Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville, 1831
The languages that are spoken by the Indians of America, from the Pole to Cape Horn, are said to be all formed on the same model and subject to the same grammatical rules; whence it may fairly be concluded that all the Indian nations sprang from the same stock. Each tribe of the American continent speaks a different dialect but the number of languages, properly so called, is very small, a fact which tends to prove that the nations of the New World had not a very remote origin.
Moreover, the languages of America have a great degree of regularity, from which it seems probable that the tribes which employ them had not undergone any great revolutions or been incorporated, voluntarily or by constraint, into foreign nations; for it is generally the union of several languages into one that produces grammatical irregularities. It is not long since the American languages, especially those of the North, first attracted the serious attention of philologists. When they were carefully studied, the discovery was made that this idiom of a barbarous people was the product of a very complicated system of ideas and of exceedingly well-conceived systems. These languages were found to be very rich, and great pains had been taken at their formation to render them agreeable to the ear.
The grammatical system of the Americans differs from all others in several points, but especially in the following:
Some nations of Europe, among others the Germans, have the power of combining at pleasure different expressions, and thus giving a complex sense to certain words. The Indians have given a most surprising extension to this power, so as to connect a great number of ideas with a single term. This will be easily understood with the help of an example quoted by Mr. Duponceau, in the Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society. .
“A Delaware woman playing with a cat or a young dog,” says this writer, “is heard to pronounce the word kuligatschis, which is composed thus: k is the sign of the second person, and signifies ‘thou’ or ‘thy’; uli (pronounced ouli) is a part of the word wulit which signifies ‘beautiful,’ ‘pretty’; gat is another fragment of the word wichgat, which means ‘paw’; and, lastly, schis (pronounced chise) is a diminutive giving the idea of smallness. Thus, in one word, the Indian woman has expressed ‘Thy pretty little paw.'”
Take another example of the felicity with which the savages of America have composed their words. A young man, in the Delaware tongue, is called pilap‚. This word is formed from pilsit, chaste, innocent; and lenap‚, man; hence man in his purity and innocence. This facility of combining words is most remarkable in the strange formation of their verbs. The most complex action is often expressed by a single verb, which serves to convey all the shades of an idea by the modification of its construction.
Those who may wish to examine more in detail this subject, which I have only glanced at superficially, should read:
1 “The Correspondence of Mr. Duponceau and the Rev. Mr. Heckewelder [sic, Bowen] relative to the Indian languages,” found in Volume I of the Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, published at Philadelphia, by Abraham Small, 1819, pp. 356-464.
2 The grammar of the Delaware or Lenape language by Geiberger, and its preface by Mr. Duponceau. All these are in the same collection, Vol. III.
3 An excellent account of these works, which is at the end of Volume VI of the American Encyclop‘dia.
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