In 1643, Roger Williams published his first and best book, A Key into the Language of America. Unlike the long religious arguments that characterized most of his later writings, this study was written with his feet planted squarely on the earth. Thanks to the Key, that earth soon became “Rhode Island,” an official place.
On the surface, the Key was a grammar of sorts, explaining familiar phrases spoken by Narragansett Indians. But more than that, it offered a fascinating window into the daily encounters between the very different peoples now living next to each other by Narragansett Bay. The underlying assumption of The Key– that natives mattered – sounded an unusual note in early American history, and set a precedent for the celebration of diversity that we now take for granted. As Williams discovered, the best way to get at the basic truths of America was to talk with the original Americans themselves.
Williams was proud of his talent for languages, and he worked hard to master the Native dialects after his arrival in Plymouth. One of the many reasons he was banished from Massachusetts Bay in 1635 was his advocacy for the Natives. He believed that their land should not be taken from them, and they ought to be treated with respect and due process. An early manuscript he wrote on Anglo-Indian relations no longer exists, but contributed to his banishment.
From the time of his arrival in the place he named “Providence,” Williams pondered the natives deeply, both as a practical necessity (they helped him to survive) but also because they appealed to his natural interest in language and the human condition. He spent more time with them, perhaps, than any other Englishman of the first generation. Like most anthropologists, he reveled in the difficulty of his task:
“My souls desire was to do the natives good, and to that end to have their language, which I afterwards printed … God was pleased to give me a painful Patient spirit to lodge with them, in their filthy smoke holes (even while I lived at Plymouth and Salem) to gain their tongue.”
But he seems to have loved those smoke holes at the same time, and forged genuine, lifelong attachments to the natives who offered him a path out of the wilderness. Throughout his long life he was an honest broker with them – a claim that is difficult to make about most of the original settlers.
A Key into the Language of America was published only seven years after his ordeal of banishment, and in some ways seems to have proceeded from it. If nothing else, it made tangible how much he had learned in a short time. Over 32 chapters and 205 pages, Williams poured out everything he knew about the Narragansetts. The chapters follow a certain organic logic – the book begins with salutations, then moves to eating, entertainment and sleep, then covers a wide range of daily topics before ending with sickness, death and burial. It is as much a study of culture as of language, and he interpolates his observations in between lists of vocabulary words and furtive little poems. Like most first-time authors, he diminished his efforts, saying that he had written it during his sea voyage to England (“I drew the materals in a rude lumpe at sea”). But it is clear that a great deal of effort went into the Key, and many years of hard experience.
Williams began with an inquiry into the origins of the natives, a matter of debate in Europe, where some savants thought that they might be related to ancient races like the Greeks or the Jews. As he meditated on where they had come from, he lapsed into the naturalistic language that pervades his entire narrative.
“whence they came into those pars (sic), it seemes as hard to finde, as to finde the wellhead of some fresh Streame, which running many miles out of the Countrey to the salt Ocean, hath met with many mixing Streames by the way. They say themselves, that they have sprung and growne up in that very place, like the very trees of the wildernesse.”
From that happy starting point, we learn everything we could possibly want to know about the Natives – the way they eat, the way they clothe themselves, the way they court, and the way that they interact with the natural world enveloping them – a world just then beginning to recede before the onslaught of civilization. A nostalgic tone pervades the Key, as if the act of “discovering” America had somehow ruined it as well. Through Williams, we learn of the natives’ extraordinary physical grace and hardihood (they seem not to feel the cold, and can walk hundreds of miles with tiny amounts of food). He observes further that they avoid the extremes of gluttony and drunkenness to which the English often fall victim. We learn that there are many different types of aborigines; just as there are different kinds of English, some “sober and grave,” other “Rude and Clownish.” There are complicated inter-Indian relationships (the Narragansetts fear the “Tree-Eaters,” a neighboring tribe who occasionally ate men when they ran out of bark). They love celebrations, and family gathering, and games (including a form of football). In a word, they are human.
As he wrote about the natives, Williams also inevitably passed judgment on his own kind. Without quite calling attention to the fact, much of the Key is a protest against the shabby treatment that the natives had been receiving from the English. Another book from 1643, about Massachusetts, entitled New Englands First Fruits; painted the Indians as utterly devoid of “civility” and at an “infinite distance from Christianity.” Williams went very far in the opposite direction. He admired all of the aspects of their civilization, including the fact that it was a civilization. He praised their religion, an elaborate belief system premised on living in harmony with natural surroundings (native children could name many of the stars). He praised their communitarian government. And he praised their innate sense of ethics, and the kindness to strangers that he had experienced first-hand.
