Monday, January 16, 2006


An Invented Language

I'm reading John Wain's biography of Samuel Johnson (New York: Viking Press, 1974). On pp. 120-122 Wain writes about Johnson's friend George Psalmanazar, fraud extraordinaire. Despite being blond, Psalmanazar pretended to be a native of Formosa (today Taiwan) and made up a Formosan language, which he taught at Oxford! You can see a page from one of his books with the made-up Formosan alphabet here. My eyesight is so bad that I can only make out one letter, pedlo.

Wain wonders (p. 121), "One would, though, rather like to know what happened to those Oxford missionaries when they first landed in Formosa and began talking to the natives in Psalmanazar's lingo."

This story reminds me a bit of the trick played on the missionary Father Biard by the Micmac Indians. Francis Parkman, Pioneers of France in the New World, part II (Champlain and His Associates), chap. VI (Jesuits in Acadia), tells the story:
Biard's greatest difficulty was with the Micmac language. Young Biencourt was his best interpreter, and on common occasions served him well; but the moment that religion was in question he was, as it were, stricken dumb, the reason being that the language was totally without abstract terms. Biard resolutely set himself to the study of it, a hard and thorny path, on which he made small progress, and often went astray. Seated, pencil in hand, before some Indian squatting on the floor, whom with the bribe of a mouldy biscuit he had lured into the hut, he plied him with questions which he often neither would nor could answer. What was the Indian word for Faith, Hope, Charity, Sacrament, Baptism, Eucharist, Trinity, Incarnation? The perplexed savage, willing to amuse himself, and impelled, as Biard thinks, by the Devil, gave him scurrilous and unseemly phrases as the equivalent of things holy, which, studiously incorporated into the father's Indian catechism, produced on his pupils an effect the reverse of that intended.
See also Francis Parkman, The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, chap. IV (Le Jeune and the Hunters):
At the outset, he had proffered his aid to Le Jeune in his study of the Algonquin; and, like the Indian practical jokers of Acadia in the case of Father Biard, palmed off upon him the foulest words in the language as the equivalent of things spiritual. Thus it happened, that, while the missionary sought to explain to the assembled wigwam some point of Christian doctrine, he was interrupted by peals of laughter from men, children, and squaws.

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