Nebraska Academy of Sciences


Date of this Version



Published in Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences, Volume 2 (1973).


Copyright 1973 by the author(s).


Although John Wesley Powell's Indian Linguistic Families of America. North of Mexico, published in 1891 stands as the basis from which modern classifications have emerged, the study of American Indian languages had begun over two hundred and fifty years earlier.

The earliest work on American Indian languages was done by missionaries. In the spirit of conquest and conversion, the missionaries learned the Indian languages to more readily facilitate their own goals. However, as Clark Wissler notes, "a missionary might learn a language and even translate the Bible into it without concern about linguistic science: on the other hand he might forget about saving the pagan souls and engage in the ungodly pursuit of linguistics" (1942: 190).

One of the earliest and best known missionaries was John Eliot (1604-1690). Educated in classics in England, he became a preacher in eastern Massachusetts. There. Eliot came into contact with the Indians of the area and endeavored to learn their language. His knowledge of Hebrew, competency in grammar and aptitude for learning languages gave him confidence to pursue his study. Although his first preaching in 1646 was in English, he had progressed within a year to preaching in their own Algonkian language. Eliot gained recognition for his translation in 1663 of the Bible into an Algonkian language (Adams 1931: 79-80). Three years later he completed his grammar of that language (Hallowell 1960:23).

The 1700's reflected an increased interest in relationships and origins of languages. Among those who made comparative studies of Indian languages was David Zeisberger (1721-1808), a Moravian missionary who worked on a Delaware grammar. Johnathan Edwards, a theologian suggested that there were relationships among certain Indian languages. Not only were comparisons made between the different Indian languages, but Adrian Reland, a linguist, made a study to ascertain if there were relationships between North American Indian languages and Indo-European languages.