the publication on which Du Ponceau and Heckewelder collaborated—Transactions of the Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society—he ridiculed Du Ponceau’s claims, writing that far from revealing any inherent beauties, the Wyandot dialect of Huron, for instance, “is harsh, gutteral, and undistinguishable; filled with intonations,...

  13. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 169-180)
  14. Index
    (pp. 181-185)