The Common Maskoki Language

Although the dialects of Maskoki do not now diverge from each other more than did the Semitic dialects two thousand years ago, the time when they all had a common language, or, in other words, the time preceding the separation into four divisions must lie further back than eight or ten thousand years. We cannot expect to reconstruct the parent Maskoki language spoken at that time but very imperfectly, since the oldest text known to exist in any of the dialects dates from A. D. 1688 only. An approach to its reconstruction could be attempted by carefully comparing the lexicon and grammatical forms of the dialects presently spoken, and an individual acquainted with them all, or at least with their four representatives, might also compose a comparative grammar of these dialects as spoken at the present epoch of their development, which would reveal many points concerning the ancient or historic shape of the language once common to all these tribes. What the Maskoki dialects presently spoken, as far as published, have in common, may be stated in a general way in the following outlines:

Phonetics. The dialects possess the sound f and the palatalized 1 (‘1), but lack th, v and r, while nasalization of the vocalic element is more peculiar to the western than to the eastern divisions. There is a tendency to pronounce the mutes or checks by applying the tongue to the alveolar part of the palate. The phonetic system is as follows:

Not aspiratedNot aspiratedAspiratedSpirantsNasalsTrills
Palatalstch, tsdsh, dsyń’l

Vowels: i, e, a, a, o, u; with their long and nasalized sounds.

The syllable is quite simple in its structure; it consists either of a vowel only, or begins with one consonant (in the eastern division with one or two), and ends in a vowel. Deviations from this rule must be explained by phonetic alteration, elision, etc. The frequent occurrence of homonymous terms forms a peculiar difficulty in the study of the dialects.

Maskoki Language Morphology

No thorough distinction exists between the different parts of speech, none especially between the nominal and the verbal element. The fact that all adjectives can be verbified, could be better expressed as follows: The adjectives used attributively are participles of attributive verbs and inflected for number like these, their so-called plural being the plural form of a verb. This we observe in Iroquois, Taensa and many other American languages; it also explains the position of the adjective after the noun qualified. Some forms of the finite verb represent true verbs, while others, like the Creek forms, with tcha-, tchi-, pu-, etc., prefixed, which is the possessive pronoun, are nominal forms, and represent nomina agentis and nomina actionis. The three cases of the noun are not accurately distinguished from each other in their functions; substantives form diminutives in -odshi, -osi,, -usi, etc. The distinction between animate and inanimate gender is not made in this language family; much less that between the male and the female sex. The possessive pronoun of the third person singular and plural (im-, in-, i-) is prefixed in the same manner to substantives to indicate possession, as it is to verbs to show that an act is performed in the interest or to the detriment of the verbal subject or object. The Cha’hta alone distinguishes between the inclusive and the exclusive pronouns we, our, ours. A dual exists neither in the noun nor in the pronoun, but in most of the intransitive verbs. The numerals are built upon the quinary system, the numeral system most frequent in North America. The verb forms a considerable number of tenses and incorporates the prefixed object-pronoun, the interrogative and the negative particle; it has a form for the passive and one for the reflective voice. By a sort of reduplication a distributive form is produced in the verb, adjective and some numerals, which often has a frequentative and iterative function. The lack of a true relative pronoun and of a true substantive verb is supplied in different ways by the various dialects; the former, for in stance, by the frequent use of the verbal in -t. Derivatives are formed by prefixation and suffixation, many of the derivational being identical with inflectional affixes in these dialects.

Although Maskoki speech, taken as a whole, belongs to the agglutinative type of languages, some forms of it, especially the predicative inflection of the verb and the vocalic changes in the radicals, strongly remind us of the inflective languages. Words, phrases and sentences are sometimes composed by syncope, a process which is more characteristic of the agglutinative than of the inflective type, and is by no means confined to the languages of America.

The Chicasa of this comparative table is from a vocabulary taken by G. Gibbs (1866); the Seminole and the Mikasuki from Buckingham Smith s vocabularies printed in the Historical Magazine (Morrisania, N. Y.) for August, 1866, and in W. W. Beach s: Indian Miscellany, Albany 1877, p. 120-126. The latter differs but little from the Mikasuki of G. Gibbs, in the linguistic collection of the Bureau of Ethnology in Washington. The few words of Apalachi were drawn from the missive sent, A. D. 1688, to the king of Spain, to be mentioned under “Apalachi”; the Koassáti terms I obtained in part at the Indian training school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, partly from Gen. Alb. Pike s vocabularies, which also furnished the Alibamu terms.

Readers will perceive at the first glance that Cha’hta is practically the same language as Chicasa, Creek as Seminole and Hitchiti as Mikasuki. Alibamu forms a dialect for itself, leaning more toward Cha’hta than Creek. The southeastern group holds a middle position between Cha’hta and Creek. As far as the queer and inaccurate Spanish orthography of Apalachi enables us to judge, this dialect again differs somewhat from Hitchiti and Mikasuki. It will be well to remember that in Indian and all illiterate languages the sounds of the same organ-class are interchangeable; thus, a word may be correctly pronounced and written in six, ten, or twelve different ways. Tcháto rock, stone can be pronounced tchátu, tchádo, tchádu, tsáto, tsátu, tsádo, tsádu, etc. This explains many of the apparent discrepancies observed in the comparative table, and in our texts printed below.

A comparative study of the existing Maskoki vocabularies would be very fruitful for the ethnographic history of the tribes, and likely to disclose the relative epochs of their settlement, if those that we have now could be thoroughly relied on. In the comparative table subjoined I have received only such terms that answer to this requisite.

There are terms which occur in all dialects in the same or nearly the same form, as hási sun, ítchu, íssi deer, ófi, ífa dog, the terms for chief, black, yellow, bird, snake, buffalo, turtle, fox (also in Cheroki: tsu’hlá), the numerals and the personal pronouns; they must, therefore, have been once the common property of the still undivided, primordial tribe. The fact that the words for chief (míki, míngo, míko), for holá’hta, and for warrior (taska, táskaya), agree in all dialects, points to the fact that when the tribes separated they lived under similar social conditions, which they have kept up ever since. The terms for maize disagree but apparently, and seem to be reducible to one radix, atch or ash; the terms for I dog agree in all dialects hence, the Maskoki tribes planted I maize and kept dogs before, probably many centuries before they separated; and the term ífa went over from them to the Timucua. The word for buffalo, yánase, is the same in all dialects, and was probably obtained from the North, since the term occurs in Cheroki also (yá’hsa in Eastern Cheroki). The name for salt, hápi, a mineral which had a sacrificial importance, is found also in Yuchi in the form tápi, but Creek has ók-tchanua, Hitchiti: ok-tcháhane. The term for tobacco agrees in all divisions of the stock (haktchúmma), except in the Creek branch, where it is called hitchi, hidshi. This weed is said to have received its Maskoki names from a similarity of the top of the green plant with the phallus, which is called in Alibamu and Hitchiti: óktchi or áktchi.

Gatschet, Albert S. A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians. Pub. D.G. Brinton, Philadelphia, 1884.

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