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The Transformation of Communication in Early America

The Transformation of Communication in Early America


Effects of Contact. European contact permanently altered the nature of communication in early America. While the intruders often found existing native systems and networks of exchange essential in establishing communication with native North Americans, in adopting them for their own use they also manipulated and changed them. Initial short-term relations were relatively easy to establish by allowing human nature and natural mutual curiosity between disparate peoples to forge basic understandings and connections. Once encounters became prolonged, however, deeper, more sophisticated communication was necessary to navigate the potentially treacherous waters of coexistence and cooperation on common ground. The explorers needed accurate, trustworthy information in order to penetrate the continent and establish effective control over the newly discovered territories, resources, and peoples. Language, like the gun, horse, smallpox, and influenza, became a tool of conquest.

New Communication Methods. As the explorers needs changed, so did the methods of communication. Ad hoc gestures proved inadequate for the expression of subtle, detailed, and abstract concepts, so the intruders sought other, more reliable techniques. In contacts focused on trade, jargons and pidgins often emerged to fill the requirement for better communication. Elsewhere, Europeans turned to kidnapping and the forcible education of natives as translators. Frequently such measures failed to achieve the desired results since coerced interpreters could prove untrustworthy, and many ran away at the first opportunity. Eventually Europeans who spent time among the Indians as captives or traders, as well as missionaries and natural philosophers interested in learning native languages, provided a supply of Europeans who could serve as interpreters.

New Speech Communities. The presence of explorers who traveled along the coasts and into the interior of North America transformed existing speech communities and created new ones. The spread of trade jargons and pidgins along native trade routes and into new areas forged larger speech communities as these contact languages served, at least briefly, as new linguae francae among both natives and Europeans. Where shared languages for trade and diplomacy existed, their use was geographically broadened by European explorers and traders who adopted them and carried them beyond established speech communities into the interior. Such was the case in the Southwest and the southern plains, where Pima, Náhuatl, and sign language served this purpose. Indian interpreters accompanying European explorers encountered new peoples and languages and established additional links and networks in the process. Finally, as warfare and disease ravaged native communities and bands, survivors regrouped or moved into new areas, forming new speech communities. In the process some native languages became extinct.

Tool of Conquest. As Europeans made ever greater inroads along the coasts of North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their numbers grew, and their superior weaponry, arrogance, and diseases enabled them to begin imposing the use of European tongues on the natives in surrounding areas. English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, the languages of the American colonial societies, eventually supplanted native tongues as the languages of Indian relations. In addition, written language assumed greater authority than the spoken word in the literate culture that dominated the North American colonies, devaluing the spoken word and prompting interested colonial officials and missionaries to sponsor efforts to capture native languages in written form. By the mid nineteenth century many American Indian languages had disappeared from daily use.


Ives Goddard, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volume 17: Languages (Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1996).

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