To a striking degree, Williams also found the business-like qualities that Englishmen prided in themselves. The Narragansetts liked to hear the news, they kept their promises, they kept their appointments with him, and they understood very well the concept of property. As Williams wrote, “the Natives are very exact and punctuall, in the bounds of their Lands, belonging to this or that Prince or People.” This completely refuted the argument, advanced by most of the others, that America was a gigantic empty space that all Europeans were free to expand into as they saw fit. This humanistic argument culminated with a profound point, at odds with what most of Christendom was saying at the time: “Nature knowes no difference between Europe and Americans in blood, birth, bodies, &c. God having of one blood made all mankind.”
Other political arguments are hidden like barbs inside these seemingly innocent grammatical phrases. In subtle ways, the Key is a feminist book. In numerous places, Williams expresses his admiration for the courage and physical strength of native women, who work as hard or harder than the men, and never complain under any circumstances, including childbirth. It also pulses with egalitarianism, as when a seemingly innocent meditation on the fur trade takes a perverse delight in inverting the idea of luxury: “What treasures are hid in some parts of America, and in our New English parts, how have foule hands (in smoakie houses) the first handling of those Furres which are after worne upon the hands of Queens and heads of Princes?”
From a linguist’s perspective, the book is infinitely rich as well. There are texts within texts, poems reflecting on what has just been said, winking asides to the reader, and what seem to be encoded suggestions within the vocabulary lists. In other words, it is a reader’s delight, offering tantalizing paths through a wilderness that was as linguistic as it was physical.
Recent research into the Key suggests another legacy as well. It is very possible that the state of Rhode Island would not exist if Williams had not written this book. At the time he drove it through the press, in the summer of 1643, Williams was in London fighting desperately for official recognition of the colony he was trying to found – a colony that was in jeopardy because of new encroachments by Massachusetts and Connecticut, each eager to claim the desirable place he had found (and by so doing, suppress the freeform experiment he had launched). The Key’s appearance delighted the crucial powers in London charged with regulating colonial affairs, and led directly a patent legitimizing the Providence Plantations once and for all. This patent was a ringing victory for Williams in his fight to keep Massachusetts at bay, but it was even more. The new patent contained no rules for religious worship, and set a crucial precedent for toleration, amplified again in 1663 when Rhode Island received a royal charter (again, with help from Williams), and amplified one more time in 1791 when the first amendment was added to the Constitution.
The Key was printed by a Londoner named Gregory Dexter, who migrated to Providence a year later. All in all, it was very much a Rhode Island production. In fact, one could argue that the book created the place as much as the place created the book. By proclaiming that Indians were as legitimate as Europeans, Williams had ensured that Rhode Island would be as legitimate as Massachusetts – a claim that would have seemed outlandish only a year earlier. One of the phrases in the Providence patent still resonates. Explaining why they had granted him his colony, Parliament praised Williams for creating a “neerer neighborhood” with the other people he was living among. To create a nearer neighborhood remains a worthy aspiration.
Williams never expected his little grammar to offer a final statement, of course. He wrote, “a little key may open a Box, where lies a bunch of keys.” But it was a most important beginning, all the same. As he encountered it, the language of America turned out to be the language of Americans – Native Americans. They had voices, and words, and it turned out to be quite possible to hear them. Indeed, we can still hear them, thanks to the excellence of Williams’s translations. Perhaps is fitting to close with his words, and those of the Narragansetts he enjoyed a lifelong conversation with, presented exactly as they appeared in the Key:
Kunnúnni Have you seene me?
Kunnúnnous I have seene you
Jonathan Beecher Field, “A Key for the Gate: Roger Williams, Parliament and Providence,” New England Quarterly LXXX, no. 3 (September 2007), 353-382
Edwin Gaustad, Roger Williams (New York, 2005).
The Correspondence of Roger Williams (ed., Glenn LaFantasie; Hanover, NH, 1988)
Roger Williams, A Key into the Language of America (ed. Howard M. Chapin; Providence, 1936)