From 1790 to 1810, Thomas Jefferson inaugurated a massive effort to collect and preserve native languages. Compiling as many languages as he could, Jefferson worked to solve the question of Indian origins. More interesting for its failures than for what it achieved, the Indian Vocabulary archive displays telling instances of cross-cultural mistranslation as indigenous words spill beyond Jefferson's rules of orthography and beyond the word list itself in formal defiance of Jefferson's goal of recording the ancient and pure sounds of “primitive” America. This essay argues that the vocabulary lists reveal forms of linguistic sovereignty whereby the indigenous speakers interviewed for the project refused to have their languages condemned to the atavistic detritus of American antiquity.

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