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Reviews in American History 28.3 (2000) 360-366
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A New Turn for the Linguistic Turn
Joshua A. Piker
Edward G. Gray. New World Babel: Languages & Nations in Early America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. xiv + 185 pp. Illustrations, bibliography, and index. $35.00.
Certain quotes, it seems, are simply too good for historians of early America to pass up. We invoke Thomas Jefferson on slavery's role in turning young Euro-Americans into tyrants and call upon Miantonomi for the ways New England's colonists imperiled Native Americans' land-use systems. Because statements of this sort are both persuasive and pervasive, they can dominate our thinking about a given subject, imposing a framework that can be very difficult to escape. For scholars concerned with the linguistic aspect of the European invasion of America, the requisite quote has become the 1492 response made by the bishop of Avila to Queen Isabella of Spain when her highness, upon receiving the first grammar of a contemporary vernacular language, asked what purpose a Spanish grammar might serve: "Language is the perfect instrument of empire." The bishop's statement pithily links expression and expansion; that he had the grace to utter this in 1492 is merely icing on the cake, lagniappe for historians intent on discussing the Columbian encounter and its aftermath. Given the ubiquity of the bishop's epigram, Edward Gray's willingness to tackle the issue of language in early America without mentioning it suggests that he intends to push his subject in a different direction. Thus, for his epigram, Gray has chosen to quote not Avila's bishop but Samuel Johnson--"Languages are the pedigree of nations," a choice which efficiently shifts the topic under discussion from language-as-agent ("instrument") to language-as-attribute ("pedigree").
Language-as a tool of empire, as a marker of difference, as a domesticating force-is firmly entrenched in our histories of exploration and colonization. As the citation of Johnson suggests, however, Gray asks a new question of language. He investigates not what language did or how it did it, but rather how the Europeans reacted when confronted with the tremendous linguistic diversity-the seemingly endless national pedigrees-that characterized Native life in North America. In other words, Gray asks his readers to shift their focus, to consider not the function of "language" but rather the presence and [End Page 360] impact of "languages." His approach is a fruitful one for helping us to re-think the manifold ways language contributed to the collision of cultures in North America. Gray is especially illuminating when discussing the development of European thought regarding Native Americans. Even those historians thoroughly sated on the linguistic turn can profit from consulting this book.
New World Babel pivots around an intellectual transition. Prior to the Enlightenment, Gray argues, European intellectuals often defined themselves against other peoples, the "savages" and "barbarians" who populate the writings of early explorers and travelers. While imputing negative attributes to others, however, Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did not necessarily believe a people's speech indicated inferiority. It simply was not possible to rank the world's many languages hierarchically. "Instead, Europeans understood ... [linguistic] diversity as a reflection of primordial events-most significantly, the fall of the Tower of Babel-that destroyed a universal Edenic tongue and left in its place linguistic confusion" (p. 5). True, some groups had declined more than others since the fall, but a people's language was not indicative of their nature or potential. Language, pre-Enlightenment Europeans believed, reflected reality; signifiers and signifieds had been perfectly linked by Adam, at God's invitation. The fall of Babel destroyed this divine system, leaving humanity with a series of corrupted languages, each of which "vaguely and imperfectly represented reality" (p. 5). Therefore, linguistic differences were, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant.
By the late seventeenth century, Gray suggests, such formulations were under assault. Words came to be seen as inventions, as products of human thought rather than reflections (albeit imperfect ones) of a divine system. "The earlier notion that beneath...