About the Heckewelder Document

By Dr. David J. Costa

One of the first vocabularies of the Miami-Illinois language recorded in the late 18th century is the twelve-page vocabulary taken down by John Gottlieb Ernestus Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary who is better known in Algonquian linguistics for his extensive work among the Delaware.1 This list is given on its own title page as being ‘Shawanese’, and “taken down by means of a White Woman, who had been 20 Years a Prisoner with that Nation.” Despite its inexplicable identification as Shawnee, the wordlist is unquestionably Miami-Illinois; this is shown by the presence of such characteristic Miami-Illinois words as ‹popiquani› ‘gun’ (papikwani), ‹gachkichque› ‘day’ (kaahkiihkwe), ‹pitelanwè› ‘it rains’ (piitilaanwi), ‹mĩntschipi› ‘Indian corn’ (miincipi), ‹ginochschamia› ‘otter’ (kinohšamia), and ‹pallani› ‘eight’ (palaani), none of which are found in any other Algonquian language.

Although Heckewelder’s list is not dated, it seems likely that it was compiled in 1792, when Heckewelder attended a treaty conference in Vincennes, Indiana. It is uncertain which exact Miami-Illinois dialect is represented in Heckewelder’s vocabulary. Heckewelder himself listed the tribes present at this conference as “the Eel Creek Wiachtenows from the headwaters of the Wabash; the Wiachtenows from lower down the Wabash; the Piankishaws between the Wabash & the Illinois; the Potawattamos from Lake Michigan & St. Josephs; the Kikapoos from Cahokia; the Kaskaskias & Musquetons from Kaskaskias” (Goddard 2003: 168). Of these, the ‘Eel Creek Wiaschtenows’, the ‘Wiachtenows’, the ‘Piankishaws’ and the Kaskaskias would have been expected to all speak Miami-Illinois. Given that the ‘Eel Creek Wiachtenows’ and ‘Wiachtenows’ would have presumably both spoken Wea (waayaahtanwa), the choices are that it probably represents the dialect of the Weas, Piankashaws, or Kaskaskias. A possible hint that the vocabulary is Wea is contained in the vocabulary itself: the first word Heckewelder gives is ‹knepiquo› ‘a Snake’, and the second is ‹kikunechsa› ‘a Fish’. Given that the Miami-Illinois word for ‘eel’ is kineepikwameekwa, which literally means ‘snake fish’, the fact that the first two words Heckewelder gives are the independent words for ‘snake’ and ‘fish’ hints that the vocabulary might be in the dialect of the ‘Eel Creek Wiachtenows’, or Wea. However, certainty on this point is probably impossible, since the Wea dialect is extremely similar to Myaamia proper, and none of the handful of words known to be diagnostic for Wea happen to be given in the vocabulary. Moreover, the question of the dialect affinity of the vocabulary seems not to be terribly important, as virtually every word in Heckewelder’s list is also known to have been present in modern Myaamia proper as well as Peoria.

Heckewelder’s list contains eleven pages of language data. This mostly consists of basic nouns, but also several verbs, inflected forms of the verbs ‘eat’, ‘swim’ and ‘sleep’, several animal names, body part terms, adverbs, and a page and a half of numerals, including 1-21, the ten mutiples up through 90, and the words for 100 and 1000. Virtually all of Heckewelder’s vocabulary is familiar, though with a few surprises: he gives the word for ‘five’ as ‹nialanwi›, phonemic nyaalanwi, which is notable for preserving the initial n which is lost in all records of this word from the mid-19th century onwards, yet which is clearly the older pronunciation of the word (compare the Shawnee cognate nyaalanwi). This archaic pronunciation is also found in Trowbridge’s notes from the 1820s (‹neearlāunwaa›), but Volney’s wordlist, recorded at roughly the same time as Heckewelder’s, already shows the newer yaalanwi pronunciation.

While most of Heckewelder’s list consists of words still in normal use in early 20th century Myaamia, it does contain a few words not found elsewhere. His list is the only known attestation of the word ‹tschingwakanni› ‘drum’ (ciinkwaakani). Additionally, his three interesting terms listed together, ‹melochkamigosingi› ‘spring hunt’, ‹nepĩnwigosingi› ‘summer hunt’ and ‹tequogigosingi ‘fall hunt’2, have not been found in any other source, even the Illinois Jesuit dictionaries of the early 1700s.

Even though Heckewelder probably had no previous experience with the Miami-Illinois language (as further shown by the fact that he thought his vocabulary was Shawnee), the transcription in his wordlist is of surprisingly high quality. Though he did not hear vowel length, he indicates preaspiration very consistently (as ‹ch›), even after front vowels, where it was apparently hardest to hear, as in his ‹ichpisitah› ‘he is tall’ (iihpisita), ‹kichtschigami› ‘sea’ (kihcikami), ‹quiwichsa› ‘boy’ (kwiiwihsa), ‹schichschipa› ‘duck’ (šiihšiipa), and ‹echsipanne› ‘raccoon’ (eehsipana). This accuracy may be due to the fact that Heckewelder’s first language was German, and thus he was better able to hear [x] or [ç], the most common phonetic realizations of Miami-Illinois preaspiration. Additionally, his previous experience with the Delaware language no doubt prepared him to hear the typical phonetic contrasts of an Algonquian language more consistently than would have otherwise been the case.


Goddard, Ives. 2003. Heckewelder’s 1792 vocabulary from Ohio: A possible attestation of Mascouten. Papers of the 34th Algonquian Conference, ed. by H.C. Wolfart, pp. 165-191. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba.


  1. This wordlist is manuscript 3670 at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
  2. No term for ‘winter hunt’ is given.

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