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John Pickering an Wilhelm von Humboldt, 14.02.1823

|21r| Sir,[a]

on the 18.th of the last month I did myself the honour to address a short letter to you, accompanied with a copy of a late American work, respecting the Indian nations, by the Rev.d D.r Morse. In that letter I observed, that I should in a few days give a detailed answer to your two valuable & interesting letters of the 18.th of February and the 9.th of October last; a promise, which I shall now attempt to fulfil, as far as my slender stock of knowledge will enable me to do it; though from the pressure of engagements, which I could not have anticipated, as well as from causes which will be sufficiently obvious to you, I fear you will hardly be compensated for the trouble of following me through the various details that I shall be obliged to bring into view. But here, Sir, you will permit me to state by way of apology for the very scanty information, which I may be able to communicate, that I am engaged in the very laborious profession of the Law; and the only leisure, which I can devote to literary pursuits of any sort, is the few intervals of time that I can spare from my daily professional avocations. After apprising you of this fact, I shall |21v| not, to a person of your experience & candour think it necessary to make any further apology for the barrenness of my letters; and I shall now proceed, under all these disadvantages, to consider some of the points mentioned in your two letters.

1. As to the remarkable & constant practice among the Indians, of using the nouns father, mother &.c with the affixes. I am much pleased to find that the method I adopted for determining this point has met with your approbation, as far as it was pursued. You have still, however, some doubts, and you wish to know, "whether the Lenápe word ooch does not include a prefix, which expresses the pronoun of the third person singular, and whether the initial o is not that prefix; or, whether the nation does not connect with the idea of that pronoun, without expressing it in the word itself." This inquiry, which would not have occurred to any one, that did not examine these subjects so profoundly as you do, is an important one; but the information, which we already possess respecting these languages, will enable me to give you a satisfactory answer as to the particular word in question. The word ooch does not include a prefix of the third person; the Lenape language has a distinct form for that person, which is ochwall, his or her father; as I have remarked in my edition of Edwards’ Observations (page 34) which I send you with this letter. I beg leave to give you in this place (from Zeisberger’s MS. Grammar) an entire example of the use of the affixes with one of the nouns in question.


Sing. nooch, my father Plur. goochena or
gooch, thy ———[1] noochena
our father
ochwall, his, her —— goochuwa, your father
goochuwawa, your fathers
ochuwawall, their father
ochuwawawall, his or her fathers.

M.r Zeisberger, after observing generally, that the inseparable pronouns "are prefixed", adds the following remark: – "In the third person of the singular wall or all is often suf-fixed, but not always. There are also suffixes in the plural, which indicate not only the number but the person; they are in general na, nana (we or our) wa (you or your) and wak (they or their); as, nochena our father, gochuwa your father; ochuwawall, their father."

The common practice of writing the word ooch with two vowels has a tendency to mislead us; but this practice is adopted only for the purpose of making the syllable a long one. M.r Heckewelder, in speaking of the orthography of M.r Zeisberger says – "the double vowels are only intended to express length of sound, as in German." Correspondence with M.r DuPonceau in the Historical & Literary Transactions p. 383. Whether the Indians do, in any case whatever annex the idea of the pronoun to nouns without expressing it in the word itself (as you state to be the case in the South American Languages) is a point that I cannot at present determine. I have had very little intercourse with individuals of these nations; and a usage of that kind would not be noticed in the grammars of their languages. But I will endeavour to ascertain this fact also from some of my correspondents. You will be pleased |22v| to observe, that this use of nouns is not universal, but is limited to such nouns as express relationship (father &.c) and objects which by their nature or use are associated with the person, as head, foot, hand &.c

2. You intimate, that in Eliot’s Grammar there seems to be some mistake in the prefix of the verb in the following examples:

p. 28. kꝏ-wadchan-ukqun, he keepeth us

31. kꝏ-wadchan-ukqun-onuppanneg, they did keep us

34. kꝏ-waadchan-ukqunantoh, I wish he keep us;

in all which instances you conclude, that the prefix ought to be nꝏ instead of kꝏ; you justly observe, however, that the old & new editions agree with each other in this respect.

