Linguists research Timucua, a language with no speakers
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Two linguists at William and Mary, Jack Martin and Ann Reed, both of whom are associate professors of English, are picking up the trail of a language that has not been spoken for centuries. Various scholars over the years have tried to tackle the case of Timucua, the lost tongue once spoken by Native Americans throughout northern Florida that survives only in a few Florida place names and in museums in the form of old documents written by Spanish priests. The last native speakers of Timucua vanished after being put on a boat to Cuba in 1732.
Linguists have a set of tools that can be used to fill in blank spots in lost tongues by drawing on related languages, but those devices are of little help to Reed and Martin, as there are no known languages related to Timucua. Martin, an authority on Creek and the Muskogean languages, noted that despite the proximity of the cultures, only a couple of words—such as a word for the saw palmetto—are common to Timucua and Creek.
What little is known about the lost language comes from documents printed in the early 1600s by Franciscan missionaries who worked among the Timucua. Most of these books were compiled by Father Francisco Pareja.
“He wrote something called the Confessionario—questions that the priests could ask penitents when they were coming to the confessional. We have a wonderful copy available to us which has Spanish and Timucua,” Reed said. “It’s a wonderful resource on the language, but the language has proved very difficult to parse. We spent more than a year on it. Many people going back through the 19th century have spent decades on it, and we still don’t have a very good idea of how the language works.”
The clues gleaned from the documents to date are quite basic. The fundamental construction of Timucua is familiar, and Reed said it is clear that verbs are put together with multiple suffixes and a few prefixes.
“Structurally, it’s very much a native Southeastern language,” Martin said. “So in all of the native languages of the Southeast, except the Iroquoian and Algonquian languages, you have a certain word order. You have subject, object, verb. You have demonstratives before the noun, you have adjectives after the noun, possessives before the possessed item. Right across the board, it is that way.”
One of the difficulties that remains is negotiating the prescriptive Eurocentric approach to the native language taken by Father Pareja and others as they tried to describe Timucua by using familiar terms, structure and concepts from Latin and Greek.
“In the Arte, in a very traditional and probably inappropriate way, Pareja went through what he considered to be the basic parts of speech, but it was all based on European languages,” Reed explained. “So he describes Timucua nouns and the endings that they take—even sometimes when they don’t take endings! Then he goes through the verbs and the other parts of speech, some of which, again, don’t even match up with European languages.”
The Arte was lost for a time, then rediscovered and published in the 1890s by two Frenchmen who further muddied the linguistic waters. “If these guys decided that a certain combination of sounds was a prefix in Timucua, they felt quite free to go through the document and change it, regularize it completely,” Reed said. It was this “regularized” 1890s edition of the Arte that Reed and Martin had been using as a resource. The only known copy of Pareja’s original 1614 document is in the New York Public Library. Reed took digital photographs of the Arte in the library last summer. She and Martin are seeking permission to create a parallel version of the Arte. “Our basic strategy for deciphering the language is to create a parallel English translation and then to pull out every Timucua form from that and put it in a concordance—a word index,” Martin said. “Then we’ll be able to use that for other studies.”
Both Martin and Reed agree that their study of Timucua is likely to take many years. Several undergraduates have already contributed to the project; two are writing honors theses on Timucua and another is transcribing the original Arte. The process continues to yield many insights, both about the language itself and about the history of the very early years of the European presence in the New World.