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Friday, October 14, 2011

The Papers of John P. Harrington

The Papers of John P. Harrington (1907-1959) is an amazingly large collection, both in size and scope. The Harrington collection includes language material, photographs, audio recordings, and even some botanical samples. The language material alone contains almost a million pages worth of notes from more than ninety languages spoken in North America in the first half of the twentieth century, filling over a thousand archival boxes! This material is as varied as a single box containing a grammar of the Klamath language to 168 boxes of Chumash language material. 

JP Harrington and his assistant Marta Herrera ca. 1930
Harrington holds one of the large, aluminum disks on which 
he recorded many California languages.
Papers of J.P. Harrington, neg. 91-35222
Harrington was relentless in his pursuit of linguistic data, devoting his entire life to his work. By the end of his life, he spoke 9 different international languages and 18 different Native American languages, all fluently. Harrington was also known to disappear entirely in the field, telling no one where he was going and directing any mail to a post office for him to collect at a later date. He was quite paranoid about other anthropologists working in the same area and kept the names of his informants a secret, instead using codes in his notes, most of which have since been decoded. Harrington would go to great lengths to record the languages of his informants, on a mission to save languages that he believed were on the verge of extinction. In one instance of such single-minded focus, Harrington instructed his field assistant to pester an elderly informant who had had a stroke and refused to dictate to them to such a point where it would be easier for this man, who was the last fluent speaker of Lower Chinook, to dictate than not. 

Accuracy was a key factor for Harrington: in all of his work, he was very intent on obtaining accuracy, particularly regarding the pronunciation of the language. He was known to conduct rehearings with his informants where he would check the accuracy of existing grammars and vocabularies of an individual language, taking care to denote the phonetic pronunciation. On occasion, he would even return to a grammar that he had already checked and conduct a second rehearing!

Two of Harrington’s assistants display chart mapping the various special symbols
 Harrington used. Note typewriter’s very long carriage for all the extra typebars.
Papers of J.P. Harrington, neg. 91-35464
An unusual testament to Harrington’s careful accuracy comes in the form of the typewriter he used: Harrington was intent on having a typewriter that could write Native American languages with the high degree of phonetic accuracy he demanded in his work. This would require a typewriter that could type many more characters than English-language typewriters could handle. It took Harrington years of correspondence before he finally found a company that manufactured Russian-language typewriters that was willing to replace the Cyrillic characters with a combination of English letters and the phonetic symbols Harrington required to write the languages he documented. The resulting typewriter was oversized and had two shift keys, tripling the number of keys available for these phonetic characters. Having said that, Harrington persisted in using a phonetic orthography of his own devising in his work – this notation changed over time and was known to vary from language to language.

As a result of his relentless pursuit of recording these languages, Harrington was at times one of the last to document some languages. In the 1930s, for example, he collected data on the Californian language Esselen from non-native speakers, as no native speakers had survived to the twentieth century. For some languages, some of the only existing records and grammars come from Harrington’s field notes and thanks to the sheer volume of the notes and the careful phonetic accuracy, reviving these extinct languages is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility.

Cassidy Foxcroft - Reference Intern
National Anthropological Archives


·    Laird, Carobeth. (1975). Encounter with an Angry God: Recollections of My Life with John Peabody Harrington. Banning, CA: Malki Museum Press.
·    Stirling, M. W. (1963). Obituary. American Anthropologist, 65, 370-381.
·     Hinton, Leanne. (1992/1993). The House is Afire! John Peabody Harrington – Then and Now. News from Native California, Winter, 9-13.
·    Newsletter of the J. P. Harrington Conference, 1992
·    Marr, Jack. (March 14, 1984). Presentation for the American Indian Languages Group at Berkeley.
·    Esselen - Survey of California and Other Indian Languages.

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