It is certainly remarkable, that Eliot should have used the prefix kꝏ in these examples, particularly, as in the corresponding negative forms of the same verb, he uses the common prefix nꝏ. Yet, as you will observe (at p. 28, col. 2) in the verb to pay, he again uses the prefix kꝏ. But again at p. 31, col. 2. he has the common prefix nꝏ; at p. 34, however, he has kꝏ in both columns.

When I first read your remarks, I was much struck with them; but, upon examining the Grammar, it appeared to me, that this apparent error might perhaps be explained in the manner which I shall now submit to your consideration. The dialects of the Lenápe stock (and perhaps all the other northern dialects) have, as you already know, Sir, two different plurals, which have been called the limited and unlimited; an explanation of which is given in the Notes to Eliot’s Grammar, p. XIX, and in the Transactions of the Histor. & Liter. Committee, p. 429, 435.Eliot, it is true, gives no explanation of the distinction between |23r| these two plurals (as M.r Heckewelder does) but contents himself with merely setting down the two different forms, neenawun and kenawun, we. Gram. p. 7.

It is the fact, however, that in his Bible there are numerous instances of the unlimited plural ke-naw-un, as I have observed since our edition of his Grammar was printed; though I am not able to discover any constant rule in his use of the two plurals:

1. Epist. John, IV, 10 —

Yeu ut ꝏwomoausuonk, matta Herein is his love, not (that)
kꝏ-womonaonganun God, qut we love God, but (that)
kꝏ-womonukꝏonganun, kah he loves us, and
annꝏ́nau Wunnaumonuh he sent his son
ꝏnohteahuónat wuteh to propitiate for
kum-matcheseonganunnónash. our sins (bad deeds)

Again – in chap. II, 2: –

Kah noh wunnohteayeuaenin And he is a propitiation
wutch kum-matcheseonganunonash for our sins (bad deeds)
kah matta webe kuttaihenonash and not only ours &.c

In his Grammar also, p. 18. he gives one example of this plural: kenuppꝏwonukqun, he died for us.

In reflecting upon this point, therefore, it seemed to me not improbable, that in the examples, which you have noticed in your letter, Eliot might have set down the unlimited instead of the limited plural. What corroborates this opinion is, that I find this plural also frequently used in a little Catechism in Indian and English, which seems to have been published by Eliot in conjunction with Cotton; among other examples of it I find the very verb to keep, as in the following sentence, where you will see both plurals used even in speaking of the same persons. The sentence is an answer to this question – "Why do I pray, Do not lead us into temptation" –

Answ. "Newutche mattanit kah Because the Devil and our
nehenwouche[b] matanatomoonk Corruption our own Corruption
asekesukokish nukqutchukqunonog daily tempt us
matchesenat, kah webe God to sin, and only God
kꝏwadchanukqun mauunnitteanog keepeth us, when we cry unto him.


Again – "… kah webe God yeush … And only God from them
wutch woh kuppohquohwhunukqun can deliver us. "

The following (from the same Catechism) is an example of the pronoun of the first person used in this plural by itself:

Question – "Sun matta Godꝏꝏ? Is there not a God?
Answ. "I. Cor. VIII, 6: Qut kenauun But to us
pasuk nont God &.c there is but one God &.c

But, if you should conclude, that there is no error in the Grammar, still the question will recur – why did Eliot make use of this plural in the examples under consideration and in no other part of his paradigm? This is a question which I am not able to answer; if we suppose it to have been by inadvertence (from the habit of using both plurals as the idiom should require) then we shall be asked, how it is that this inadvertence always happened in the same personal form of the verb. I can only conjecture, at present, that the idiom of this dialect, by the mere caprice of usage, might require this plural in preference to the limited one in the places where Eliot & Cotton have thus used it. I acknowledge that this is not a very satisfactory solution of the difficulty; but as I can give you nothing better, I must leave the matter to your further consideration. I ought to add, that in M.r Zeisberger’s paradigm of the Lenápe verbs, this personal form of the verb (so he calls the transitions) is sometimes distinguished by the prefix & sometimes by the termination. Perhaps this depends in some measure upon the conjugation to which the verb happens to belong. I here give some of his examples:

Present Tense. Form of the 3d personal Pronoun:

npendagun HE hears me (or understands)
kpendagun –––––– thee
pendagol –––––– him
pendaguna –––––– us
kpendaguwa –––––– you
pendawawak –––––– them.


