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"The Apostle of the Indians of Guiana"
A Memoir of the Life and Labours of the Rev. W.H. Brett, B.D.
For Forty Years a Missionary in British Guiana

By the Rev. F.P.L. Josa
Rector of Holy Trinity, Essequibo

London: Wells, Gardner, Darton and Co., 1887.


Chapter VII.

Translation work in four different languages--Cornelius learning the Ten Commandments in English--List of chief translations--Translation Committee--S. P.C. K.--Notes on the languages of Guiana.

WHAT in some respects may be considered the greatest work achieved by this missionary, for which the Church must ever be grateful, was the service he rendered in adapting the language of the nation to the purpose of his mission. Mr. Brett found that the languages spoken by his people were four in number and all unwritten. In this work he had to systematise these languages, phonetically form vocabularies, and compose a grammar. And he was forced to this because he felt that it would be impossible for him to teach the Indians in English. How he set to work we are thus told by himself:--

"It was a very sultry noontide, and as I approached the house, I saw my Indian friend Cornelius, alone, resting in his hammock. At first I thought he was merely taking a siesta after his morning's work, but as I drew nearer, I could hear him labouring painfully in his efforts to read the Ten Commandments from a little English Prayer-book. A gentle breeze was sighing through the tall bamboos, and a thick carpet formed by their leaves helped to deaden the sound of my approaching footsteps, so that he was not aware of my presence as 1 came and looked over him. He stumbled on until he came to the words 'third and fourth generation,' when he paused and sighed hopelessly. As he did so I laid my hand on his shoulder, and asked in Arawak 'if he could understand the words he was trying to read.' He rose with a sudden start, dropping from his face what should have been a pair of spectacles, but which, as I picked them up, I found to be but one glass instead of two.

"After answering an inquiry respecting the person who had imposed on his simplicity by selling him the one-eyed spectacles, he replied to my first question by telling me that the words were so hard that he could not understand them; that his daughter, who, having been at our school, could read fairly, could not enlighten him as to their meaning; that he knew the Apostles' Creed, Lord's Prayer, &c., in English by heart, and had a general idea of the leading truths of Christianity; but that the words themselves of our Bible and Prayer-book were so different from the 'talkee talkee' or Negro-English to which his people were accustomed, that those Indians already grown up (who really used Creole-Dutch rather than English) would never learn effectually by them.

"I felt, by what I had myself observed, it was all too trite, and that nearly a generation must pass ere the Arawaks--the most advanced of all the tribes around me--could be readily and generally taught through the medium of our tongue.

"It was necessary to remedy the evil at any cost. I knew already a good deal of Arawak, and now asked him how it would be if the Lord's Prayer, Creed, &c., could be printed in their native tongue. He caught eagerly at the idea; and so, with the aid of himself and family, the work of translation was commenced. We did as well as we could, blundering at first immensely, as our orthography had to be made and our grammar discovered as we went on. It was not easy, for the construction of all those aboriginal tongues is in most points directly opposite to our own.

"The Lord's Prayer and Creed, printed in Georgetown on a small sheet as the first-fruits, were eagerly received and learned. So rapidly did the knowledge of them spread, that at a settlement more that thirty miles away I found some Arawaks able to repeat both without the necessity of my teaching them.

"Many passages, however, troubled us exceedingly, from there being no corresponding words or phrases in their tongue. Others could only be expressed by words of ambiguous meaning. But on the whole we got on fairly; the Indians inventing now and then a compound word to express the idea required. Their children, taught at the schools, began also to be a great help to me.

"An unexpected aid arose afterwards in the person of Wilhelmina, sister of Cornelius's wife. She had, when I married some time before, attached herself to my house hold, learning from my wife what she could, that she might communicate it to the women of her race, and thereby teach them civilised habits. As an instance of this, I may mention that she first procured washing-tubs, flat-irons, &c., and taught her Indian sisters in that district the art of laundress. 'For,' as she observed, 'if we are to wear clothes, we must learn to wash and do them up.' But when I first came upon them in the act of 'doing them up,' they ran away, ashamed and afraid of being laughed at.

