Atakapa language

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Native to United States
Region Louisiana, Texas
Extinct early 20th century
Language codes
ISO 639-3 aqp
Glottolog atak1252[1]
Atakapa lang.png
Pre-contact distribution of the Atakapa language

Atakapa (natively Ishak-koi) is an extinct language isolate native to southwestern Louisiana and nearby coastal eastern Texas. It was spoken by the Atakapa people (also known as "Ishak"). The language became extinct in the early 20th century.[2]


Plaque for Attakapa Trace Junction

Atakapa oral history says that they originated from the sea. An ancestral prophet laid out the rules of conduct.[3]

The first European contact with the Atakapa may have been in 1528 by survivors of the Spanish Pánfilo de Narváez expedition. They made two barges, which were blown ashore on the Gulf Coast. One group of survivors met the Karankawa, while the other probably landed on Galveston Island. The latter recorded meeting a group who called themselves the Han, who may have been the Akokisa.

In 1703, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, the French governor of La Louisiane, sent three men to explore the Gulf Coast west of the Mississippi River. The seventh nation they encountered were the Atakapa, who captured, killed and cannibalized one member of their party. In 1714 this tribe was one of 14 who came to Jean-Michel de Lepinay, who was acting French Governor of Louisiana between 1717 and 1718,[4] while he was fortifying Dauphin Island, Alabama.[5]

The Choctaw told the French settlers about the "People of the West," who represented numerous subdivisions or tribes. The French referred to them as le sauvage. The Choctaw used the name Atakapa, meaning "people eater" (hattak 'person', apa 'to eat'), for these competitors.[3] It referred to their practice of ritual cannibalism related to warfare. The Gulf coast peoples practiced this on their enemies.

A French explorer, Francois Simars de Bellisle, lived among the Atakapa from 1719 to 1721. He described Atakapa cannibalistic feasts which he observed firsthand.[6] The practice of cannibalism likely had a religious, ritualistic basis. French Jesuit missionaries urged the Atakapa to end this practice.

The French historian Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz lived in Louisiana from 1718 to 1734, a total of 16 years. He wrote:[7]

Along the west coast, not far from the sea, inhabit the nation called Atacapas [sic], that is, Man-Eaters, being so called by the other nations on account of their detestable custom of eating their enemies, or such as they believe to be their enemies. In the vast country there are no other cannibals to be met with besides the Atacapas; and since the French have gone among them, they have raised in them so great a horror of that abominable practice of devouring creatures of their own species, that they have promised to leave it off: and, accordingly, for a long time past we have heard of no such barbarity among them.

— Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz
Detail from a drawing by deBatz, 1735

Louis LeClerc Milfort, a Frenchman who spent 20 years living with and traveling among the Muscogee Creek, came upon the Atakapa in 1781 during his travels. He wrote:[8]

The forest we were then in was thick enough so that none of my men could be seen. I formed them into three detachments, and arranged them in such a way as to surround these savages, and to leave them no way of retreat except by the pond. I then made them all move forward, and I sent ahead a subordinate chief to ascertain what nation these savages belonged to, and what would be their intentions toward us. We were soon assured that they were Atakapas, who, as soon as they saw us, far from seeking to defend themselves, made us signs of peace and friendship. There were one hundred and eighty [180] of them of both sexes, busy, as we suspected, smoke-drying meat. As soon as my three detachments had emerged from the forest, I saw one of these savages coming straight toward me: at first sight, I recognized that he did not belong to the Atakapas nation; he addressed me politely and in an easy manner, unusual among these savages. He offered food and drink for my warriors which I accepted, while expressing to him my gratitude. Meat was served to my entire detachment; and during the time of about six hours that I remained with this man, I learned that he was a European; that he had been a Jesuit; and that having gone into Mexico, these people had chosen him as their chief. He spoke French rather well. He told me that his name was Joseph; but I did not learn from what part of Europe he came.

He informed me that the name Atakapas, which means eaters of men, had been given to this nation by the Spaniards because every time they caught one of them, they would roast him alive, but that they did not eat them; that they acted in this way toward this nation to avenge their ancestors for the torture that they made them endure when they had come to take possession of Mexico; that if some Englishmen or Frenchmen happened to be lost in this bay region, the Atakapas welcomed them with kindness, would give them hospitality; and if they did not wish to remain with them they had them taken to the Akancas, from where they could easily go to New Orleans.

He told me: "You see here about one-half of the Atakapas Nation; the other half is farther on. We are in the habit of dividing ourselves into two or three groups in order to follow the buffalo, which in the spring go back into the west, and in autumn come down into these parts; there are herds of these buffalo, which go sometimes as far as the Missouri; we kill them with arrows; our young hunters are very skilful at this hunting. You understand, moreover, that these animals are in very great numbers, and as tame as if they were raised on a farm; consequently, we are very careful never to frighten them. When they stay on a prairie or in a forest, we camp near them in order to accustom them to seeing us, and we follow all their wanderings so that they cannot get away from us. We use their meat for food and their skins for clothing. I have been living with these people for about eleven years; I am happy and satisfied here, and have not the least desire to return to Europe. I have six children whom I love a great deal, and with whom I want to end my days. When my warriors were rested and refreshed, I took leave of Joseph and of the Atakapas, while assuring them of my desire to be able to make some returns for their friendly welcome, and I resumed my Journey.

