As the mental faculties of a people are reflected in their speech, we should naturally expect that the language of a race manifesting such unusual powers as the Iroquois nations have displayed would be of a remarkable character. In this expectation we are not disappointed. The languages of the Huron-Iroquois family belong to what has been termed the polysynthetic class, and are distinguished, even in that class, by a more than ordinary endowment of that variety of forms and fullness of expression for which languages of that type are noted. The best-qualified judges have been the most struck with this peculiar excellence. "The variety of compounds," wrote the accomplished missionary, Brebeuf, concerning the Huron tongue, "is very great; it is the key to the secret of their language. They have as many genders as ourselves, as many numbers as the Greeks." Recurring to the same comparison, he remarks of the Huron verb that it has as many tenses and numbers as the Greek, with certain discriminations which the latter did not possess. 1 A great living authority has added the weight of his name to these opinions of the scholarly Jesuit. Professor Max Müller, who took the opportunity afforded by the presence of a Mohawk undergraduate at Oxford to study his language, writes of it in emphatic terms: "To my mind the structure of such a language as the Mohawk is quite sufficient evidence that those who worked out such a work of art were powerful reasoners; and accurate classifiers." 2
It is a fact somewhat surprising, as well as unfortunate, that no complete grammar of any language of the Huron-Iroquois stock has ever been published. Many learned and zealous missionaries, Catholic and Protestant, have labored among the tribes of this stock for more than two centuries. Portions of the Scriptures, as well as some other works, have been translated into several of these languages. Some small books, including biographies and hymn-books, have been composed and printed in two of them; and the late devoted and indefatigable missionary among the Senecas, the Rev. Asher Wright, conducted for several years a periodical, the "Mental Elevator" (Ne Jaguhnigoageswatha), in their language. Several grammars are known to have been composed, but none have as yet been printed in a complete form. One reason of this unwillingness to publish was, undoubtedly, the sense which the compilers felt of the insufficiency of their work. Such is the extraordinary complexity of the language, such the multiplicity of its forms and the subtlety of its distinctions, that years of study are required to master it; and indeed it may be said that the abler the investigator and the more careful his study, the more likely he is to be dissatisfied with his success. This dissatisfaction was frankly expressed and practically exhibited by Mr. Wright himself, certainly one of the best endowed and most industrious of these inquirers. After residing for several years among the Senecas, forming an alphabet remarkable for its precise
discrimination of sounds, and even publishing several translations in their language, he undertook to give some account of its grammatical forms. A little work printed in 1842, with the modest title of "A Spelling-book of the Seneca Language," comprises the variations of nouns, adjectives and pronouns, given with much minuteness. Those of the verbs are promised, but the book closes abruptly without them, for the reason--as the author afterwards explained to a correspondent--that he had not as yet been able to obtain such a complete knowledge of them as he desired. This difficulty is further exemplified by a work purporting to be a "Grammar of the Huron Language, by a Missionary of the Village of Huron Indians near Quebec, found amongst the papers of the Mission, and translated from the Latin, by the Rev. John Wilkie." This translation is published in the "Transactions of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec," for 1831, and fills more than a hundred octavo pages. It is a work evidently of great labor, and is devoted chiefly to the variations of the verbs; yet its lack of completeness may be judged from the single fact that the "transitions," or in other words, the combinations of the double pronouns, nominative and objective, with the transitive verb, which form such an important feature of the language, are hardly noticed; and, it may be added, though the conjugations are mentioned, they are not explained. The work, indeed, would rather perplex than aid an investigator, and gives no proper idea of the character and richness of the language. The same may be said of the grammatical notices comprised in the Latin "Proemium" to Bruyas' Iroquois dictionary. These notices are apparently modeled to some extent on this anonymous grammar of the Huron language,--unless, indeed, the latter may have been copied from Bruyas; the rules which they give being in several instances couched in the same words.
