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An Introduction to the Illinois-French Dictionaries

Michael McCafferty 2022


   French-speaking priests and brothers of the Society of Jesus were the principal Roman Catholic missionizing force in the region during the 1600s and 1700s. The Jesuits were not only missionaries, they were scholars. They were educated, keen observers, and also felt an urgency to learn indigenous languages as it was their belief that Catholic teachings would lead Native Americans to salvation. From of this effort came a number of indigenous language dictionaries, including three dictionaries of the principal indigenous language spoken in the Illinois Country during the time of the French – that of the Illinois-Miami language.


   The three extant dictionaries of the Illinois-Miami language include a French-to- Illinois-Miami dictionary by Father Pierre François Pinet, a Miami-Illinois-to-French dictionary by Brother Jacques Largillier, and a French-to-Miami-Illinois dictionary by Father Jean Le Boullenger. Pinet’s dictionary was created by himself. Largillier’s dictionary represents the combined efforts of several Jesuits and himself. Le Boullenger’s dictionary is similar to Pinet’s in that he created it as he was learning the language, but it is also similar to Largillier’s in that it contains the work of Jesuits who came before him. It should also be noted that, generally, the Jesuits’ Illinois-Miami dictionaries are not just simple word books with one-to-one translations; they are also phrase books. This allows for even greater insights into the speakers of the language itself.



   In addition to being a hunter and fur trader, Largillier was an educated man, fluent in Latin – a language that appears countless times in his dictionary. He was also a traveling companion of, a canoe paddler for, and a personal assistant to all the seminal Illinoi-Miami linguists of the late 1600s and early 1700s.


   French Jesuits met the Illinois 400 miles north of their villages, at the Mission of the Holy Spirit on Chequamegon Bay (present-day northern Wisconsin) during the 1660s. The Illinois came to the southern shore of Lake Superior to trade. It was at this mission where Jesuits Claude Allouez, Jacques Marquette, and their yeoman Jacques Largillier (known as “The Beaver”) first began learning the Illinois language. In 1673, Largillier accompanied Marquette and Louis Jolliet on their historic journey to the Mississippi Valley and the Illinois Country.


   During the 1690s, Largillier worked with the Jesuit Jacques Gravier amongst the Illinois (on the upper Illinois River). During this time, Gravier worked out the grammar of the Illinois-Miami language and along with his donné (now Brother). Largillier collected an enormous amount of information from the Illinois that ultimately led to the creation of the Illinois-to-French dictionary that Largillier would write out around 1700.


  The dictionary penned by Jacques Largillier consists of 586 pages and some twenty-two thousand alphabetized Illinois words. Gabriel Marest and Jean Mermet (Jesuit missionary colleagues of Pinet and Gravier) also learned the Illinois language and undoubtedly contributed to the making of Largillier’s and possibly Le Boullenger’s dictionary. It was composed by copying the countless pages of notes and word lists collected for some twenty years by the Jesuits studying the Illinois language. It is an elegant, extremely well-designed dictionary and also the source of ethnologically important information about the Illinois and Miami themselves. Moreover, it was written in a relaxed manner – à tête reposée as one would say in French. Its scribe actually remained unidentified until, through handwriting and historical analysis, I was able to determine that it was in fact Jacques Largillier in 2010.



   In 1694, the Jesuit missionary Pierre François Pinet, already fluent in Algonquin-Ottawa-Ojibwe, arrived at the St. Ignace mission at Michilimackinac. In the late winter of 1699-1700, he was directed to go to serve as missionary to the lllinois-speaking Tamaroa at Cahokia. It was during his time among the Tamaroa that he was described (by a visiting priest from another order) as “speaking the language perfectly,” indicating he had become a fluent speaker of Illinois-Miami.


   In June 1702, Pinet followed the Kaskaskia to River Des Peres (in present-day St. Louis), where he died of unknown causes less than two months later. However, his rough 577-page dictionary, penned in a quick scrawl, was a treasure to the Jesuits. The manuscript was used by them, and a number of additions and a few corrections in the handwriting of three other Jesuits (Gabriel Marest, Jean Mermet, and Jacques Largillier) are sprinkled throughout the book.


   Pinet’s dictionary also includes word lists composed by Largillier. To some degree, both Largillier and Le Boullenger copied from Pinet’s work when composing their own dictionaries. Pinet’s dictionary is a volume that was planned in advance but composed on the fly. After he made a small leather-bound book, Pinet entered French keywords. He then filled in the dictionary with related Illinois words and phrases under each keyword as he learned the language. One might regard his book as “messy”, as he often wrote across the margins of pages, inserted new information between lines, and generally crowded enormous amounts of information into tiny spaces. The book itself consists of 674 pages, 97 of them blank and ready for any additional entries that Pinet would have wanted to record. In 1999, I discovered the as-yet unidentified dictionary in the Jesuit Archives in Quebec.



   Jean Antoine Robert Le Boullenger, the author of the third French-to-Miami-Illinois dictionary, literally came to the Illinois Country from a different direction than that of the other Jesuits discussed here. Unlike the others, he didn’t travel from Quebec but instead came by canoe up the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico. In 1719, Le Boullenger arrived at the Michigamea village of the Illinois (known today as the Kolmer Site) located along the Mississippi and near the newly-constructed Fort de Chartres. He worked among the Michigamea while simultaneously serving as chaplain to the French troops at St. Anne’s Church near Fort de Chartres. Also during that time, he served the St. Joseph’s Church in nearby Prairie du Rocher.


   In 1726, Le Boullenger moved down the river to work at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at the French village known as Kaskaskia. He also served at the new village of the Kaskaskia themselves (now known as the Guebert site). He continued his work in the area until his death at French Kaskaskia in 1740.


  The Le Boullenger dictionary, 185 pages long, is like Pinet’s in that it consists of Miami-Illinois words listed under some 3000 French keywords, and each keyword may have beneath it from one to forty Illinois-Miami words. There are also 42 pages of religious texts, including the Book of Genesis, written in Miami-Illinois with no French translations. Moreover, there are three large pages (approximately 17” by 11”) of excellent verb paradigms, which were probably assembled by Jacques Gravier. One notable and intriguing aspect of Le Boullenge’s dictionary is that he always writes final phonetic [wa] as [wo]. The reason for this is unclear, but as Le Boullenger was stationed for some time with the Michigamea, he may have observed and recorded an unusal dilect spoken by this group.

Pinet’s dictionary is housed at the Archives des jésuites au Canada in Montreal, Largillier’s at the Watkinson Library in Hartford, Connecticut, and Le Boullenger’s at Brown University Library in Providence, Rhode Island. 

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