Preterite –

npendagopanik THEY heard me
kpendagopanik ––––––––– thee
pendawawoapanik ––––––––– him
pendagunapanik ––––––––– us
pendaguwapanik ––––––––– you
pendawawoapanik ––––––––– them.

I will give you one more example from Zeisberger:

Present Tense: Preterite:
ndahoaluk HE loves me ndahoalgunep, HE loved me
ktahoaluk –––––– thee ktahoalgunep, –––––– thee
wdahoalawall –––––– him wtahoalap, –––––– him
wtahoalguna –––––– us ndahoalgunap, –––––– us
wtahoalguwa –––––– you ktahoalguwap, –––––– you
wtahoalawak –––––– them wtahoalapanik, –––––– them.

I ought not to omit here a remark of M.r Zeisberger on the suffixes, in addition to that which I have above cited respecting the nouns. He says – "There are in the verbs many other Suffixes besides these [i. e. of the Nouns] particularly in the plural; as for instance, when the pronoun personal we is to be expressed, it is done by means of the Suffixes ahheu, ihhena, neen; in the second person, ohhimo, ihhimo; and in the third, wawall, ichtit, hittit, wawak", &.c But, in order to enable you to investigate these questions more satisfactorily, I should send you a copy of one entire conjugation of the Lenápe from Zeisberger’s Grammar, of which I have M.r Du Ponceau’s Translation now in my possession. Among other things you will see the affinity of the Massachusetts & Lenápe in a striking manner.

3. Your next observation upon Eliot’s Grammar is, that respecting the word wadchan-unꝏ-ógkus, if we did not keep you, p. 57. Which you consider to be erroneous in having the accent; and you refer to p. 41, wadchanunogkus, where the corresponding affirmative personal form has no accent. The former, I am inclined to believe, must be right & the latter wrong, according to the rule which Eliot gives at p. 3, where he says that " ó produced with the accent is a regular distinction between the first & second persons plural of the suppositive mode."

|24v| Accordingly the word wadchaneog, if ye keep us, p. 39, should have the accent, as paumeóg in the next column has. See his conjugations in the Suppositive Mode, passim p. 26 & seqq. You will doubtless find several other mistakes in the accents; some of them, in consequence of our following the old edition, and some committed by ourselves, notwithstanding the great pains taken to ensure accuracy.

4. As to the obscure passage at p. 17, "and this verb may take the form of an Adnoun &.c It is to be regretted as you justly observe, that Eliot has not gone into the details of the language; and the passage you cite is obscure. I take his meaning to be this. He is speaking here of the verb as applied to inanimate objects; and his first example is that of a noun united with the verb; but he next adds an example of a noun detached from the verb and in the plural number (you will recollect that ash is the plural form for vegetables & other inanimate objects, p. 10) and he then informs us, if I understand him, that every person of the verb in the indicative mode, whether singular or plural, admits of the corresponding inanimate plural of the noun; just as if the verb was a pure adjective (or adnoun as Eliot calls it). If I am right in regard to his meaning, the fact which he states, is indeed worthy of notice.

5. The use of the suppletive syllables is, as you observe, a very curious & important subject of inquiry; and I have been endeavouring to gain some new light upon it. But it is in vain to seek for it in our grammars, & I shall now endeavour to arrive at it in the Massachusetts language |25r| (which is a dead language) by means of the Mohegan and Lenápe, which are still living tongues; this process however will be slow. I am unable at present to give any satisfactory explanation of the syllables unnun in the word kꝏ-waadchan-ununnaouz-toh, p. 36. All that Eliot says relative to this point is at p. 64, where he observes, that "what is prefixed or suffixed to the Radix is grammar"; i. e. inflexion, which is not an answer to your inquiries.

