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Lost language of the Susquehannocks: Do you know what Codorus means? How about Accomac?
Charles A. Kauffman Published 1:23 p.m. ET July 25, 2019
https://www.ydr.com/story/opinion/2019/ … 827789001/
No one knows what language was uttered by the first people to lay eyes upon the majestic river we call the Susquehanna.
What we know about the languages of the Susquehanna’s early inhabitants comes from archaeology, linguistics and a limited historical record dating back only a few hundred years to the arrival of European settlers. Although there is archaeological evidence of pre-historic peoples in the area, neither their names nor languages are known.
As was common among first inhabitants in North America, tribal histories were passed down orally, so there are few written clues about the earliest languages spoken along the Susquehanna.
In the words of Paul A. W. Wallace, Pennsylvania historian, “Early man in Pennsylvania left no records on stone, clay, or parchment to tell us who he was and what he did."
But, according to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the highest concentration of petroglyphs (pictorial carvings on stone) in the northeast has been found along the Susquehanna River. These petroglyphs are believed to denote tribal boundary markings for hunting grounds and fishing areas, and possibly positions of sunrise and sunset. Despite their graphic meanings, the petroglyphs do not give us clues about the spoken languages.
Despite brief historical accounts of the area written by European settlers, little is known about the languages the first inhabitants spoke. By applying comparative linguistics methods, however, it is possible to assign family relationships between languages spoken along the Susquehanna River from New York to Maryland. With some exceptions of diverse languages of nomadic tribes transiting the area, there were two major language groupings (families) – Iroquoian and Algonquian – spoken among the tribes that settled the Susquehanna River Valley.
The word Iroquois comes from speakers of Algonquian languages via the word iroqu from irinakhoiw ‘dangerous snakes.’ The French added the ending –ois (‘people of’) to give the word Iroquois. The Iroquois referred to themselves as Ongwe Honwe ‘original people’ and Haudenosaunee ‘people of the long house.’ The word Algonquian (also Algonkian) likely comes from the Micmac language term algoomeaking ‘at the place of spearing fish and eels.’
Susquehannock, an extinct Iroquoian language, was the primary language spoken when European settlers arrived in the Susquehanna areas of present-day York and Lancaster counties. By comparing sounds and words among living languages such as Cherokee, a Southern Iroquoian language and distant cousin to Susquehannock, with living but endangered (at risk of dying) Northern Iroquoian languages such as Mohawk and Seneca, it is possible to approximate how spoken Susquehannock might have sounded and how it was structured.
Dr. Marianne Mithun, a contemporary American linguist specializing in American Indian languages, conducted studies comparing Susquehannock with sister Iroquoian languages. She concluded in 1981 that Susquehannock shares word similarities more with Northern Iroquoian languages (Onondaga) than with Cherokee.
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The major Algonquian-speaking tribes that inhabited the Lower Susquehanna region included Lenni Lenape (also known as Delaware), Shawnee, and the Ganawese (also known as Conoy). The self-given name, Lenni Lenape means ‘real people.’ Shawnee means ‘southerner’ and the meaning of Ganawese is uncertain. The major Iroquoian-speaking tribes in the river area included the Susquehannock tribe and its northern relatives from the Iroquoian Five Nations (Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Onondaga) along with the Huron, and later, the Tuscarora who became part of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. From the south came the Algonquian-speaking Nanticoke and Powhatan who traveled from Virginia and Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay on exploratory or trade expeditions, but their settlements remained primarily to the south.
The word Susquehanna has various interpretations, including muddy river, great bay river, fresh water river, winding river, rocky river, and others. Among the legends and linguistic interpretations over its meaning, two possibilities are offered for the word Susquehanna – first, ‘fresh water river’ from Iroquoian saskwe ‘fresh’ plus the Algonquian hanne ‘river’; and second, ‘muddy river’ from the Algonquian words sisku ‘mud’ and hanne ‘river.’ Early spellings included Sasquehanna and Sasquesahanna.
Capt. John Smith
There is speculation that an Algonquian-speaking Nanticoke or Powhatan interpreter for Captain John Smith, leader of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia who was exploring the area north of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, when asked the name of the river replied, sisku hanne “the river is muddy today." Captain Smith described the Susquehannocks’ spoken language as sounding like a “voice in a vault." Aside from the record of Smith’s impressions, only comparisons with living sister Iroquoian languages give an idea how spoken Susquehannock might have sounded.
Depending on the source, the different names – Susquehannock, Andastes, Minqua, Conestoga – all represent the same people called the Susquehannock Indians. The English called them Susquehannocks (Sasquesahanoughs) throughout the 17th century. The Dutch and Swedes, from their close relationship with the Lenape, used the Delaware word Minqua, meaning ‘stealthy, treacherous.’ From Jesuit records in the 1630s, we find the French used the Huron word Andastes, meaning ‘people of the blackened ridge pole.’ Conestoga derives from Kanastoge, Andastoegue, Gandastogues, all referring to the ‘people of the immersed pole,’ owing to the palisaded villages employing protective walls made of tree trunks driven into the ground.
According to the late Dr. Barry C. Kent, historian and author of Susquehanna’s Indians, “there are no primary documents to indicate what the seventeenth century Susquehannocks called themselves," but, “the word Conestoga is clearly what the Seneca and Susquehannocks living at Conestoga Town during the eighteenth century called themselves."
European settlers for the most part did not document American Indian languages. There is one notable exception in the collection of slightly over 100 words compiled as Vocabula Mahakuassica in the 1640s by Johannes Campanius, a Swedish Lutheran minister who served in New Sweden, Lenape territory. After coming into contact there with Minqua Indians trading with the Swedes, Campanius compiled a list of everyday Minqua words, such as avarunsi ‘thank you,’ generoo ‘good friend,’ næhhæ ‘yes,’ tæsta ‘no,’ and hoona sattæænde ‘now I am going away’ (good-bye). The pronunciation challenges in the Campanius listing of Minqua (i.e., Susquehannock) language is that he used 17th century spelling rules from his native Swedish. Further complicating understanding of local Indian languages, the Swedes used Dutch interpreters and the English used Swedish interpreters.
The language legacy from these first inhabitants is seen today in: 1.) tribal names (Susquehannock), 2.) names of streams (Codorus ‘rapid water’), 3.) place names based on their languages which later were modified (Chickies from Chiquesalunga ‘place of the crawfish’), or translated directly into English (Turkey Hill from the Delaware words Tschikenum Wulumque).
Dr. George Donehoo, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, estimated in 1928 that there were over 10,000 place names of Indian language origin in Pennsylvania.
Today there are no native speakers of the Susquehannock language. There remain small numbers of speakers of Seneca, Shawnee, and Lenni Lenape, but those languages are endangered. Whether dying or extinct, the languages of the Susquehanna’s early inhabitants live on in the 21st century in such Iroquoian or Algonquian place names as: Susquehanna ‘muddy river,’ Conewago ‘at the rapids,’ Conejohela ‘kettle on an upright pole,’ Tuckahoe, referring to ‘a floating plant,’ and, Saginaw ‘mouth of river,’ Accomac ‘on the other side,’ Pequea ‘dust, ashes,’ and Tucquan ‘winding stream.’
Meanwhile, ongoing research on the early inhabitants’ languages holds potential for discovering new clues about the languages and the people in the river valley who spoke them.
Charles A. Kauffman is an adjunct professor of world languages at York College of Pennsylvania.