"That good woman never spoke to her mistress save in Arawak, in order, as she afterwards confessed, to 'make her learn it quickly.' Her regular and intelligent features used to brighten when discussion took place on the meanings and power of words; yet she never interfered in any way between me and my male assistants. But frequently when they were gone, and I would mention in my family points on which I was at the time hopelessly puzzled, she would modestly give the phrase I wanted, or a certain clue to guide me to it. She had a clearer mind and judgment than any of her race I ever met with, male or female.

"Years after, I found her aid invaluable in correcting the translation of the first part of Genesis, the four Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, These, with a catechism explanatory of the Apostles' Creed and Sacraments, the Baptismal and Marriage Vows, some prayers, and after wards a larger catechism on the historical portions of the Old and New Testaments, completed our labours in the Arawak tongue, and effectually accomplished what they were intended to do. They are now but little needed, as the Arawaks generally have learned English at our missions, and some can read and write it very well.

"In carrying on that work, I was greatly hindered by the wants of other races, whose necessities were even greater, because they were more barbarous and ignorant. First of these came the Pomeroon Caribs, who were jealous. I had to stop and do something of the kind for them; and thus, until health broke down utterly, we had the two nations, each in its own tongue, instructed on alternate evenings throughout the week.

"Knowing the eloquence and zeal of Cornelius, I wrote in Arawak, and in large Roman characters, a translation of our Lord's last charge to His disciples, from St. Mark xvi., and taught him to read and explain it. With this, serving him both for text and credentials, he was sent on a mission to scattered and distant families whom he had not yet been able to influence. We bade him God speed, and he went away quite alone in a little 'buckshell.' After nearly a fortnight he returned with three canoes and twelve men. These represented twelve Arawak families, who soon after attached themselves to the mission."

The languages which Mr. Brett mastered, which he did completely, were Arawak, Caribi, Acawaio, and Warau, into which he translated portions of the Old and New Testaments, comprehensive catechisms in each, portions of the Church Services, &c. All these he had to reduce to written languages, which in itself was no light task, as the difficulty of catching the words as pronounced by the people was very great, and the substitute of an "e" for an "a," an "o" for a "u," often has the effect of entirely altering the meaning of a word, and sometimes a whole sentence. Many of the vowels were a mere soft breathing, which it was difficult to express by any of our English vowels and it was by no means a rare thing to spend from ten minutes to half an hour in getting one word spelt correctly. Mr. Brett selected the most intelligent men and women, but never had more than one or two with him at a time; and two hours at a sitting was as long as they could fix their attention. He had his Greek and Latin Testaments, and Mrs. Brett the English, she having been his sole English-speaking assistant in this work from 1845 to 1871. The work was most interesting and instructive, and these translations have been of inestimable value in diffusing the knowledge of the Gospel amongst the native tribes, even in the far interior and all parts of the country.

The following is a list of the principal translations:--

Caribi--Lord's Prayer, Creed and Ten Commandments, with Questions and Answers, Baptismal and Marriage Vows, Short Prayers, &c., &c. Also Catechisms (150 questions and answers) on Bible History, Old and New Testaments.

Warau--The same as in Caribi.

Arawak--The same.

Acawoio--The same.

Also in Arawak--Translations of Genesis, the four Gospels, and Acts.

In Acawoio--Translations of St. Matthew, Genesis, and Parables of our Lord.

Arawak Grammar and Vocabulary.

Do. Caribi, Acawoio, Warau.

This great work was partly done at the missions and partly on the same spot on which this Memoir is compiled, Holy Trinity Rectory. When the work was done in the bush, this was the mode of procedure, as described by Mr. Brett:--"A Translation committee was organised, which met during my quarterly visits. It consisted of two Arawaks who spoke Warau, two Caribs similarly qualified, and one or two young Waraus who were learning English. To these was added the old Warau chief; who was dull and could not construe a sentence, but his presence gave importance to the work, and was supposed by his people somehow to ensure its correctness.

"Our place of meeting was at an old abandoned house or shed, standing apart from the mission-village, and out of the reach of disturbance from the voices of women and children. The 'committee' sat on rough logs, ranged on the sand in the open building; and we had carefully to examine our feet for chigoes and exterminate them after each sitting. Altogether we were a rough and queer-looking party; and our good friends of the S.P.C.K., for whom we were then preparing work, would have been greatly amused to see us.