I have now, Sir, nothing to add to this long letter but some remarks upon my Memoir respecting a uniform Orthography of the Indian Languages. And first of all I ought to thank you for the frank & obliging manner in which you have communicated your objections to some parts of my plan; a plan, which I am sensible is not without difficulties in its execution, and which I am aware is not by any means so necessary for the Continental nations of Europe as it is for the English & ourselves. I beg leave to observe here also, that I had limited my plan to the North American languages (excluding Middle & South America) because I consider it by no means advisable to change the orthography of the other parts of the continent. The orthography of the latter was originally formed upon the basis of a continental language of Europe (substantially agreeing with my plan, particularly in respect to the vowels) and besides is now sanctioned by the usage of three centuries.

In reflecting upon this difficult subject (always keeping in view a practical system) and on comparing various Vocabularies, I could not but notice the fact |25v| that almost all the information, which we now possess respecting the North American Languages, is derived from travellers and writers of only three nations, Germans, French & English, and that these three nations are now beginning to understand each other’s languages; the investigation of the Indian languages, then, being confined principally to writers in those three European languages, a systematic orthography might perhaps be better formed with a view to those European languages alone than upon the more extended basis of a greater number.

I feel the force of your general remark, that "scarcely an individual or two could be found who should possess a sufficiently exact pronunciation of four or five different languages to enable him to master the delicate shades or gradations in each of them, and that from this circumstance very great errors might be committed." I have not the presumption to suppose, that I am myself sufficiently familiar with the principal European Languages to be capable of forming an alphabet of such great nicety as would be requisite for the purpose of expressing even the most delicate shades of pronunciation; nor do I think this would be necessary or useful, but rather embarrassing. I have accordingly observed (p. 32–37 of my Essay) that we need no distinctive characters to represent these |26r| slightly differing sounds to the eye, because we cannot ordinarily distinguish them with accuracy to the ear by our utterance. My whole plan, indeed, is an approximation, a general basis, which is to be modified as experience shall dictate, to suit the different dialects to which it shall be applied. But, limited as my knowledge of the European languages is, I am unwilling to appear more ignorant in your eyes than I deserve; and I beg leave, therefore, to descend to a few particulars, in regard to some of which I have been misapprehended by you, in consequence probably of a want of clearness in my language.

You observe, very justly, that even if a writer should not go beyond his own language in the comparison of sounds, he might well enough express the j in judge by dsh &.c But you think that some confusion might result from the use of these combinations of characters; as (to take the example you put) if the word a-za should be written atsa, there would be no means of distinguishing whether the two consonants belonged to the same or different syllables. Here permit me, Sir, to refer you to my Note, p. 16, where I have observed that in the proposed orthography every syllable, except final ones, should end with a vowel. I ought perhaps also to have excepted the case where the same consonant is doubled for the purpose of denoting the succession of the same sound & expressing it with that distinctness, which is so strongly marked in the Italian & some other languages. |26v| But, as a general principle, I think there can be no doubt, that a syllable should end with a vowel, which is the natural resting-place of the voice; as is demonstrable in singing, where we hold the same sound long enough to perceive this; though in speaking we are insensible to it, in consequence of the rapid changes of the tone or (as we call it in English) the pitch of the voice, from high to low, and the contrary.

