Nonverbal Communication in Early America.

A few years ago Céline Carayon’s book Eloquence Embodied: Nonverbal Communication among French and Indigenous Peoples in the Americas (UNC Press page; Amazon) was published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press; the publisher’s blurb says:

Taking a fresh look at the first two centuries of French colonialism in the Americas, this book answers the long-standing question of how and how well Indigenous Americans and the Europeans who arrived on their shores communicated with each other. French explorers and colonists in the sixteenth century noticed that Indigenous peoples from Brazil to Canada used signs to communicate. The French, in response, quickly embraced the nonverbal as a means to overcome cultural and language barriers. Celine Carayon’s close examination of their accounts enables her to recover these sophisticated Native practices of embodied expressions.

That certainly sounds interesting, and Thomas Wien’s review (Early American Literature 57.1 [2022]: 313-20; JSTOR) provides a helpful summary on pp. 314-15:

Eloquence Embodied is an exercise in rehabilitation. From the begin-
ning: in the two initial, scene-setting chapters, Carayon presents Native
American and European paralinguistic practices before contact, finding
them equally complex—and equally effective. In the face of the traditional
devaluation of the nonverbal and its emerging association among educated
Europeans with the “uncivilized” at home and abroad, she discerns a basic
symmetry that would make possible the colonial connection to come.
Chapter 1 sketches out traditional Native multimedia communication
technologies, moving back and forth between early European visitors’ ob-
servations and current knowledge on kinetic communication in general.
Taking “multimedia” seriously, Carayon explores the ties of Indigenous
conventional or nonconventional sign languages—unequally distributed
among the peoples encountering the French—to oratorical traditions and
pictographic writing. Chapter 2 cobbles together a nonverbal tradition à
la française
out of monastic sign language, rediscovered gestures of clas-
sical oratory, Jesuit theater, (non-Jesuit) street performance, and emerging
naval signals. While they were far from congruent, the cultures of other-
than-verbal communication that had taken form on the two continents
were equally sophisticated, predisposing the members of both parties
to the American encounter toward reading bodies and their signs. They
offered “remarkable platforms for mutually meaningful cross-cultural ex-
changes” (156)—the possibility of a gestural middle ground, so to speak.

The remaining four chapters rescue from obscurity the nonverbal in
Franco-Indigenous relations. Communication without words, Carayon in-
sists, remained crucial throughout the two centuries under study; it was
just as indispensable once increasing numbers of French and Indigenous
people engaged in often halting verbal conversation, as during the early
phase of gesticulating on the beach that comes spontaneously to mind.
The nonverbal even gained in importance over time: “The more the groups
became acquainted with each other over the next two centuries, the more
manual and kinetic communication came to define their relations, both
friendly and violent” (158).

Wien concludes:

The book’s conclusion does more than merely conclude: it offers a com-
parison of French colonizers’ recourse to the nonverbal with that of the
Iberians and, at greater length, the English. This is a way of returning to
a question first broached in the introduction: Did a distinctly “French ap-
proach to intercultural communication” (12) decisively contribute to cre-
ating this American empire? In the end, Carayon’s answer comprises three
propositions: (1) While servants of all the colonizing powers wrote on the
importance of nonverbal communication, the French were especially vol-
uble and, in contrast to the English, cast it in a favorable light, including
when they compared themselves to other European empire-builders; (2)
although other-than-verbal communication marked all European empires
in the Americas, notably in their early phases, the French cumulatively de-
veloped a special expertise in this domain; and (3) skills of this sort were
central both to imagining the French empire and to making it work. In
sum, the nonverbal was (and, one might add, was seen to be) “the strategic
element making French . . . success possible” (291), as she concludes in
chapter 4. […]
But that is just another way in which this sophisticated study, which is
superbly grounded in the secondary literature, is likely to provoke fur-
ther debate. In celebrating bodily communication in this colonial contact
zone, Carayon transforms into a solution what so many have seen as a
problem. In so imaginatively rehabilitating it, she extends to the gestural
the attention that specialists of colonial and precolonial settings have lav-
ished for some time now on the graphic and the oral. Eloquence Embodied
enlarges the realm of the intelligible—for the participants, back then, and
now for us.

Incidentally, I was struck by the name of the Omohundro Institute, and googling produced this Wikipedia article:

Omohundro is an American surname of probable English origin. All Omohundros in the United States are descended from Richard Omohundro, a farmer who was living in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1670 and died there in 1697. Mohundro is a variant of the surname used by a branch of the family living mainly in the American South. Despite much speculation, there is no consensus on the ultimate origin or meaning of the surname.

Thanks, Martin!


  1. jack morava says

    This seems fascinating and I hope it’s not so multilateral as to be a gobstopper.

    The subject is outside my range but seems interesting from a variety of viewpoints [for ex . I vaguely recall claims that a large number of Finn(ish) people s came early to North America and immediately sort of dissolved into the woods…]. I expect the Deaf community will also find the issue interesting and hope it comes to their attention.