"The Acawoios readily understand the Caribs, but are not as easily understood by them. Their language has considerable variation, owing to the vast extent of territory over which it is spoken. Of all the native tongues, it seems the most difficult for a stranger to pronounce; and there are in it some sounds which no combination of the letters of the English alphabet can accurately express. This tongue is spoken on the upper parts of all our large rivers, from the Corentyn to the Orinoco.

The Arawak and Warau tongues differ from each other and from the rest. The dissimilarity observable in words extends also to many points in their grammatical construction. But though in many things there is a wide distinction, there are others in which all the Indian dialects of Guiana seem to agree.

"For instance, the words which have the power of prepositions in English always follow the noun or pronoun to which they refer. This will be seen in the following examples, the words which answer to our preposition being in italics:--

English--On earth.
Arawak--Orora ajeago.
Warau--Hota' rai.
Caribi--Noano kopo.
Acawoio--Nohn bo.

Another point in which the different nations agree is their method of numeration. The first four numbers are represented by simple words, but five is 'my one hand,' abar dakabo in Arawak. Then comes a repetition, aba timen, &c., up to nine. Biam-dakabo, 'my two hands,' is ten. From ten to twenty they use the toes (kuti or okuti), as abar-kuti-bana, 'eleven,' biam-kuti bana, 'twelve,' &c. They call twenty abarloko, one loko or man. They then proceed by men or scores; thus forty-five is laboriously expressed by biam-loko abar-dakabo fajeago, 'two men and one hand upon it.' For higher numbers they have now recourse to our words hundred and thousand.

"As far as my researches have extended, this method of numeration prevails among the different tribes.

"The Indian children, who learn to read and write with facility, and comprehend with no great difficulty the elementary instruction given them in geography, &c., are most backward in acquiring the simplest rudiments of arithmetic. The imperfect and barbarous method of reckoning by hands, feet and complete men, which each learns with his mother-tongue, is a formidable obstacle to the acquirement of our decimal system.

"The American-Indian languages mostly belong to what has been called the polysynthetic class, which are well known to be very different in structure from the European tongues. In some of them words are abbreviated and combined in a manner that to us appears confused and embarrassing, but which is really full of order and method.

"The Arawak language, though of course not to be compared with our own in the number of its words, has considerable power of expression, and its verbs are very rich in moods and tenses. It would be out of place to attempt here any explanation of its structure; but it may be briefly observed that its complexity is greatly increased by the system of regimen which pervades it, and in various ways affects different parts of speech,--the governed words almost always ending with the letter n. The sentences lajiagoba tohojin and tohojia la-goba-ajian have precisely the same meaning, 'he spake thus;' but in the former the verb governs the adverb, which follows it, while in the latter the adverb preceding governs, and entirely changes the form of the verb. There are other changes of form in each conjugation, according to the nature and position of the governing word.

"Some of the Indian words are of great length, and, though not quite so extensive as those used by certain tribes of the northern continent (among whom polysyllables stretching across a page are not uncommon), are yet sufficient to dismay a learner. Among the Arawaks, such words as lokoborokwatoasia, 'his thought' or 'remembrance;' kabuintimen-kutibanano, 'eighteen,' &c., are continually used. The length of their verbs is increased by the manner in which the pronouns are combined with them; and sometimes also from the syllables which contain the root of the verb being doubled, to express the continuance or intensity of the action. In nahhdadadikitagobai, 'they continued asking him' (pronounced by the Arawaks as a single word), the reduplication may be observed, and both the nominative and objective pronouns (each expressed by a single letter) are contained.

"In those long words, almost every syllable would be found to have its own particular force and meaning, though some to us may appear redundant. For example, an Arawak says simply Dai-iyu, 'my mother;' but Wai-iyu-na-tu, 'our mother.' To us the sense of this latter word would appear sufficiently expressed by the first two syllables, wa and iyu, which are respectively 'our' and 'mother.' But, as if the idea of plurality (of offspring) were not sufficiently expressed by the first syllable, the Indian repeats it in the penultimate na, and closes the word with tu, the usual singular feminine termination. So also in the Caribi word ke-yoboturi-kun, which signifies 'our lord.' Yoboturi is equivalent to 'lord' or 'ruler,' and the idea of plurality in those whom he rules, which the first syllable conveys, is repeated in the last. The Acawoio form of the same word, keyobororikun, and kikaibunikun, by which they express 'our father,' are exactly similar in their construction."