I am sufficiently well acquainted with the German and Spanish languages to know, that there is very sensible difference between the ch of the former & the j, g, and x of the latter; and I beg leave to refer you to my remarks at p. 21 & 23. I now find however (what I had not attended to before) that at p. 36 I have not expressed myself as I ought to have done in respect to the kh. My plan in respect to the consonants was similar to that of the vowels; namely, that as the vowel a, for example, must represent a series of sounds (agreeably to my elucidations of this point at p. 37) so the consonants must in like manner represent a series of sounds; on this principle then, kh will represent the series of sounds called sharp guttural, that is, every shade of pronunciation in the Indian dialects which a German would naturally express by ch, whether it was exactly the German ch or not; and gh would represent every shade of difference which a Spaniard would naturally express by j, g, or x. After having then assumed these two characters, kh & gh to represent the two series of gutturals, my idea was that by degrees certain diacritical marks would be adopted in order to distinguish the various shades of each series; as I have observed at pp. 12 et seqq. in speaking of the vowels. You remark, that your ch cannot be |27r| represented by kh, which seems to you to be an entirely different sound; for in kh, you observe, the sound of k must always be perceptible, whereas in your ch you do not discover the least trace of a k. I cannot question the correctness of your observation; but, the adoption of these characters is in a great degree arbitrary; as therefore the German & other writers upon the Oriental languages frequently express the deep gutturals of those languages by your ch, and as Sir W.m Jones substituted kh & gh for English students, it appeared to me advisable to apply the same character to the Indian Languages. Our English organs, as you well know, do not easily utter either your ch or the Spanish j; and accordingly our common interpreters, who have not a good ear & considerable practice, are apt to transform these guttural sounds into that of our simple sh, which we should not at first view expect. From this cause it has doubtless happened, that our early writers, Eliot and Williams and Cotton have not given us any guttural sounds at all in the Massachusetts & Naraganset languages; and yet it is hardly possible, that those dialects should have been wholly destitute of gutturals, when we find these sounds to be so common at this day in the Mohegan & other living dialects of the Lenápe as well as in the Lenápe stock itself. Accordingly Eliot & Cotton render the words my father by nꝏsh and Williams by nósh; whereas Edwards writes the corresponding Mohegan word nogh (strongly guttural) and M.r Heckewelder in the Delaware writes it, with the German guttural, nooch. But I need not dwell on this point.

I will ask your attention but a few minutes longer, in order to reply to your detached observations made at the close of your letter. In speaking of my note at p. 6. where I introduce a remark of M.r DuPonceau upon the German pronunciation of g and k, I perceive |27v| you think that we suppose there is a distinction between k and c before a, o, u, in German; but, as you observe, the c before a, o, u, is pronounced in German entirely like k, and "the most delicate ear cannot discover any difference". This was always my own idea of it, and M.r DuPonceau intended the same thing by his remark there cited. But, as I now see, his mode of expressing himself might mislead the reader. The sentence would have been less ambiguous, if it had been written thus: "A German ear does not ordinarily discriminate between k (or its equivalent c hard) and g, between b and p, nor between d and t," &.c

In respect to the w (p. 12) it was not my intention to employ it universally for u, but only at the beginning of certain syllables where it would be followed by the sound of . I beg leave to refer you to what I have there said, at large.

P. 14: I have here likened the German ä to our a in the word fate; upon which you remark, that it is not like the sound of that vowel in the word cited, but that the English sound, which most approaches it, is that of e in our word there. Our orthoepists are accustomed to consider the sounds of a and e in those two examples as essentially the same, though in truth the latter (e) is somewhat modified by the following letter r. To English ears therefore (to which I addressed myself) the example given by me would suffice for the purpose for which I introduced it.

Your objection to li for the l mouillé has much weight; but I think ly might be employed without inconvenience.

|28r| I have thus, Sir, taken the liberty to reply to your obliging letter much more in detail than perhaps I ought to have done; but, I trust, you will see in all this an earnest desire to aid, as far as my slender means will permit, the investigation of the new and curious subject which is now before us, and at the same time to prove to you the great respect I entertain for you personally. I cannot but feel highly flattered, that my trifling labours in American Literature have been thought worthy of your notice; and this reflection will stimulate me to still further exertions.

I have already informed you that I send by this opportunity a copy of my new edition of Edwards’ Observations with Notes by myself. In the Notes I hope you will find nothing so grossly erroneous as to deserve reprehension; they are intended for learners only, and not for persons, who like yourself are already masters of the subject. I ought, however, to apprise you of one thing; in the Comparative Vocabulary subjoined to the work I have written every word just as I found it with or without the affixes, thinking it quite superfluous to notice this peculiarity, which is now familiar to every student in these languages; I have wished however, since the book was published, that I had done it, lest I should be subjected to the imputation of ignorance in a case where I do not deserve it. I send you with the pamphlet a copy of the same Comparative Vocabulary on an open sheet for the convenience of reference.

I will add a few words more, for the purpose of giving you all the Indian news, since my last letter. You will see by the Notes to Edwards (p. 52) that Pike says in his Travels – "The language of the Menomonees at Green Bay |28v| &.c is singular, for no white man has ever yet been known to acquire it." I have however lately received a letter from Governour Cass (who presides over the Michigan Territory as we call it)[c] enclosing a copious Vocabulary of their language, which is clearly a dialect of the Lenape; and Gov.r Cass has obligingly promised me further information in respect to this & other dialects.

