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Geologically Speaking, What's in a Place Name?
Here we encounter one of the pitfalls of interpreting the place names of features in New England, in particular those names given to areas or places by the people who were living here before the European arrival. There are many Algonquian language-based words for mountains, rivers, and communities in Maine. The names were given to specific locations for their geographical characteristics and their importance to the Indian people. However, many of the names used by the Colonists do not apply in the same way as the original speakers intended them. To quote Day:
"Let us admit at the outset that Indian place-names are fun. They combine the romance of history, real or spurious, with the challenge of a detective story. And this is part of the trouble. Indian place-names seem to have had a greater attraction for the untrained than for the competent students of ethnolinguistics and ethnohistory. As a result we have all too many examples - both amusing and exasperating - of names which have been enthusiastically analyzed by the following procedure: (1) assuming that the name as spelled on a modern map and pronounced by the analyst himself is just what the Indian said: (2) segmenting the name in any way which seemed most convenient: (3) assigning a meaning to the ...words from dictionaries of an Indian language in the same region, assuming that it is the same as the language of the place-name: and, (4) having ignored the Indian grammar altogether, rearranging the bits of English meaning into a grammatical phrase."
Having been forewarned, let us plunge headlong into a geological detective story. Day's definition of monadnock is not quite the same as the geological definition. Let's look at some of the place-names in Maine and see how they fit with their landscape, bearing in mind Dr. Day's four points.
"For example, Katahdin is from the adjective keght, 'principal,' and the inseparable -ad'ene-, a 'mountain'; but from the first root we retain only the k and t, and from the second only d and n, the vowels being inserted for English use. When, in 1736, Capt. John Gyles, who had long been a prisoner to the Indians, wrote 'The Teddon' for Katahdin, he gave a good Indian form, and his definite article correctly represented the first root as a translation of it, while 'Teddon' carries over the final letter of keght and contains only two letters, d and n, of the second root."
"The word is purely a river name; for -ticus means a salt creek or brook. It cannot apply to the mountain some miles away..., yet authorities are in entire disagreement about the meaning. ...The way to settle the matter was to look at the place as an Indian would have done in old times...York River, trending seaward, turns sharply west then east, with a crooked, obstructed channel (hard to navigate on an ebb tide or with a high sea and strong wind outside), as it works its way around the west end of the old bar-island which blocks its mouth. The bar eastward is now built up into a causeway, but in old times, by taking a few steps across it at any time of tide, an Indian could have easily gone from sea into quiet water. This half-tide island was a feature no other river had at its mouth. It is the little river which lies behind an island in its mouth."
Thus, while the name Mount Agamenticus may be euphonious, as given by the Colonists to the mountain the name would have made no sense at all to an Abenaki speaker.
There are many other place-names in Maine originating from Algonquian-based words, and there are several volumes listed below that would be helpful for those interested in their possible meaning, as well as the references cited therein. Also, a map that shows the distribution of the different groups of people in the 17th century and who spoke different dialects of the Algonquian Language Family is found at the website of Dr. Alvin H. Morrison, ethnohistorical anthropologist.
Cook, David S., Above the Gravel Bar: the Indian Canoe Routes of Maine (1985): Milo Printing Company, Milo, Maine, 111 p. and map.
Day, Gordon M., Western Abenaki Dictionary, Volume 2: English-Abenaki (1995): Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec, Canada, 460 p.
Eckstorm, Fannie H., Indian Place-Names of the Penobscot Valley and the Maine coast (1941): University Press, Orono, Maine, 272 p.
Foster, Michael K., and Cowan, William, editors, In Search of New England's Native Past, Selected Essays by Gordon M. Day (1998): University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Massachusetts, 328 p.
Hubbard, Lucius L., Woods and lakes of Maine (1971): New Hampshire Publishing Company, Somersworth, New Hampshire, 223 p. (Originally published in 1883. Hubbard was educated in Massachusetts and practiced law in Boston, making frequent trips to Maine. In 1883 he turned to the study of geology at the University of Bonn in Germany and eventually moved to Michigan where he was appointed Michigan State Geologist in 1893.)
Huden, John C., Indian Place Names of New England (1962): Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, 408 p. (A review by Gordon M. Day of this volume can be found in American Anthropologist, Volume 65, 1963, p. 1198-1199.)
An online version of Thoreau's The Maine Woods can be found at the website below:
Originally published on the web as the February 2004 Site of the Month.
Last updated on December 1, 2008
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