September 28, 2004

"A comparison from which something might have resulted"

There's a bit more to be said about Thomas Jefferson's linguistic research and its sad end, which Bill Poser has just described.

As I observed in a post last year, Thomas Jefferson understood in 1781 that the comparison of languages offers a way to understand the history of peoples:

How many ages have elapsed since the English, Dutch, the Germans, the Swiss, the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes have separated from their common stock? Yet how many more must elapse before the proofs of their common origin, which exist in their several languages, will disappear? It is to be lamented then . . . that we have suffered so many of the Indian tribes already to extinguish, without our having previously collected and deposited in the records of literature, the general rudiments at least of the languages they spoke. Were vocabularies formed of all the languages spoken in North and South America, preserving their appellations of the most common objects in nature, of those which must be present to every nation barbarous or civilised, with the inflections of their nouns and verbs, their principles of regimen and concord, and these deposited in all the public libraries, it would furnish opportunities to those skilled in the languages of the old world to compare them with these, now or at a future time, and hence to construct the best evidence of the derivation of this part of the human race.

His colleague, Benjamin Smith Barton M.D., Professor of Materia Medica, Natural History and Botany in the University of Pennsylvania, was eager to see linguistic similarities everywhere:

By a careful inspection of the vocabularies, the reader will find no difficulty in discovering that in Asia the languages of the . . . tribes of the Delaware-stock may be all traced to ONE COMMON SOURCE. Nor do I limit this observation to the languages of the American tribes just mentioned . . . HITHERTO, WE HAVE NOT DISCOVERED IN AMERICA. . . ANY TWO, OR MORE LANGUAGES BETWEEN WHICH WE ARE INCAPABLE OF DETECTING AFFINITIES (AND THOSE VERY OFTEN STRIKING) EITHER IN AMERICAN, OR IN THE OLD WORLD. [emphasis original]

(New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America, 1798)

Barton went on to assert that "[m]y inquiries seem to render it probable, that all the languages of the countries of America may . . . be traced to one or two great stocks. . ." But Jefferson took a far more cautious line:

. . . imperfect as is our knowledge of the tongues spoken in America, it suffices to discover the following remarkable fact. Arranging them under the radical ones to which they may be palpably traced, and doing the same by those of the red men of Asia, there will be found probably twenty in America, for one in Asia, of those radical languages, so called because, if they were ever the same, they have lost all resemblance to one another. A separation into dialects may be the work of a few ages only, but for two dialects to recede from one another till they have lost all vestiges of their common origin, must require an immense course of time; perhaps not less than many people give to the age of the earth. A greater number of those radical changes of language having taken place among the red men of America, proves them of greater antiquity than those of Asia.

Thus the division between "lumper" and "splitter" was already well established by 1798 -- though Jefferson and Barton maintained friendly cooperation throughout, despite their disagreements.

I suppose that Jefferson's "course of time" that "many people give to the age of the earth" was most likely a reference to the calculations like those of James Usher, Anglican Bishop of Ireland, who had calculated based on biblical considerations that the earth had been created on October 26, 4004 B.C., or almost 6,000 years before Jefferson wrote those lines. "Not less than 6,000 years" is not too far off from conservative modern estimates of the time required "for two dialects to recede from one another till they have lost all vestiges of their common origin".

By 1801, Jefferson had collected vocabularies for about 30 indigenous languages, and began to arrange this material for publication "lest by some accident it might be lost" (as he had written in a letter to Benjamin Hawkins in March of 1800). He was apparently near to realizing this goal in 1803, but put it off due to the opportunity afforded by the Lousiana Purchase to obtain a large amount of additional data, and he formed the plan to devote himself to this work after retiring from the presidency.

At this point, the story that I've read elsewhere conflicts with the version given on the APS web page that Bill referenced, which says that the linguistic papers were being shipped from Monticello to Philadelphia, and were lost on the Rappahannock. But in American Science in the Age of Jefferson (1984), John C. Greene wrote (p. 384-385) that

In September 1809 Jefferson wrote Barton that he would be glad to let him see any or all of his vocabularies if he were able to do so.

But Jefferson was now unable to oblige Barton or anyone else with Indian vocabularies. The accident he had dreaded in his letter to Hawkins in 1800 had happened. He had put off arranging his vocabularies for publication until he could incorporate the word lists brought back by Lewis and Clark. His turbulent last term as president of the United States having expired, he had packed the vocabularies and related materials in a trunk and sent them to Monticello with the rest of his things, looking forward eagerly to completing work on them when he arrived at his beloved plantation. Alas, the trunk never arrived. It was stolen from the ship that carried it up the James River, and the thief, disappointed to find nothing but "worthless" papers in the trunk, had emptied its contents into the river. Only a few of the precious documents floated ashore and were rescued from the mud. Among these was Lewis' vocabulary of the Pani language, which Jefferson sent to Barton along with a fragment of another vocabulary in Lewis' hand.

Jefferson's cover letter to Barton read in part:

It is a specimen of the condition of the little that was recovered. I am the more concerned at this accident, as of the two hundred and fifty words of my vocabularies, and the one hundred and thirty words of the great Russian vocabularies of the languages of the other quarters of the globe, seventy-three were common to both, and would have furnished materials for a comparison from which something might have resulted. ... Perhaps I may make another attempt to collect, although I am too old to expect to make much progress in it.

Jefferson was 66 at the time, and though he lived another 17 years, the field by then had left him behind.

So I'm not sure whether the stolen trunk was bound from Washington to Monticello, or from Monticello to Philadelphia, and whether it was emptied into the James River or the Rappahannock. But whatever the true historical facts of the case, it's a good argument for making sure you have off-site backups.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 28, 2004 08:31 AM