Cotton’s Vocabulary is in preparation for the press; a very complete Index has been made to it, by a friend and relative of mine in this town, B. R. Nichols, Esq.r who interests himself in these inquiries, and the work will be printed as soon as we can find room for it in the Historical Society’s volumes; which, however, to say the truth are now pre-occupied by matter of more general interest to our readers.

We have lately had published here a little volume upon East Florida, containing a Vocabulary of the Seminola language; which I send you at this time.

I have another and better one in MS. formed by a person who resided with the Seminoles many years: We shall publish this in due time.

I send you at this time a specimen of the Cherokee language, being the first chapter of Genesis[d], translated by David Brown, whom I have mentioned in the Review of D.r Jarvis’s Discourse. The translation appears to me faulty in some places; but I intend to obtain an analysis of it from him as soon as practicable.

I feel much regret at being obliged to inform you that since I began that letter, I have received intelligence of the death of M.r Heckewelder, our Indian oracle. This is a real loss to the public; and to Indian philology, |29r| it is irreparable & will much retard our investigations.

I shall expect with much impatience your Memoir on the Difference of the Grammatical Forms of the cultivated & uncultivated Languages. The investigation of this problem demands profound thinking and all those literary resources which you possess. There are some contradictory phenomena in these two classes of human speech, which I am sure you will be able to reconcile, if it can be done by human ingenuity.

M.r DuPonceau has desired me to ask, if you have received a packet of Books, which he forwarded to yourself & your brother a long time ago. – I have informed M.r Everett of your having written to him; but I cannot learn that he has yet received your letter.

Allow me, Sir, to have the pleasure of hearing from you as often as your leisure will permit; and accept the assurances of the very great consideration with which I have the honour to be,
your most obedient
& most humble
Salem, Massachusetts,
Feb. 14. 1823.


|29v| List of Books &.c forwarded in the packet accompanying this letter:

1. Edwards’ Observations, & Comparative Vocabulary on an open sheet – 2 copies of each – one of which may be presented to the Royal Academy of Sciences at Berlin, or to any individual whom Baron Humboldt may think proper.

2. Massachusetts Historical Collections, vol. IX. containing Eliot’s Grammar &.c

3. Notices of East Florida; containing a Vocabulary of the Seminola Language

4. Conjugation of a Lenape verb. MS.

5. The first chapter of Genesis, in Cherokee. MS.

|30r/v vacat|


  1. 1 |Pickering| M.r Zeisberger, like other German missionaries, often uses the letter G for K, to denote the second person; and he also writes the third person with a single vowel, o chwall.

  1. a |Editor| Oben Humboldt in Tinte: "Nr. 4."
  2. b |Editor| Korrekt in Pickerings Abschrift (Boston, Public Library, MS q. 1900, No. 8): nehenwonche.
  3. c |Editor| Lewis Cass (1782–1866) war von 1813–1831 Gouverneur des Michigan Territory.
  4. d |Editor| Dieser Text ist nie gedruckt worden; die erste Ausgabe der Genesis in der Cherokee-Sprache erschien im Missionary Herald vom Dezember 1827 in einer Übersetzung von Samuel Worcester. [FZ]

Über diesen Brief

Antwort auf


  • Grundlage der Edition: Ehem. Preußische Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, gegenwärtig in der Jagiellonen-Bibliothek Krakau, Coll. ling. fol. 52, Bl. 21–30. – Kopie: Boston, Public Library, MS q. 1900, No. 8, Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books
  • Mueller-Vollmer 1976, S. 322–325 (Ausz.)
  • Mueller-Vollmer 1993, S. 208
  • Mattson 1980, Nr. 11730

In diesem Brief


John Pickering an Wilhelm von Humboldt, 14.02.1823. In: Wilhelm von Humboldt: Online-Edition der Sprachwissenschaftlichen Korrespondenz. Berlin. Version vom 15.03.2023. URL: https://wvh-briefe.bbaw.de/446


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