Some useful grammatical explanations are found in the
anonymous Onondaga dictionary of the seventeenth century, published by Dr. Shea in his "Library of American linguistics." But by far the most valuable contribution to our knowledge of the structure of this remarkable group of languages is found in the works of a distinguished writer of our own day, the Rev. J. A. Cuoq, of Montreal, eminent both as a missionary and as a philologist. After twenty years of labor among the Iroquois and Algonkin tribes in the Province of Quebec, M. Cuoq was led to appear as an author by his desire to defend his charges against the injurious effect of a judgment which had been pronounced by a noted authority. M. Renan had put forth, among the many theories which distinguish his celebrated work on the Semitic languages, one which seemed to M. Cuoq as mischievous as it was unfounded. M. Renan held that no races were capable of civilization except such as have now attained it; and that these comprised only the Aryan, the Semitic, and the Chinese. This opinion was enforced by a reference to the languages spoken by the members of those races. "To imagine a barbarous race speaking a Semitic or an Indo-European language is," he declares, "an impossible supposition (une fiction contradiaoire), which no person can entertain who is familiar with the laws of comparative philology, and with the general theory of the human intellect." To one who remembers that every nation of the Indo-European race traces its descent from a barbarous ancestry, and especially that the Germans in the days of Tacitus were in precisely the same social stage as that of the Iroquois in the days of Champlain, this opinion of the brilliant French philologist and historian will seem erratic and unaccountable. M. Cuoq sought to refute it, not merely by argument, but by the logic of facts. In two works, published successively in 1864 and 1866, he showed, by many and various examples, that the Iroquois and Algonkin languages possessed all the excellences which M. Renan admired in the Indo-European languages, and surpassed in
almost every respect the Semitic and Chinese tongues. 1 The resemblances of these Indian languages to the Greek struck him, as it had struck his illustrious predecessor, the martyred Brebeuf, two hundred years before. M. Cuoq is also the author of a valuable Iroquois lexicon, with notes and appendices, in which he discusses some interesting points in the philology of the language. This lexicon is important, also, for comparison with that of the Jesuit missionary, Bruyas, as showing how little the language has varied in the course of two centuries. 2 The following particulars respecting the Iroquois tongues are mainly derived from the works of M. Cuoq, of Bruyas, and of Mr. Wright, supplemented by the researches of the author, pursued at intervals during several years, among the tribes of Western Canada and New York. Only a very brief sketch of the subject can here be given. It is not too much to say that a complete grammar of any Iroquois language would be at least as extensive as the best Greek or Sanscrit grammar. For such a work neither the writer, nor perhaps any other person now living, except M. Cuoq himself, would be competent.
The phonology of the language is at once simple and perplexing. According to M. Cuoq, twelve letters suffice to represent it: a, e, f, h, i, k, n, o, r, s, t, w. Mr. Wright employs for the Seneca seventeen, with diacritical marks,
which raise the number to twenty-one. The English missionaries among the Mohawks found sixteen letters sufficient, a, d, e, g, h, i, j, k, n, o, r, s, t, u, w, y. There are no labial sounds, unless the f, which rarely occurs, and appears to be merely an aspirated w, may be considered one. No definite distinction is maintained between the vowel sounds o and u, and one of these letters may be dispensed with. The distinction between hard and soft (or surd and sonant) mutes is not preserved. The sounds of d and t, and those of k and g, are interchangeable. So also are those of l and r, the former sound being heard more frequently in the Oneida dialect and the latter in the Canienga. From the Western dialects,--the Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca,--this l or r sound has, in modern times, disappeared altogether. The Canienga konoronkwa, I esteem him (in Oneida usually sounded konolonkwa), has become konoenkwa in Onondaga, and in Cayuga and Seneca is contracted to kononkwa. Aspirates and aspirated gutturals abound, and have been variously represented by h, hh, kh, and gh, and sometimes (in the works of the early French missionaries) by the Greek chi and the spiritus asper. Yet no permanent distinction appears to be maintained among the sounds thus represented, and M. Cuoq reduces them all to the simple h. The French nasal sound abounds. M. Cuoq and the earlier English missionaries have expressed it, as in French, simply by the n when terminating a syllable. When it does not close a syllable, a diæresis above the n, or else the Spanish tilde (ñ) indicates the sound. Mr. Wright denotes it by a line under the vowel. The later English missionaries express it by a diphthong: ken becomes kea; nonwa becomes noewa; onghwentsya is written oughweatsya.