— Louis LeClerc Milfort

In 1760, the French Gabriel Fuselier de la Claire, coming to the Attakapas Territory, bought all the land between Vermilion River and Bayou Teche from the Eastern Atakapa Chief Kinemo. It was shortly after that a rival Indian tribe, the Appalousa (Opelousas), coming from the area between the Atchalafaya and Sabine Rivers, exterminated the Eastern Atakapa. They had occupied the area between Atchalafaya River and Bayou Nezpique (Attakapas Territory).

William Byrd Powell (1799–1867), a medical doctor and physiologist, regarded the Atakapan as cannibals. He noted that they traditionally flattened their skulls frontally and not occipitally, a practice opposite to that of neighboring tribes, such as the Natchez Nation.[9]

The Atakapa traded with the Chitimacha tribe in historical times.[10] In the early 18th century, some Atakapa married into the Houma tribe of Louisiana.[11] Members of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe joined the Atakapa tribe in the late 18th century.[12]

Geographic variation[edit]

There were two varieties of Atakapa (i.e. dialects):

  1. Eastern
  2. Western

The Eastern Atakapa dialect is known from a French-Atakapa glossary with 287 entries written in 1802 by Martin Duralde.[13] These speakers lived around Poste des Attackapas (Saint Martinville) which is now Franklin, Louisiana.

The Western Atakapa dialect is the best known with words, sentences, and texts recorded from 1885, 1907, and 1908 by Albert Gatschet. The main language consultant was recorded in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The last speakers were Louison Huntington, Delilah Moss, Teet Verdine, and Armojean Reon. An older vocabulary is in a list of 45 words recorded in 1721 by Jean Béranger. These speakers were captured around Galveston Bay.

Although John Swanton claimed that Béranger vocabulary was an Akokisa dialect spoken by the Akokisa, there is no real evidence to support this connection.

Genealogical relations[edit]

While considered an isolate, there have been attempts to connect Atakapa with other languages of the Southeast. In 1919 John R. Swanton proposed a Tunican language family that would include Atakapa, Tunica, and Chitimacha; Morris Swadesh would later provide work focusing on connections between Atakapa and Chitimacha. Mary Haas later expanded the proposal by adding Natchez and the Muskogean languages, a hypothesis known as Gulf. These proposed families have not been proven.[14]



Bilabial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plosive normal p t ts k ʔ
Fricative normal ɸ ɬ s ʃ x χ h
voiced ʒ
Nasal m n ŋ
Approximant w l j

/ɸ/ is not that common, often rendered as /p/.

Vowels/Nasal Vowels

Front Central Back
Close ɪ iː ĩ ʊ uː ũ
Mid ɛ eː ɛ̃ ə ɔ oː õ
Open æ a aː ã




The Atakapa language is a mostly agglutinative, somewhat polysynthetic language of the templatic type. This meaning that the language stacks (primarily within the verbal complex) a number of affixes to express locatives, tense, aspect, modality, valency adjustment, and person/number (as both subject and object), which are assembled in a rather specific order. Person marking is one of the only instances of fusion within the language, fusing both person and number. Nouns have only a small handful of suffixes and usually take only one suffix at a time.

The language is largely head-marking; however, reduplication of an adjectival stem tends to show dependent-marking, as it often expresses the plurality of the noun it describes.[17]

  1. shāk tōl "good man"
  2. shāk tōltōl "good men"

The language also exhibits strict Subject-Object-Verb word order, and while verbs are typically found in the sentence-final position, it is not uncommon for adjunct phrases to follow the verb.


  1. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Atakapa". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. 
  2. ^ Mithun, Marianne (2001). The Languages of Native North America (First paperback ed.). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. p. 344. ISBN 0-521-23228-7. 
  3. ^ a b Sturtevant, 662.
  4. ^
  5. ^ "The Atakapa", Lutherans Online
  6. ^ Newcomb, 327.
  7. ^ "Attakapas", The
  8. ^ Milfort, Louis Leclerc. Memoirs or A Quick Glance at my various travels and my sojourn in the Creek Nation, Chapter 15, Rootsweb Homepages.
  9. ^ Powell, William Byrd. Letter to Samuel G. Morton. 12 August 1839. American Philosophical Society, L.S. 2p. 127.
  10. ^ Pritzker, 374.
  11. ^ Pritzker, 382.
  12. ^ Pritzker, 393.
  13. ^ Durald, Martin. Vocabulaire de la Language des Atacapas. Gallatin, 1836.
  14. ^ Mithun, 302, 344
  15. ^ Gatschet, Swanton, Albert S., John R. (1932). A Dictionary of the Atakapa Language. 
  16. ^ Swanton, John R (1929). "A sketch of the Atakapa language". International Journal of American Linguistics. 5 (2-4): 121–149. 
  17. ^ Swanton, 124


  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Gatschet, Albert S., and Swanton, John R. (1932) A Dictionary of the Atakapa Language. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Athnology, bulletin 108. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
  • Goddard, Ives. (2005). The indigenous languages of the Southeast. Anthropological Linguistics, 47 (1), 1-60. JSTOR
  • Hopkins, Nicholas A. (2007). The Native Languages of the Southeastern United States. Los Angeles: Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), pp. 23–24. Abstract. Full text online.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Swanton, John R. (1929). A sketch of the Atakapa language. International Journal of American Linguistics. 5 (2-4), 121-149. JSTOR

External links[edit]