Peter Stephen Du Ponceau

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Peter Stephen Du Ponceau
Du Ponceau, circa 1830
Born Pierre-Étienne du Ponceau
June 3, 1760
Saint-Martin-de-Ré, France
Died April 1, 1844 (aged 83)
Philadelphia, United States
Occupation Philosopher, linguist, jurist

Peter Stephen Du Ponceau (born Pierre-Étienne du Ponceau, June 3, 1760 – April 1, 1844) was a French-American linguist, philosopher, and jurist. After emigrating to the colonies in 1777, he served in the American Revolutionary War. Afterward, he settled in Philadelphia, where he lived the remainder of his years. He contributed significantly to work on the indigenous languages of the Americas, as well as advancing the understanding of written Chinese.

Early life and war career[edit]

Du Ponceau's fondness for languages began at age six.[1] He studied at a Benedictine college until he abruptly ended his education after only 18 months over a dissatisfaction with the scholarly philosophy taught there. He emigrated to America in 1777, at age 17, with Baron von Steuben, who was 30 years his senior.

Du Ponceau served as a secretary to Steuben in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. After the war, he settled in Philadelphia, where he would spend the rest of his life. Among his acquaintances were many important figures of the American Revolution, including Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, Lafayette and James Monroe.[1]

Work in philosophy and linguistics[edit]

Du Ponceau joined the American Philosophical Society in 1791 and later served as its president, from 1827 until his death. He became notable in the field of linguistics for his analysis of Indigenous languages of the Americas; as a member of the society's Historical and Literary Committee, he helped build a collection of texts that described and recorded the native languages of the Americas. His book concerning their grammatical systems (Mémoire sur le systeme grammatical des langues de quelques nations Indiennes de l'Amérique du Nord) won the Volney Prize of the French Institute in 1835. In 1816 he was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society,[2] and he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1820.[3]

Du Ponceau also worked on Asian languages. He was one of the first Western linguists to reject axiomatic classification of Chinese writing as ideographic.[4] Du Ponceau stated:

  1. That the Chinese system of writing is not, as has been supposed, ideographic; that its characters do not represent ideas, but words, and therefore I have called it lexigraphic.
  2. That ideographic writing is a creature of the imagination, and cannot exist, but for very limited purposes, which do not entitle it to the name of writing.
  3. That among men endowed with the gift of speech, all writing must be a direct representation of the spoken language, and cannot present ideas to the mind abstracted from it.
  4. That all writing, as far as we know, represents language in some of its elements, which are words, syllables, and simple sounds. In the first case it is lexigraphic, in the second syllabic, and in the third alphabetical or elementary.[5]

He used the example of Vietnamese (called "Cochinchinese" at the time) using chữ Nôm, a modified form of Chinese characters, showing that the Vietnamese used the Chinese characters to represent sound and not meaning. One hundred years later, his theory remained a source of controversy.[6][7]


  1. ^ a b Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen; Whitehead, James L. (1939). "Notes and Documents: The Autobiography of Peter Stephen Du Ponceau". The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 63 (2): 189–227. 
  2. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  3. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter D" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved August 7, 2014. 
  4. ^ DeFrancis 1984: 145
  5. ^ Du Ponceau 1838: xxxi
  6. ^ DeFrancis 1984: 145–146
  7. ^ Lurie, David B (2006). Language, writing, and disciplinarity in the Critique of the ‘‘Ideographic Myth’’: Some proleptical remarks (PDF). New York: Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University. 


American Philosophical Society (n.d.). "Peter Stephen Du Ponceau Collection 1781–1844 Mss.B.D92p" (PDF online publication, updated version of Stephen Catlett's A New Guide to the Collections in the American Philosophical Society [Philadelphia, 1986]). MOLE: The Manuscripts Online Guide. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. Retrieved 2009-09-22. 
D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections (2003). "Pierre-Etienne Du Ponceau (1760–1844)". Speculation Lands Collection. D. H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville. Retrieved 2009-09-22. 
DeFrancis, John (1984). "The Ideographic Myth". The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (unpaginated online reproduction of chapter at (1st pbk ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press. pp. 133–148. ISBN 0-8248-1068-6. OCLC 10800032. Retrieved 2009-09-26. 
Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen (1999) [1826]. "Essai de solution du problème philologique proposé en l'année 1823 par la Commission de l'Institut Royal de France, chargée de la disposition du legs de M. Le Comte de Volney". In Joan Leopold (series ed.). The Prix Volney, volume II: Early nineteenth-century contributions to general and Amerindian linguistics: Du Ponceau and Rafinesque. The Prix Volney series, vol. 2 (in French). chapter ed. and notes to Du Ponceau's "Essai de solution" by Robert H. Robins. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic. pp. 37–99. ISBN 0-7923-2506-0. OCLC 313609822. 
Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen (1838). A Dissertation on the Nature and Character of the Chinese System of Writing, in a Letter to John Vaughn, Esq. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, by M'Carty and Davis. OCLC 3908044. Retrieved 2016-08-09. 
Mooney, James (1909). "Peter Stephen Duponceau". In Charles G. Herbermann; Edward A. Pace; Condé B. Pallen; Thomas J. Shahan; John J. Wynne. The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church. vol. V (New Advent online reproduction ed.). New York: Robert Appleton Company. OCLC 1017058. 
Robins, Robert H. (1999). "Du Ponceau and General and Amerindian Linguistics". In Joan Leopold (series ed.). The Prix Volney, volume II: Early nineteenth-century contributions to general and Amerindian linguistics: Du Ponceau and Rafinesque. The Prix Volney series, vol. 2. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic. pp. 1–36. ISBN 0-7923-2506-0. OCLC 313609822. 
Wilcox, David R.; Don D. Fowler (Spring 2002). "The beginnings of anthropological archaeology in the North American Southwest: from Thomas Jefferson to the Pecos Conference" (unpaginated online reproduction by Gale/Cengage Learning). Journal of the Southwest. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, on behalf of The Southwest Center, U. of Arizona. 44 (2): 121–234. ISSN 0894-8410. OCLC 79456398. 

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