A strict analysis would probably reduce the sounds of the Canienga language to seven consonants, h, k, n. r, s, t, and w, and four vowels, a, e, i, and o, of which three, a, e, and o, may receive a nasal sound. This nasalizing makes them, in
fact, distinct elements; and the primary sounds of the language may therefore be reckoned at fourteen. 1 The absence of labials and the frequent aspirated gutturals give to the utterance of the best speakers a deep and sonorous character which reminds the hearer of the stately Castilian speech.
The "Book of Rites," or, rather, the Canienga portion of it, is written in the orthography first employed by the English missionaries. The d is frequently used, and must be regarded merely as a variant of the t sound. The g is sometimes, though rarely, employed as a variant of the k. The digraph gh is common and represents the guttural aspirate, which in German is indicated by ch and in Spanish by j. The French missionaries write it now simply h, and consider it merely a harsh pronunciation of the aspirate. The j is sounded as in English; it usually represents a complex sound, which might be analysed into ts or tsï; jathondek is properly tsïatontek. The x, which occasionally appears, is to be pronounced ks, as in English. An, en, on, when not followed by a vowel, have a nasal sound, as in French. This sound is heard even when those syllables are followed by another n. Thus Kanonsionni is pronounced as if written Kanoñsioñni and yondennase as if written yoñdeñnase. The vowels have usually the same sound as in German and Italian; but in the nasal en the vowel has an obscure sound, nearly like that of the short u in but. Thus yondennase sounds almost as if written yoñduñnase, and kanienke is pronounced nearly like kaniuñke.
The nouns in Iroquois are varied, but with accidence differing from the Aryan and Semitic variations, some of the distinctions being more subtle, and, so to speak, metaphysical. The dual is expressed by prefixing the particle te, and suffixing ke to the noun; thus., from kanonsa, house, we have
tekanonsake, two houses. These syllables, or at least the first, are supposed to be derived from tekeni, two. The plural, when it follows an adjective expressive of number, is indicated by the syllable ni prefixed to the noun, and ke suffixed; as, eso nikanonsake, many houses. In other cases the plural is sometimes expressed by one of the words okon (or hokon) okonha, son and sonha, following the noun. In general, however, the plural significance of nouns is left to be inferred from the context, the verb always and the adjective frequently indicating it.
All beings are divided into two classes, which do not correspond either with the Aryan genders or with the distinctions of animate and inanimate which prevail in the Algonkin tongues. These classes have been styled noble and common. To the noble belong male human beings and deities. The other class comprises women and all other objects. It seems probable, however, that the distinction in the first instance was merely that of sex,--that it was, in fact, a true gender. Deities, being regarded as male, were included in the masculine gender. There being no neuter form, the feminine gender was extended, and made to comprise all other beings. These classes, however, are not indicated by any change in the noun, but merely by the forms of the pronoun and the verb.
The local relations of nouns are expressed by affixed particles, such as ke, ne, kon, akon, akta. Thus, from onónta mountain, we have onontáke, at (or to) the mountain; from akérat, dish, akehrátne, in (or on) the dish; from kanónsa, house, kanonsákon, or kanónskon, in the house, kanonsákon, under the house, and kanonsákta, near the house. These locative particles, it will be seen, usually, though not always, draw the accent towards them.
