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American Quarterly 53.4 (2001) 590-623

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Vocabularies of Native American Languages:
A Literary and Historical Approach to an Elusive Genre

Laura J. Murray
Queen's University

Notre père faites nous la charité Kissemenetou Kittiminaouerò
Qu'as tu à vendre Keekoneia etavoeian
Une paire de souliers Makisinon Kitatamiré
Il ne m'a rien donné Nimiri cossi ouikikou
Je m'en vais dormir Neessa-cata
Allons ensemble à la chasse Mamaoué naton amaouikané
Dinons ensemble Mamaoué micitaoui
Pourrais-je rester chez vous cette nuit? Ouahi niné paeata inoki?
Combien voulez-vous de cela? Tami tassu calamehmana
C'est trop cher Ouissa Kinantotah
Tu es avare Issoukiré
Je vous remercie Ouaouahinou. Ckitacamei
Va-t'en Man-ciarou
Tous les hommes mourront Ceheki kiné essemina
Connois tu le bon Dieu Enkoh Kissemanetou relanson
Je ne le connois pas Enkikken relanson
Je le connois h! h! enkikken retan
Etes vous de la prière? Encouh Kirà narneak
Pourquois ne pries-tu pas Dieu Kekoané oncianamea seon
Etes vous baptisé? Enkou sa separekok
Mais c'est inutile puisqu'il ne prie< pas Dieu h! h! sa separekok
Ne pensez vous pas à la mort Nessé an ki repoassó
Il ne faut point S'enivrer Kalaki onshé be kekò
[End Page 590]
Je suis blanc, rouge,j aune Nivoa bissé miskoi nassaroah
e suis blanc, rouge, jaune Nivoa bissé, miskoi, nassaroah
Je suis noir, bleu, vert mecale ossi, oskipakia
Le vent du Sud Savaninotin

Commerce and salvation colliding, interrogation chasing intimacy, and at the end, a windy rainbow of racial categories: this is a strange conversation indeed. But as it brings to a close a short undated vocabulary of French and Illinois words composed some time before 1820, this dialogue captures with extraordinary clarity many of the tensions on American frontiers among languages, cultures, and economies. 1 The disembodied speakers in this playscript act out a relationship both intimate and hostile. One wants souls, the other offers soles; they may pray or they may not; they may hate each other or they may love each other. In the territory of this encounter, it is not clear who is white, who is Illinois, or even how many people are present. What is clear is the affective, precarious, human nature of trade and conversion. And the bilingual phrases reveal not only the micro-relations of colonial process: they also display flamboyantly the systemic imbrication of economic and religious motives for white presence in America, as many prose documents do not. In this exchange as in the larger patterns of settlement, treaty-making, mission work, and war, European motives and actions are never pure, and, indeed, neither are Native American responses to them.

This article will argue that vocabularies, supplemented when possible with information from journals, letters, and other sources, offer unique windows into the dynamics of cross-cultural talk and translation. Thousands of vocabularies--bilingual lists of words and phrases--of Native American languages were collected by travelers to and in America from Columbus on. Sometimes we can learn about the circumstances of or reasons behind the creation of a particular vocabulary, but often we know little about who collected it, why, or where, other than what we can glean from internal evidence. If we do know about the circumstances of collection, we may still not know why the compiler or his informant selected the words and phrases he did--or, on the other hand, the vocabulary may simply follow a common philological template, in which case it obscures the circumstances of its collection. These problems of context have understandably made most historians shy away from vocabularies. Linguists have found them rich sources; in my discussion of the form and European language components [End Page 591] of vocabularies, I will draw on linguistic scholarship as far as I am able. My method is primarily literary in the service of a historical goal. I propose that as novels provide a fine archive for European and Euro-American conversational style and content from the days before tape and film, even though they represent fictional talk between...


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