This post is part of the series Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Divisions of the Library of Congress.
A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language. —Noam Chomsky
There is in reality never a permanent, stable equilibrium in any language.–Ferdinand de Saussure
Most languages are related to other languages and can usually be assigned to large language families by linguists. By studying their syntax, lexicon, and phonology, scholars can get an idea of the similarities between related forms of speech–not so with what are called language isolates. These languages stand alone and appear to be unrelated to any other known group of speakers. One explanation for why a language is an isolate is that it might be the last surviving representative of a larger family, all of whose members went extinct before anyone had a chance to record them. Another might be that the language in question developed in extreme isolation from other languages or has changed so much through the centuries that little survives which might link it back to a larger surviving family. Isolates from the Americas are rare and for this reason their study has become an obsession of mine.
A complex, but now extinct language isolate from the Americas, known as Timucua, was spoken in the northern parts of Florida and southern Georgia long before the coming of Europeans. If the archaeological evidence is correct it may have been spoken in the region since at least 2000 BCE. Most of what is known about the language comes however, from a series of books written in the early seventeenth century by Francisco Pareja (1570-1628), a Franciscan missionary, who arrived in St. Augustine in 1595.
In the Kislak Collection there is an extremely rare and important dual language catechism in Spanish and Timucua, authored by Pareja, called Catecismo en lengua timucuana y castellana : en el cual se instruyen y catequizan los adultos infieles que han de ser cristianos y no sera menos útil para los ya cristianos, which was published in 1627. His previous book, another catechism, Cathecismo en lengua castellana, y Timuquana, from 1612, has the distinction of being the first book published in an indigenous language from what would become the United States.
There are few sources that attest to the grammar of Timucua, except for those written by Pareja, and at least seven survive to the present day. All of the volumes he penned are either grammars or manuals for religious instruction and they are an important window through which we can see both the structure of the language, and how missionaries attempted to covert the Indigenous speakers they encountered. Pareja noted the complexities of Timucua in detail, and identified at least nine dialects, each spoken in a different local region of northern Florida or southern Georgia.
Timucua was what is known as an S-O-V language, meaning that the phrasal word order was subject–object–verb, unlike English, where the order is subject–verb–object. Because there is a lack of evidence in Pareja’s texts about how sentences were constructed, we do not completely understand its full syntax and expressive power.
As a linguist reading the works of Pareja, one cannot help but question how detailed his knowledge of the language actually was at the time. It appears that he may have acted more like a compiler, asking Timucua speakers, many of whom also knew Spanish, to translate, so he could write down the Timucua phrases.
One particular book of Pareja’s that is especially important and interesting to linguists and ethnohistorians alike, is his 1613, Confessionario En lengua Castellana y Timuquana Con algunos consejos para animar al penitente. In the book he lays out a series of questions to be considered before confession, which give deep insights into some of the Timucua customs, rituals and beliefs.
Many of the questions asked by Pareja are formulated in a way to root out what the missionaries thought were superstitions. A few examples will give a feel for the structure of the language, and for some of the questions to be asked before confession.
Camapatama hybinoma ytuhuchicaqe quela nole haue mouicho ?
[Translation: Did you order that over the lake incantations should be recited before fishing in it?]
Emiso haueleta cho hynino ytuhuso bicho?
[Translation: When intending to join a hunting party, do you order words to be said over tobacco beforehand?]
Hitiqiryma hebuataqe hoba nimelabonihaue mota, bohotamosobicho?
[Translation: When the owl was screeching did you believe that it would have mercy on you?]
Cho fama, pilenoma, ibine, ichicosa, ecatiquani ilifoqi tinibalusihabele mota mosobicho ?
[Translation: Did you forbid that the liver and lungs of game should be thrown in cold water to cook them, because it would mean further game could not be hunted ?]
Isucu iribota nayo pira pequaele amala hitiqire metele atulu hachibueno eyo naquenema areconoleqe iquilabonoma ypohale manta bohota mobicho?
[Translation: In curing someone, have you placed in front of the sick person white feathers, new skins and the ears of the owl, along with arrows which are stuck into the ground, and then said that you will take out the evil and sickness?]
Tola, ucuchua nacaqui binaqechu, naquosobicho?
[Translation: The ceremony of the laurel that is made to the devil, have you performed it?]
This last example is just one of many in the text of Pareja that mention the religious importance of some kind of laurel bush. It is interesting that the word used for laurel here, tola, is the same word used by the nearby the Muscogee [to-li or to-la], for the leaves of the sweet or red bay plant, Persea borbonia, a member of the laurel family. Looking at these texts it is obvious that with careful analysis, one can learn a great deal about the culture, rituals, and daily lives of the Timucua.
In most cases losing a language means losing a culture, and with it the unique ways that a people confront and think about the world. It is difficult to estimate the number of languages that have passed through the depths of time without being recorded and that are little attested to in the historical record–sounds and cultures missing from our necessarily incomplete construction of the past. Language is an amazingly varied human trait but, like everything else in history, is ephemeral and fleeting and, as the linguist David Crystal put it,
…has no independent existence apart from the people who use it. Language is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end of understanding who you are and what society is like.
Note that “Chi Mobi” in the title of this post in Timucua means “you did speak”.