The most peculiar and perplexing variation is that made by what is termed the "crement," affixed to many (though not all) nouns. This crement in the Canienga takes various
forms, ta, sera, tsera, kwa. Onkwe, man, becomes onkwéta; otkon, spirit, otkónsera; akáwe, oar, akawétsera; ahta, shoe, ahhtákwa. The crement is employed when the noun is used with numeral adjectives, when it has adjective or other affixes, and generally when it enters into composition with other words. Thus onkwe, man, combined with the adjective termination iyo (from the obsolete wiyo, good) becomes onkwetiyo, good man. Wenni, day, becomes in the plural niate niwenniserake, many days, etc. The change, however, is not grammatical merely, but conveys a peculiar shade of meaning difficult to define. The noun, according to M. Cuoq, passes from a general and determinate to a special and restricted sense. Onkwe means man in general; asen nionkwetake, three men (in particular.) One interpreter rendered akawétsera, "the oar itself." The affix sera or tsera seems to be employed to form what we should term abstract nouns, though to the Iroquois mind they apparently present themselves as possessing a restricted or specialized sense. Thus from iotarihen, it is warm, we have otarihénsera, heat; from wakeriat, to be brave, ateriatítsera, courage. So kakweniátsera, authority; kanaiésera, pride; kanakwénsera, anger. Words of this class abound in the Iroquois; so little ground is there for the common opinion that the language is destitute of abstract nouns. 1
The adjective, when employed in an isolated form, follows the substantive; as kanonsa kowa, large house; onkwe honwe (or onwe) a real man. But, in general, the substantive and the adjective coalesce in one word. Ase signifies new, and added to kanonsa gives us kanonsáse, new house. Karonta, tree, and kowa, or kowanen, great, make together karontowánen, great tree. Frequently the affixed adjective is never employed as an isolated word, The termination iyo (or iio)
expresses good or beautiful, and aksen, bad or ugly; thus kanonsíyo, fine house, kanonsáksen, ugly house. These compound forms frequently make their plural by adding s, as kanonsíyos, kanonaksens.
The pronouns are more numerous than in any European language, and show clearer distinctions in meaning. Thus, in the singular, besides the ordinary pronouns, I, thou, he and she, the language possesses an indeterminate form, which answers very nearly to the French on. The first person of the dual has two forms, the one including, the other excluding, the person addressed, and signifying, therefore, respectively,--"thou and I," and "he and I." The first person plural has the same twofold form. The third persons dual and plural have masculine and feminine forms. Thus the language has fifteen personal pronouns, all in common use, and all, it may be added, useful in expressing distinctions which the English can only indicate by circumlocutions. These pronouns are best shown in the form in which they are prefixed to a verb. The following are examples of the verb katkahtos, I see (root atkahto) and kenonwes, I love (root nonwe), as conjugated in the present tense:--
katkahtos, I see.
kenonwes, I love.
It will be observed that in these examples the prefixed pronouns differ considerably in some cases. These differences determine (or are determined by) the conjugation of the verbs. Katkahtos belongs to the first conjugation, and kenonwes to the second. There are three other conjugations, each of which shows some peculiarity in the prefixed pronouns, though, in the main, a general resemblance runs through them all. There are other variations of the pronouns, according to the "paradigm," as it is called, to which the verb belongs. Of these paradigms there are two, named in the modern Iroquois grammars paradigms K and A, from the first or characteristic letter of the first personal pronoun. The particular conjugation and paradigm to which any verb belongs can only be learned by practice, or from the dictionaries.
The same prefixed pronouns are used, with some slight variations, as possessives, when prefixed to a substantive; as, from sita, foot, we have (in Paradigm A) akasita, my foot, sasita, thy foot, raosita, his foot. Thus nouns, like verbs, have the five conjugations and the two paradigms.
Iroquois verbs have three moods, indicative, imperative, and subjunctive; and they have, in the indicative, seven tenses, the present, imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, aorist, future and paulo-post future. These moods and tenses are indicated either by changes of termination, or by prefixed particles, or by both conjoined. One authority makes six other tenses, but M. Cuoq prefers to include them among the special forms of the verb, of which mention will presently be made.
To give examples of these tenses, and the rules for their formation, would require more space than can be devoted to the subject in the present volume. The reader who desires to pursue the study is referred to the works of M. Cuoq already mentioned.
