Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Words of Faith: The Missionary Linguistic Practices of Frederic Baraga and Sela G. Wright

Words of Faith: The Missionary Linguistic Practices of Frederic Baraga and Sela G. Wright

Gavin Redding

In the history of linguistics as a discipline, missionaries have served a central role in documenting indigenous languages. Missionary linguistics has been the field that has examined and analyzed this important process in the history of linguistics. Using Victor Hanzeli’s Missionary Linguistics in New France, a classic in the field, as a point of comparison, this paper investigates the missionary work of Frederic Baraga and Sela G. Wright, two missionaries who documented the Ojibwe language. Both these missionaries did their work in the 19th century, a period in missionary linguistics, at least in North America, less explored. This paper seeks to explore what common themes can be pulled out of this later missionary work when compared to the missionaries Hanzeli details. Areas explored include the importance of language to the mission, educational context, especially the importance of classical grammar training, the context of each missionary’s work, and their ultimate civilizing mission. Each of the later missionaries’ body of documentation is compared to the portrait Hanzeli provides of the earlier missionaries as a point of comparison. From these categories a portrait of the later era is drawn to be compared to the earlier. While Frederic Baraga’s work, and to a lesser extent Sela G. Wright’s, mirrors the earlier missionaries’ work, especially when it comes to the privileging of letter over sound, both the later missionaries place themselves in the context of, and find themselves drawing on, the emerging ethnography of their day.

April 12, 2021 - Posted by | abstract


  1. Hi Gavin, I previously didn’t know about the significant role linguistics potentially played in missionaries’ civilizing missions. This is a really cool extension of our class discussions on colonialism, imperialism, etc., and adds an important perspective to that discourse.

    Comment by Raveena Mata | April 13, 2021 | Reply

  2. I’ve spent some time studying in this area, and would like to revisit it someday. The recurring theme would be intentionality: what agenda are the missionaries pursuing. Are they saving souls, spreading their own culture, seeking fundamental linguistic principles? Do they look to transmit their own messages in indigenous languages (e.g., translations of sacred Christian texts into Anishinaabmowin), or do they look to understand the deeper structures and purpose of the language of the Other?

    Comment by Daniel Harrison | April 16, 2021 | Reply

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