The Language of the Saint Lawrence Iroquoians: A 500 Year-Old Mystery

Let's try to solve a linguistic mystery from the 16th century. This mystery concerns the identity and affiliation of the language recorded by Jacques Cartier (or someone who wrote in his name) in his description of his voyages to North America. I will relate the bare historical facts briefly, although the whole story is an interesting read: between 1534 and 1542, the explorer Jacques Cartier made three voyages to what is now Atlantic Canada and Quebec. On these voyages, Cartier encountered two major indigenous settlements along the Saint Lawrence river: Stadacona (near present-day Quebec City) and Hochelaga (present-day Montreal). By some (possibly villainous) circumstance, Cartier obtained lists of some two hundred words of the language(s) of the Hochelagans and Stadaconans. These wordlists likely represent the first written attestation of any North American language. After Cartier's last voyage ended in disgrace, no further crown-sponsored expeditions occurred from France until those of Samuel de Champlain, which began in 1603. By the time Champlain arrived in the Saint Lawrence valley, Stadacona and Hochelaga were no longer populated.

The fate of the peoples of Stadacona and Hochelaga has been an occasion for debate among scholars who study the period, but I would like to take this opportunity to discuss what we can learn about the language these people spoke from the wordlists collected by Cartier's expedition. I'm taking this discussion for the most part from a paper written by Marianne Mithun (1982) called "The mystery of the vanished Laurentians". Laurentian or Saint Lawrence Iroquoian is the name usually given in the historical and anthropological literature to the Stadaconan and Hochelagan people together: Laurentian from the Saint Lawrence valley where they lived, and Iroquoian from the fact that their language seems clearly to have belonged to the Iroquoian family, which also contains the Mohawk (Kanienʼkéha) and Cherokee (Tsalagi) languages. Let's see why by looking at a familiar cognate, the word for 'town':

  • Laurentian 1 canada 'une ville' ('town') vs Mohawk kaná:ta' /kanǎːtaʔ/ 'town'.1

Even without going into detail regarding Cartier's transcription, the affinity between canada and kaná:ta' is clear. Of course, one problem that all of these hypotheses have to deal with is the fact that these wordlists were written down by someone who did have some linguistic sophistication, but without the benefit of modern transcription devices and methods, so a good amount of interpretation is involved in even understanding what the data say. I won't go into that further in this article, but it's something you should keep in mind.

The canada word (yes, this is where the country's name comes from!) is one example of many, which in total leave no doubt that the Laurentians spoke an Iroquoian language of some sort. But what is less clear is where in the Iroquoian family this language belonged. Was the Laurentian language an earlier version of one of the contemporary Iroquoian languages? Some researchers have suggested it was simply 16th century Mohawk, others that it was a form of Huron (Wendat), and still others that it was an early form of the closely related Tuscarora (Skarò˙rə̨ˀ) or Nottoway. Or was it a branch of its own?

Mithun's article, which you can read yourselves here, examines each of these proposals in turn. To determine the position of a language in a tree model, only shared innovation will do. After all, languages can retain features even after having been separated for thousands of years. So Mithun examined some innovations in the various Iroquoian branches to see where this Laurentian language fit best.

The Laurentian wordlists did not suggest Tuscarora-Nottoway, because it lacked (among other things) the denasalization of *n2 before oral vowels:

  • Proto-Northern Iroquoian *tekhni > Tuscarora nǽ:kti, vs Laurentian 2 tigneny/tignini 'deux' ('two'), not **tigneti/tigniti3

For the most part, the wordlists did not suggest Huron, because they lacked the radical restructuring of the consonant system found in Huron, the details of which are a bit too complex to discuss here. In a few cases, however, the wordlists did show characteristic innovations of Huron.

At the same time, the Laurentian vocabularies did seem to show some innovations characteristic of particular so-called Inner Iroquoian languages (comprising the Susquehannock language and the five languages of the historical League of Five Nations, a group which includes Mohawk). The problem is, it showed mutually inconsistent innovations. Take the case of the fate of Proto-Northern Iroquoian *r. In some Inner Iroquoian languages, it appears as r, and in others as l. The Laurentian wordlists, on the other hand, show l in some words, and r in others, with no apparent difference in environment:

  • Proto-Northern Iroquoian *wa'tro̜ > Laurentian 2 wadellon/madellon 'neuf' = 'nine'
  • Proto-Northern Iroquoian *ka-hrahk-o̜:ni > Laurentian 1 caracomy, Laurentian 2 carraconny 'pain' ('bread')

Given this difference in outcome, along with others, Mithun concludes that the Laurentian wordlists in fact represent multiple languages, some of which can be traced to languages ancestral to varieties either spoken today or described in the intervening centuries. Another account holds that the l/r distinction in the French-based orthography represents a sound that varied between something 16th-century French speakers perceived as more r-like and something the French perceived as more l-like, perhaps a retroflex such as [ɭ].4

In the end, if we believe Mithun's analysis, we're left with a result like an Agatha Christie novel: to the question "What Iroquoian language was Laurentian most closely related to?" we get not just one answer but many. What does this tell us about the historical situation? Were the Laurentians linguistically diverse? Did their language(s) contain lots of loanwords from the many related languages nearby? Or is Mithun's analysis incorrect – as Julian (2010) claims – and does the Laurentian language represent a single entity? Unless new data comes to light, we may never know.

Works Cited

  • Julian, Charles (2010). A History of the Iroquoian Languages. PhD Thesis, University of Manitoba. pdf
  • Mithun, Marianne (1982). The mystery of the vanished Laurentians. In Anders Ahlqvist, ed. Papers from the 5th International Conference on Historical Linguistics. Amsterdam Studies in the Theory and History of Linguistics Science IV, 230-242. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 21. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. pdf


  1. Note that the two wordlists sometimes differ, so I follow Mithun (1982) in labelling the attested forms as Laurentian 1 and Laurentian 2.

  2. Here, the asterisk means a hypothetical reconstructed form.

  3. Here, the double asterisk means a form that is not attested.

  4. Julian (2010): 191.

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