To enter further into this subject would exceed our limits and weary the reader. It may be sufficient to observe that the remarks made by a laborious investigator on the American native languages in general will be found to hold good of more than one now moribund in Guiana:--"They are rich in words and grammatical forms, and in their complicated construction the greatest order, method, and regularity prevail."

Many words of Spanish origin have been added to those of the aboriginal languages. They are the names of objects with which the Indians were unacquainted previously to their discovery by that nation. Thus they call a goat kabaritu, and a fowl karina, from the Spanish words cabarita and gallina. Sapatu, their word for shoe, is from the Spanish zapato; and from arcabuz comes arakabusa, which the Indians apply to firearms. In like manner, several Dutch words, more or less altered, are now incorporated with the native tongues.

"Long before this I had known the value of pictures in teaching those wild races, of whose tongues we know so little. In my early intercourse with them we had been greatly in want of a set of Scripture prints, which, though sent out to me by one of the societies, went somewhere else. I hope they were useful wherever they went; but we were in need of them, and had to do without them. Finding something of the kind indispensable, I used at one time to carry about with me a heavy copy of Burkitt's Commentary, having at that period no other book with suitable engravings. Sometimes, being quite at a loss to explain important words, such as crucifixion, &c., I would with pencil and paper make a rough sketch, and generally found that the interest which words imperfectly understood failed to convey by the ear was excited by objects presented to the eye.

"Bearing this in mind, I asked the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge to furnish us with cards containing the Creed and Lord's Prayer in Warau (and two other native tongues), with little engravings of important Scriptural subjects ranged in medallions around the letterpress. When this was done it succeeded marvellously with all those races. For they learned the meaning of the engravings first; and were thereby aroused to attend to the words. The Warau females were especially attracted. Poor women! they had at last got something they could comprehend, and were no longer shut out, as they had before considered themselves to be.

"And here I may notice, that in a year or two a manifest change took place in the appearance of those women. They would at first come to church in a painfully nude condition, and with their hair matted and dishevelled as in their native swamps. But soon the 'camisa,' or petticoat slung over one shoulder, began to be generally used by them; and, as a next step, their hair would be combed out, and done up in some neat braiding on their heads.

"And when the Society, as the work of translation went on, printed for us catechisms on the Creed and Sacraments, Baptismal and Marriage Vows, with a few prayers, and afterwards that on the Bible history, uniform with those in three other Indian tongues (the Acawoios having by that time joined us), then candidates for Baptism and the Lord's Supper came forward from among the Waraus as from the other races.

"This progress was the more comforting as the people themselves were lower than the tribes around them, and had, in the beginning of our work, manifested such total indifference.

"The grace of God is mighty, and able to elevate all. May His work among these poor people still go on!"

Mr. Brett, in a note to the eleventh chapter of his "Indian Tribes of Guiana," Part II., supplies us with the means of judging between the four best-known Indian dialects; and the quotation of this will form an appropriate conclusion to this chapter.

"The following short vocabulary will show the difference in the languages of neighbouring tribes in Guiana:--

"Of the above languages, that of the Araw√Ęks, as has been before observed, is most remarkable for its softness. It abounds in vowels, and from the manner in which the words combine with and run into each other, it is very difficult for a learner to acquire it. Hence there is a proverbial saying, that "None can thoroughly master their tongue unless his mother were one of the lokono.' The people of this tribe, inhabiting the various river districts, have in each locality certain peculiarities of speech; but these differences are small, and in all important points the language is the same.

"The Warau or Guarano tongue is more easily acquired than any other, its words being comparatively few and very distinctly pronounced. It is used not only by the Waraus themselves, through the immense swampy region inhabited chiefly by them, from the Pomeroon to and beyond the Delta of the Orinoco, but also by the tribes which dwell around them, as a common medium of communication.

"The Caribi tongue, though somewhat more guttural than either of the above, is spoken in a smart, vivacious manner. Those with whom I had more immediate intercourse claimed to speak it in its purity, and regarded as corrupt the language of those Caribs who elsewhere had intermarried with other races.

"The Acawoio tongue, as may be seen above, bears a strong resemblance to the Caribi, but has even a closer affinity to the dialects of the remoter tribes of the interior."


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