James Madison Papers

Notes on Language, [post–31 December] 1819

Notes on Language

[post–31 December 1819]

Origin of language

1. imitative sounds

2. do … signs

3. Arbitrary sounds by parents or superiors, followed by others

4. These sounds at first not elementary but complex for things or phrases in which children sometimes speak first

5. Elementary sounds combined & applied according to progress of ideas & wants.

visible analogous to oral language1

1. Hieroglyphics to imitative sounds & signs

2. arbitrary Graphic symbols, as Chineses language to spoken words, and phrases.

3. Alphabets—to elementary sounds

2 Indian vocabularies, remarkable

1. for perfect dissimilitute2 in different

2. analogy of names for analogous things.

rapid change of oral languages—exemplified in Indian lodges detached from each other attested by Govr. Clarke3—hence surprize at the prolonged identity noted by Duponceau4

The grammar/structure/syntax better due to the relations of languages—than the vocabularies

copiousness of languages amg. ignorant nations beyond that of ideas5— may it not proceed in part from mixtures of difft. tribes increasing Stock of words, like the intercourse of cultivated nations—the Chinese remarkable for nr. of words. See Clavis Sinica.6

Ms (DLC: Madison Miscellany). Undated; conjectural date based on the source cited in nn. 4 and 5 below. In the upper left margin of the half sheet, JM wrote “Du ponceau”; in the lower left margin, “J.M.”

1The source for JM’s notes one through three following is Peter S. Du Ponceau’s essay “English Phonology; or, An Essay towards an Analysis and Description of the Component Sounds of the English Language,” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, n.s., 1 (1818): 233–36.

2This word, correctly spelled, has been interlined in an unidentified hand.

3JM referred to an anecdote in the Lewis and Clark journals of a number of villages of the Ricara tribe of American Indians, who had been forced from their homes in a series of wars with the Sioux. “In this migration those who had first gone to the Mandans kept together, and now live in the two lower villages, which may thence be considered as the Ricaras proper. The third village was composed of such remnants of the villages as had survived the wars, and as these were nine in number a difference of pronunciation and some difference of language may be observed between them and the Ricaras proper, who do not understand all the words of these wanderers. The villages are within the distance of four miles of each other” ([Nicholas Biddle], History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clarke … [3 vols.; 1814; reprint, New York, 1973], 1:155–56).

4Du Ponceau argued against the rapid change of unwritten languages by noting that a Wyandot or Huron language dictionary “did not appear to them [Wyandot speakers] to have undergone any material change in the period of two hundred years since that book was written” (Du Ponceau, “Report … [on] the Languages of the American Indians,” Transactions of the Historical and Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society [Philadelphia, 1819], 1:xxxiv–xxxv).

5Du Ponceau touched on this idea in his report. “Whether savages have or have not many ideas, it is not my province to determine: all I can say is, that if it is true that their ideas are few, it is not less certain that they have many words to express them” (ibid., 1:xxvii–xxviii).

6For JM’s reference and a discussion of the number of characters in the Chinese language, see Joshua Marshman, Clavis Sinica, in Elements of Chinese Grammar.… (Serampore, [India], 1814).

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