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Illinois For Illinois: Speaking of a Place

Michael McCafferty and Robert Mazrim 2022


Generally, historians have assumed (and written as such) that it was the French who named the Pays des Illinois, in observation of the dominant cultural presence in the region – the Illinois confederacy of tribes. But it seems that few French explorers or cartographers asked the Illinois what they called the place (or the French simply didn’t write the answer down). While a number of modern scholars have examined the various 17th and 18th century sources of information concerning the Illinois Tribe and their language, there has been surprisingly little discussion of how the Illinois might have articulated the name for the region that they knew of as home. We have simply taken for granted that the place name “Land of the Illinois” (or “Illinois”) is of French observation and origin. However, the place name is rooted in the Illinois language itself.

The Illinois called themselves *inohka, which included the groups known as the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Michigamea, Tamaroa, Cahokia, and other smaller ones. This tribe name was recorded by the Jesuits Jacques Largillier, Jean Le Boullenger and Pierre François Pinet in the form < in8ca >. Pinet also wrote it as < in8ka >, while Le Boullenger wrote < inoca >. These spellings, as well as the tentative phonemic spelling above in italic, refer to one individual. Le Boullenger also recorded the plural form of the name as < inocaki >, for phonemic *inohkaki.  

The Illinois/Miami – French Dictionary assembled by Jean Antoine Robert Le Boullenger provides very useful insights into the generally unasked question concerning regional references or names. Le Boullenger arrived at the Michigamea village of the Illinois in 1719, where he probably began work on his 185-page dictionary that was drafted sometime before his death in 1740. Le Boullenger’s work is particularly important in understanding the pronunciation of the < inoca > name. While the lengths of the i and the o are unknown (these vowels could be or iio or oo), in one of Le Boullenger’s observations he indicated that the word had the sound hk.  

But Le Boullenger’s work explored the name a little further. He also recorded the locative (referring to location) noun form of this name, < inokinghi >, which means “at the Illinois” or “the Illinois place.” Even further (and notably), he translated < inokinghi > as le païs des Illinois, which means “The lllinois’ Country.”  

From a linguistic point of view, this adds a level of complexity to locative nouns. Previously, it has been commonly observed that such terms were used to refer to specific villages – such as that of the Kaskaskia, < cascakinghi >. But Le Boullenger’s work reveals a broader use of this locative noun form – to the territory where a people lived, hunted, or to which they felt a sense of origin or ownership. Of course, this could also simply be interpreted as “home land.”

So, from Le Boullenger’s careful study, we now know at least one way that the Illinois referred to the region in which they lived. They called it “The Illinois’ Country.” From this perspective, the place name was in fact an indigenous one, adopted by French priests and explorers. And while the French Government soon applied their own names to the region (Louisiana and then Upper Louisiana), most of the locals – both indigenous and immigrant – still used the old inohka phrase < inokinghi > ~ le Pays des Illinois for the duration of the colonial era. And essentially, we still use it today.

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