The verb takes a passive form by inserting the syllable at
between the prefixed pronoun and the verb; and a reciprocal sense by inserting atat. Thus, kiatatas, I put in, katiatatas, I am put in; katatiatatas, I put myself in; konnis, I make; katonnis, I am made; katatonnis, I make myself. This syllable at is probably derived from the word oyata, body, which is used in the sense of "self," like the corresponding word hakey in the Delaware language.
The "transitions," or the pronominal forms which indicate the passage of the action of a transitive verb from the agent to the object, play an important part in the Iroquois language. In the Algonkin tongues these transitions are indicated partly by prefixed pronouns, and partly by terminal inflections. In the Iroquois the subjective and objective pronouns are both prefixed, as in French. In that language "il me voit" corresponds precisely with RAKAtkatos, "he-me-sees." Here the pronouns, ra, of the third person, and ka of the first, are evident enough. In other cases the two pronouns have been combined in a form which shows no clear trace of either of the simple pronouns; as in hetsenonwes, thou lovest him, and hianonwes, he loves thee. These combined pronouns are very numerous, and vary, like the simple pronouns, in the five conjugations.
The peculiar forms of the verb, analogous to the Semitic conjugations are very numerous. Much of the force and richness of the language depends on them. M. Cuoq enumerates-
1. The diminutive form, which affixes ha; as knekirhaHA, I drink a little; konkweHA (from onkwe, man), I am a man, but hardly one (i.e., I am a little of a man).
2. The augmentative, of which tsi is the affixed sign; as, knekirhaTSI, I drink much. This is sometimes lengthened to tsihon; as wakatonteTSIHON, I understand perfectly.
3 and 4. The cislocative, expressing motion towards the speaker, and the translocative, indicating motion tending
from him. The former has t, the latter ie or ia, before the verb, as tasataweiat, come in; iasataweiat, go in.
5. The duplicative, which prefixes te, expresses an action which affects two or more agents or objects, as in betting, marrying, joining, separating. Thus, from ikiaks, I cut, we have tekiaks, I cut in two, where the prefix le corresponds to the Latin bi in "bisect." The same form is used in speaking of acts done by those organs of the body, such as the eyes and the hands, which nature has made double. Thus tekasenthos, I weep, is never used except in this form.
6. The reiterative is expressed by the sound of s prefixed to the verb. It sometimes replaces the cislocative sign; thus, tkahtenties, I come from yonder; skahtenties, I come again.
7. The motional is a form which by some is considered a special future tense. Thus, from khiatons, I write, we have khiatonnes, I am going to write; from katerios, I fight, katerioseres, I am going to the war; from kesaks, I seek, kesakhes, I am going to seek. These forms are irregular, and can only be learned by practice.
8. The causative suffix is tha; as from k'kowanen, I am great, we have k'kowanaTHA, I make great, I aggrandize. With at inserted we have a simulative or pretentious form, as katkowanaTHA, I make myself great, I pretend to be great. The same affix is used to give an instrumental sense; as from keriios, I kill, we have keriiohTHA, I kill him with such a weapon or instrument.
9. The progressive, which ends in tie (sometimes taking the forms atie, hatie, tatie), is much used to give the sense of becoming, proceeding, continuing, and the like; as wakhiatontie, I go on writing; wakatrorihatie, I keep on talking; wakeriwaientatie, I am attending to the business. The addition of an s to this form adds the idea of plurality or diversity of acts; thus, wakhiatonties, I go on writing at different times and places; wakatrorihaties, I keep on telling the thing, i.e., going from house to house.
10. The attributive has various forms, which can only be learned by practice or from the dictionaries. It expresses an action done for some other person; as, from wakiote, I work, we have kiotense, I work for some one; from katatis, I speak, katatiase, I speak in favor of some one.
11. The habitual ends in kon. From katontats, I hear, I consent, we have wakatontatskon, I am docile; from katatis, I speak, wakatatiatskon, I am talkative.
