We know relatively little about the language of the Beothuk because
they avoided contact with English settlers and fishermen and thereby
greatly reduced opportunities for communication. An exception was the
case of a person, who, in the early 1600s, had lived with the Beothuk
for five years and was said to speak their language very well.
Unfortunately, nothing further is known about this person and he seems
not to have passed on what he had learned.
Once captives were brought back to English communities, from the mid-1700s
onwards, the English would have been able to become familiar with
the Beothuk language but few people made use of this chance. For
example, a Beothuk woman, who was captured by William Cull in 1803
remained in his household for close to a year; yet, Cull never recorded
what she might have taught him and his family. Fortunately, other men
were more provident and obtained lists of Beothuk words from the
captives Oubee, Demasduit and Shanawdithit.
The child Oubee was seized from her family's camp near Charles Brook in
the summer of 1791. She was taken into the home of Thomas Stone of
Trinity. Two years later, the Stone family moved to England where Oubee
died. While she was still residing in Trinity, Capt. G.C. Pulling came
to see her. Pulling was preparing a report on Beothuk-English relations
and hoped that he would be sent to the Beothuk on a peace mission.
Being anxious to be able to communicate with them he asked Oubee for the
Beothuk equivalent of 111 English words. This list was later filed with
the papers of the Earl of Liverpool and has since been published in a
Newfoundland Museum research series.
|Pulling's word list: "The following words of their language are all I can yet procure."
The first entry reads: "Ou=bee...the name of y/e Indian girl who lived w/th Mr. Stone."
Courtesy of the British Library (MSS ADD 38352 f.48), London, England.
Demasduit (or Mary March), the informant of the second wordlist, was
captured in March 1819 at Red Indian Lake. When her husband, chief
Nonosabasut, came to her rescue the settlers killed him; their baby
died shortly afterwards. Demasduit was placed under the care of the
Rev. John Leigh in Twillingate and was said to have learned English
remarkably quickly. Once she could express herself reasonably well Rev.
Leigh compiled a list of about 180 Beothuk words. A year later, when
Capt. Hercules Robinson of HMS Favorite visited Rev. Leigh, he copied
the wordlist and later published it. Part of Rev. Leigh's original list
is preserved in the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador,
but the pages with English words starting with the letters C, D, H, M,
N, and W are missing. However, these words can be found in Hercules
|Two pages from Rev. John Leigh's Beothuk wordlist.
Note the entry: "Indian (red) Beathook."
Courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador (MG 257),
St. John's, Newfoundland.
The third wordlist comes from Shanawdithit, who was the last known
member of her tribe. Sick and starving, she and her mother and sister
surrendered to furriers in 1823. Two of the women soon died;
Shanawdithit survived and was taken into the household of John Peyton,
Jr., on Exploits Island. About five years later she was transferred to
St John's, to the home of W. E. Cormack, founder of the Boeothick
Institution. Cormack questioned Shanawdithit at length about the
history and culture of her people and elicited from her many Beothuk
words and phrases. This wordlist came into the hands of the British
linguist, Robert G. Latham, who published it in 1850. Cormack's
manuscript list has been lost, but Latham had made copies which are now
available for research.
Memorial University's linguist, John Hewson, has integrated the three
vocabularies into one master wordlist of 325 glosses plus twenty-one
numerals and the names of months.
From R.G. Latham's copy of a list of Beothuk words obtained from
Shanawdithit by W.E. Cormack.
Note the last entry: "Red Indian Behathook."
Courtesy of John Howley, St. John's, Newfoundland. From the unpublished Howley
Papers in the possession of John Howley.
Demasduit's and Shanawdithit's wordlists include the terms "Beathook" and "Behathook" respectively, meaning "Red Indian." This is the name the Beothuk used for themselves. Cormack wrote that "Boeothuck is the pronunciation of the word in question - or Boethuck, or Boethick, the emphasis being on the diphthong oe and almost dropping the o." Today, the word is usually spelled Beothuk. The term most likely expresses a plural, k being the animate plural ending in Algonkian languages. Among English speakers it also denotes singular and plural.
The publication of several versions of Beothuk wordlists, in the late 1800s, evoked a lively debate of whether Beothuk is a language of its own, without affinities, or whether it is part of the Algonkian family of languages. Latham believed that Beothuk was an Algonkian language, however obscurely related, and his view has persisted into this century. Ives Goddard, specialist in Algonkian languages at the Smithsonian Institution, is skeptical and believes that if Beothuk is related to Algonkian it can only be on a very deep time level, that is, it would have split off from the (hypothetical) Proto-Algonkian parent
language at least two-and-a-half to three thousand years ago. John Hewson, who has demonstrated some grammatical and structural resemblances between Beothuk and Proto-Algonkian words agrees that Beothuk is markedly divergent in its vocabulary. He nevertheless maintains that it is related to the Algonkian family of languages, though the exact nature of this relationship cannot be established at this time.
It is presumed that all Algonkian languages are derived from a single
precursor, the (hypothetical) Proto-Algonkian that would have been
spoken about three thousand years ago in the area between Georgian Bay
and Lake Ontario. As this group expanded, it is thought to have broken
up into ten or so distinct Algonkian speech communities. These were the
forerunners of three Plains and six Central Algonkian languages, among
the latter are Cree and Montagnais (Innu), and three Eastern Algonkian
languages, which include Mi'kmaq. While Beothuk is considered to be
part of the greater Algonkian language family, the linguistic evidence
is not sufficient to decide whether it belongs to the Central or
Eastern Algonquian type. However, recent archaeological findings in
Labrador point to a prehistoric Beothuk affiliation with Central
Algonkians rather than with an eastern group. It is therefore assumed
that the Beothuk language has greater affinity to Innu rather than
©1999, Ingeborg Marshall on behalf of the Beothuk Institute.
[Based on Ingeborg Marshall, A History and Ethnography of the Beothuk (Montreal: McGill-Queen's
University Press, ©1996).]
Revised by Ingeborg Marshall, February, 2012