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The Composition of Indian Geographical Names Illustrated from the Algonkin Languages   By: (1821-1897)

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[Transcriber's Note: Published 1870]

[Transcriber's Note: The original book contains some diacriticals that are represented in this e text as follows:

1. A macron is represented by an =, e.g. [=a]

2. A breve is represented by a ), e.g., [)a]

3. [n] represents a superscripted n (see Footnote 4).

4. [oo] represents an oo ligature (see Footnote 4.)]



A proper name has been defined to be "a mere mark put upon an individual, and of which it is the characteristic property to be destitute of meaning ."[1] If we accept this definition, it follows that there are no proper names in the aboriginal languages of America. Every Indian synthesis names of persons and places not excepted must "preserve the consciousness of its roots," and must not only have a meaning but be so framed as to convey that meaning with precision, to all who speak the language to which it belongs. Whenever, by phonetic corruption or by change of circumstance, it loses its self interpreting or self defining power, it must be discarded from the language. "It requires tradition, society, and literature to maintain forms which can no longer be analyzed at once."[2] In our own language, such forms may hold their places by prescriptive right or force of custom, and names absolutely unmeaning, or applied without regard to their original meaning, are accepted by common consent as the distinguishing marks of persons and places. We call a man William or Charles, Jones or Brown, or a town, New Lebanon, Cincinnati, Baton Rouge, or Big Bethel just as we put a number on a policeman's badge or on a post office box, or a trademark on an article of merchandise; and the number and the mark are as truly and in nearly the same sense proper names as the others are.

[Footnote 1: Mill's Logic, B. I. ch. viii.]

[Footnote 2: Max Müller, Science of Language, (1st Series,) p. 292.]

Not that personal or proper names, in any language, were originally mere arbitrary sounds, devoid of meaning. The first James or the first Brown could, doubtless, have given as good a reason for his name as the first Abraham. But changes of language and lapse of time made the names independent of the reasons, and took from them all their significance. Patrick is not now, eo nomine , a 'patrician;' Bridget is not necessarily 'strong' or 'bright;' and in the name of Mary, hallowed by its associations, only the etymologist can detect the primitive 'bitterness.' Boston is no longer 'St. Botolph's Town;' there is no 'Castle of the inhabitants of Hwiccia' ( Hwic wara ceaster ) to be seen at Worcester; and Hartford is neither 'the ford of harts,' (which the city seal has made it,) nor 'the red ford,' which its name once indicated.

In the same way, many Indian geographical names, after their adoption by Anglo American colonists, became unmeaning sounds. Their original character was lost by their transfer to a foreign tongue. Nearly all have suffered some mutilation or change of form. In many instances, hardly a trace of true original can be detected in the modern name. Some have been separated from the localities to which they belonged, and assigned to others to which they are etymologically inappropriate. A mountain receives the name of a river; a bay, that of a cape or a peninsula; a tract of land, that of a rock or a waterfall. And so 'Massachusetts' and 'Connecticut' and 'Narragansett' have come to be proper names , as truly as 'Boston' and 'Hartford' are in their cis Atlantic appropriation.

The Indian languages tolerated no such 'mere marks.' Every name described the locality to which it was affixed... Continue reading book >>

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