Language love in Colonial Virginia

I think the US got off to a bad start when it comes to language-love. In the beginning of this nation, there were multiple languages spoken, and no language dominated. To get things done, you had to speak multiple languages. Unfortunately, the majority of those who learned languages did so to gain power and money; learning about others and discovering new ways of thinking did not dominate.

My family recently got back from a Spring Break trip to Colonial Williamsburg, where we learned a lot about 17th and 18th century Virginia. We also visited the first permanent English settlement in the Americas (Jamestown), and Thomas Jefferson‘s home (Monticello). For those less familiar with US history, this was the period of the first British colonists (est. 1607) up through the Revolutionary War (1776). I, of course, studied my whole experience there through the eyes of language-love.

I found that in spite of linguistic richness in colonial and pre-Revolutionary America, we learned very little from it. At that time, English was an insignificant language, so we focused on the languages of Europe, where power was concentrated. This period confirmed for me that Americans have always been focused on gaining power, and ignoring the languages of early America exemplifies this bias. We lost out on the wisdom and knowledge that we could have gained if we had embraced the linguistic diversity of this land rather than suppress and homogenize it.

Multi-lingual America

I’m fascinated by the idea of a Tower of Babel right in North America, at a time where no language has dominance. This seems the opposite of today where I can communicate without thinking in any corner of this huge country. I don’t know if the colonists were monolingual, but it could not have been easy because once one left one’s small group of 200 people, one ran into other languages. Here are some of the most significant languages that were spoken at this early period.


Recreated Powhatan village at Jamestown
Recreated Powhatan village at Jamestown

The English encountered natives in what they called “Virginia.” The main confederation of tribes they found were called the Powhatan. At the time the English arrived, around 15,000-20,000 of these people existed. Their language belonged to the Algonquin language family, which included members throughout the Northeast and Upper Midwest of the US, and much of the South and East of Canada.

The most famous Powhatan in our culture is Pocahontas. How much we actually know about her, however, is disputed.

I’m fascinated by the dilemma of how two groups from thousands of miles away discover each other and try to communicate. Absolutely no common language existed; they had to start from scratch. At several points, the Powhatan and English exchanged boys to grow up with the other group. They eventually functioned as messengers and interpreters, although the rulers used them for political ends, as well. One of them, Henry Spelman, wrote about his life among the Powhatan.

The language has long ago become extinct, although some speakers of related languages remain to this day. We only possess two word lists from Powhatan, which together make up about 550 words. Several words entered into common use in English, such as hickory, hominy, moccasin, opossum, persimmon, raccoon, and tomahawk.


Nzinga, Queen of the Ndongo, meets the Portuguese (
Nzinga, Queen of the Ndongo, meets the Portuguese (

The slave trade sullied the history of the US. Nevertheless, it also diversified the new society that was developing in the Virginia Colony. The first slaves for a long time came from Ndongo, which was a kingdom of the 16th and 17th centuries that existed in present-day Angola. Its people spoke a Bantu language, but we do not have any record of the language itself.

The Ndongo people had to mix and communicate with English and Powhatan people in the US. Moreover, the latter peoples had to have been exposed to their language. When I was in Historic Williamsburg, there were plenty of African-American reinactment actors. I wondered, though, how many of them would have spoken fluent, unaccented English back in the 18th century. In a small town like Jamestown in the 17th century, the English must have heard plenty of Ndongo language in the streets, fields, and homes.

(For a history of the Ndongo Kingdom, click here. For a discussion of the Ndongo and their role in the slave trade, click here.)


Recreated English settlement, Jamestown
Recreated English settlement, Jamestown

During the 17th and 18th centuries, English was not a significant language. International business and politics were conducted in French. French was the official language of England until the 14th century. Russian aristocrats paid top “dollar” for French governesses for their children. In the 17th century, the Portuguese, and Spanish held large, global colonial territories, in addition to the French, Dutch, and English. The Portuguese and Spanish, however, had been at this for a longer time. The English culture and language were a ways down the list.

English was not yet ready for universal use. It only became the official language of England in the early 16th century, only a century before the establishment of the Jamestown colony. Literacy among English speaking people rose from about 30% in the 17th century to about 60% by the time of the American Revolution. Spelling was inconsistent; even rules for capitalization and punctuation were not standard. We shouldn’t forget that this period overlapped with the end of Shakespeare’s production (1613), and standardization of the modern language started with the growing influence of his work.

Without another language, an English-speaker would have been isolated to cultural obscurity.

Limits of language-love in the early US

Since the beginnings of European North America, people judged the importance of a language from a narrow, utilitarian point of view. On our tour of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the guide spoke proudly of the linguistic abilities of this father of the USA, as he knew Latin, Greek, French, German, Spanish, and Italian, in addition to his native English. I was less impressed by this as the low esteem of English provided the necessity for Jefferson’s education. A monolingual English speaker would have no access to the most important political, philosophical, or scientific ideas of the day, much like, for example, a monolingual Dutch speaker today.

What saddened me was that no Native American or African languages, such as Powhatan and Ndongo, were among the languages that Mr. Jefferson had learned. He was surely hearing slaves speaking multiple languages, and he was likely dealing with Native Americans on at least an occasional basis. I imagine it would have taken less work to learn those languages than Italian, for example, since speakers were living right in the vicinity.

Language is and always has been a way to access and connect with knowledge outside of one’s culture, and one’s choice of language demonstrates a bias towards whose knowledge one wants to access and connect with. Many in the US–and in most places of the world–one wants to connect with the powerful. In the 18th and 19th centuries, that meant France; in the mid-20th century German was important, and later in the century, Russian was important for a while. In the 2010s, Mandarin is more important as China became more economically powerful. Above all, most people in the world still learn English. Now, just as back then, Native American and West African languages are irrelevant because their people have no power.

Our people, just like most people, have always been biased against the weak and the outsider, and our lack of language-love displays our bias. Humans do not see value in connecting with and learning from those who do not hold power.

I learn wisdom from people whom others overlook. Those who are not powerful understand power in ways that the powerful themselves cannot see. By learning the languages of the “weak” I choose to learn what I could not know in an isolated, English-only bubble. By ignoring the “savage” Native Americans and West Africans in our country, we lost out on knowledge of this land, balance, tradition, poetry, nature, and family that are now lost forever. True language-love must embrace the outsider so that the insider might have a hope of gaining knowledge and wisdom.

Besides “doing business,” what other reasons do we have for learning languages?

12 thoughts on “Language love in Colonial Virginia

  1. I really enjoyed learning about the presence of such a diverse range of languages in the US thanks to your article. I live in the UK and this sort of thing isn’t something that we hear about much.


  2. Luke

    Hey there, I’m a language enthusiast myself and it’s great to see a blog post on this subject. One factual error though: Powhatan is not Athabaskan, but Algonquian. Still, excellent post!


  3. Luke

    Also, let us not forget the historic prominence of Dutch in the New York/New Jersey area, which was a Dutch colony until 1664! After all, Martin van Buren was a native Dutch speaker, and even 20th century president Theodore Roosevelt grew up in a Dutch speaking home in the 1860s!


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