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A Key into the Language of America

A Key into the Language of America by Roger Williams, Howard M. Chapin (Introduction)

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Product Description

A discourse on the languages of Native Americans encountered by the early settlers written by Roger Williams, who was forced to leave Massachusetts and established Rhode Island. This early linguistic treatise gives rare insight into the early contact between Europeans and Native Americans.


5 out of 5 stars Really interesting, May 31, 2002

By absent_minded_prof (Massachusetts) - See all my reviews

...This is simply a reprint of a book that was first published in the 1640s by Roger Williams, who was the founder of Rhode Island and a respected friend ("netop") of the Narragansett tribe.

That said -- this book is not simply a vocabulary, or a grammatical treatise. It also includes dozens of insights into the daily life of the Narragansett tribe, at a time when most of them lived as they had from time immemorial. Every chapter includes not only the actual vocabulary appropriate to the topic under discussion, but also several paragraphs talking about the lives of the Narragansett. Sometimes Roger Williams ends a chapter with a little pedantic poem, but hey, cut him some slack -- he was a creature of his times, as are we all.

Here are a couple of things that I wish someone had told ME about, before I discovered this amazing little volume. First and formost -- the table of contents is at the END of the book, not the beginning. It does exist, you didn't get a defective copy. Second -- for a funny, fascinating set of examples of early native american onomatopeia, look in the sections on "Fowles" and "Beastes." Evidently, the Narragansetts told Roger Williams that they called a duck a "quequecum," a wild goose was called a "honck-honck," and a horse (which they learned about from the English) was called a "nay-nay-oumewot." Maybe this is just my own sense of humor, but I enjoyed envisioning a stern, austere, Godly Puritan, wearing heavy black clothes in summertime (and the hat with the little buckle on front), sitting down with a solemn circle of sunburned sachems, and doing bird calls. I can just picture the Cambridge-educated Roger Williams earnestly scribbling notes in his notebook, while the sachems sat there, pointed at birds outside the wigwam, and went "quack quack" and "honk honk" for his edification. I thought the duck was especially funny -- "Ah yes.... we callum that birdum a quequecum, Good Reverend Williams."

That is a minor point, but it does make the book a little more fun. Basically, however, let me hasten to add that this book is far more than fun. It is ultimately VERY serious. It's one of the few remaining sources of information into the tongues spoken by the early natives of southern New England. If you are capable of appreciating this, I recommend you look for anything by Kathleen Bragdon, or Ives Goddard, who have done a lot of work trying to keep the memories of these lost languages alive. If you prefer libraries to the internet, try to find articles by the 19th century Connecticut state librarian J. Hammond Trumbull, who wrote many articles on native New England place names, and Eastern Algonquin languages in general. You may also wish to seek out John Eliot's "Indian Bible," which is incredibly hard to find in print, but was put on microfilm by University Microfilms in Michigan. The "Indian Bible" was composed, with the able assistance of native speakers, in the Massachusett dialect of Algonquin, which is very closely related to Narragansett. Another little gem is William Woods' "New England Prospect," which includes a handy little SHORT vocabulary. Also, if you're internet-savvy enough, you might enjoy seeking out the work of Jessie "Little Doe" Fermino, a native Wampanoag in Mashpee, Massachusetts, who has recently been developing language classes in the tongue of the Wampanoag tribe.

But back to this book -- it is highly informative, and a tremendous boon to students of early native Americans in New England. Two thumbs up.


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