12. The frequentative has many forms, but usually ends in on, or ons. From khiatons, I write, we have in this form khiatonnions, I write many things; from katkahtos, I look, katkahtonnions, I look on all sides.
These are not all the forms of the Iroquois verb; but enough have been enumerated to give some idea of the wealth of the language in such derivatives, and the power of varied expression which it derives from this source.
The Iroquois has many particles which, like those of the Greek and French languages, help to give clearness to the style, though their precise meaning cannot always be gathered by one not perfectly familiar with the language. Ne and nene are frequently used as substitutes for the article and the relative pronouns. Onenh, now; kati, then, therefore; ok, nok, and neok, and; oni and neoni, also; toka and tokat, if, perhaps; tsi, when; kento, here; akwah, indeed, very; etho, thus, so; are, sometimes, again; ken, an interrogative particle, like the Latin ne--these and some others will be found in the Book of Rites, employed in the manner in which they are still used by the best speakers.
It must be understood that the foregoing sketch affords only the barest outline of the formation of the Iroquois language. As has been before remarked, a complete grammar of this speech, as full and minute as the best Sanscrit or Greek grammars, would probably equal and perhaps surpass those grammars in extent. The unconscious forces of memory and of discrimination required to maintain this complicated
intellectual machine, and to preserve it constantly exact and in good working order, must be prodigious. Yet a comparison of Bruyas' work with the language of the present day shows that this purpose has been accomplished; and, what is still more remarkable, a comparison of the Iroquois with the Huron grammar shows that after a separation which must have exceeded five hundred years, and has probably covered twice that term, the two languages differ less from one another than the French of the twelfth century differed from the Italian, or than the Anglo-Saxon of King Alfred differed from the contemporary Low German speech. The forms of the Huron-Iroquois languages, numerous and complicated as they are, appear to be certainly not less persistent, and probably better maintained, than those of the written Aryan tongues.
99:1 Relation of 1636, pp. 99, 100.
99:2 in a letter to the author, dated Feb. 14, 1882. in a subsequent letter Prof. Müller writes, in regard to the study of the aboriginal languages of this continent: "It has long been a puzzle to me why this most tempting p. 100 and promising field of philological research has been allowed to lie almost fallow in America,--as if these languages could not tell us quite as much of the growth of the human mind as Chinese, or Hebrew, or Sanscrit." I have Prof. Max Müller's permission to publish these extracts, and gladly do so, in the hope that they may serve to stimulate that growing interest which the efforts of scholars like Trumbull, Shea, Cuoq, Brinton, and, more recently, Major Powell and his able collaborators of the Ethnological Bureau, are at length beginning to awaken among us, in the investigation of this important and almost unexplored province of linguistic science.
103:1 See Jugement Erroné de M. Ernest Renan sur les Langues Sauvages: (2d edit.) Dawson Brothers, Montreal: 1870; and Études Philologiques sur quelques Langues Sauvages de l'Amérique. Par N. O., Ancien Missionaire. Ibid: 1866. Also Lexique de la Langue Iroquoise, avec notes et appendices. Par J. A. Cuoq, Prêtre de St. Sulpice. J. Chapleau & Fils, Montreal: 1882. These are all works indispensable to the student of Indian languages.
103:2 Radices Verborum Iroquæorum. Auctore R. p. Jacopo Bruyas, Societatis Jesu. Published in Shea's "Library of American Linguistics." For the works in this invaluable Library, American scholars owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Shea's enlightened zeal in the cause of science and humanity.
105:1 A dental t,--which the French missionaries represent sometimes by the Greek theta and sometimes by th, and which the English have also occasionally expressed by the latter method, may possibly furnish an additional element. The Greek 8 of the former is simply the English w.
107:1 See, on this point, the remarks of Dr. Brinton to the same effect, in regard to the Aztec, Qquichua, and other languages, with interesting illustrations, in his "American Hero Myths," p. 25