    [BTW our kids were in school here with Omohundro neighbors.]

  2. An Omohundro connection! I don’t know why I’m surprised; this is the Hattery, where all lines converge.

  3. Try as I might, I could not find evidence to support the Wikipedia article’s assertion that the name Omohundro is of English origin. That statement is derived from a voluminous 1950 genealogical work produced by the father of the founder of the institute, which debunks a variety of alternative theories (online view here). But debunking everything else doesn’t make it English. It seems more likely that the original Omohundro, while himself of English origin, made up the name out of thin air (abracadabra!) upon arriving in Virginia, rather than carrying it over from England (or Spain, etc.) where it is nowhere to be found.

    It’s a fine name for an Institute, though!

  4. Omohundro is a tough one. I have not seen any satisfactory etymology of it. What seems clear is that all of them are descendants of Richard Omohundro, who lived in Virginia and died in 1698; the genealogy was researched and has been documented here.

    The family has a charitable foundation, the Omohundro Institute (which has been dealing recently with the family’s multiple legacies, as slave owners and as abolitionists). This post at their blog garnered many comments, mostly from descendants. Including:

    There is an Omohundro Square in Seville, Spain. I was told by my father, James Omohundro, a descendent of Richard Omohundro, that we were French-Norman, then crossed to England with William the Conquerer, then, to our misfortune, crossed the King. The Duke of Mohun is one of our descendants. Anyway, we had to flee back to France. O is a prefix, and dro, or dreaux is the suffix. So, Mohun is the core name. When the call for help to drive the Moors out of Spain came, the Mohuns, or Omohundro’s, went to Spain. My DNA bears out the French, British, and Iberian notes. I also have a copy of the Omohundro Genealogical Record. There are LOTS of Omohundro’s in Texas and Mexico, as well as Virginia, which means that some Omohundro Spaniards became proud papas in Mexico…further strengthening the Omohundro-Iberian connection. I personally met a tall, dark Mexican man named Omohundro in an elevator in Lexington, KY. I told him we are cousins! 😀 I wondered about the secrecy of the Omohundro origins for years, speculating that perhaps they were of Jewish origin escaping Queen Isabelle during the expulsion of the Jews. My DNA does not bear this out. I’m not sure why Richard didn’t give his reasons for immigrating from wherever, but we can surmise that he was a wondrous mix of British, French, and Spanish heritage. I did hear my father say that he arrived in Virginia with LOTS of money, and the plantation at Fluvanna would bear that out.

    Aside from the folk etymology, I suspect the Mexican branch is descended from more recent immigrants from the US, descendants of Richard. I could not find the square in Sevilla.

  5. The name of the rock anthem “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” came about because the singer was supposed to be singing “In the Garden of Eden” but was extremely inebriated at the time.

    I wonder if Omohundro had a similar origin, the colonist having celebrated heartily after finding himself on dry land again. I’m a-hungry…? As one would be, after subsisting on salt beef and biscuits for weeks.

  6. David Marjanović says

    O is a prefix, and dro, or dreaux is the suffix.

    Aux Mohundreaux…???

    I wonder if Omohundro had a similar origin, the colonist having celebrated heartily after finding himself on dry land again.

    I have long wondered whether Wyatt Earp burped when he was asked for his name.

  7. Joaquín Closet says

    made up the name out of thin air (abracadabra!) upon arriving in Virginia

    ó mo thóin-deireadh

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    “Invented in A.D. 16xx out of whole cloth by someone of English origin” is maybe not what people usually mean by “of English origin,” but …

  9. I haven’t read Carayon’s book, but I really must make time to do so.

    Carayon does not seem to mention the ethnonym Gros Ventre (I did a quick search), but Andrew Cowell et al. (2016) ‘Gros Ventre Ethnogeography and Place Names: A Diachronic Perspective’ Anthropological Linguistics 58(2):132-170 (available here) give an explanation of the origin of the exonym Gros Ventre by misinterpretation of the Plains Sign Language:

    The Gros Ventre or White Clay people currently occupy the Fort Belknap Reservation in northcentral Montana, north of the Missouri River. Earlier, in the eighteenth century, they seem to have been located primarily farther to the north, around the Saskatchewan River. The name Gros Ventre (French for ‘big belly’) is obviously an exonym (based on a misunderstanding of the sign language form for ‘falling water’), though it is commonly used by the people themselves at Fort Belknap, while the indigenous name is ˀɔˀɔ́ɔ́ɔ́niinénnɔh meaning ‘white clay people’. The term White Clay is commonly used in English today at Fort Belknap, along with Gros Ventre.

    (I gather that the element ˀɔˀɔ́ɔ́ɔ́- is ‘clay’, and ˀinénnɔh is ‘man’, but I haven’t yet found a complete account of the derivation.) On the name Gros Ventre, see also note 8 to William Clark’s journal entry for 27 October 1804 here.

    I had thought that there were more ethnonyms that had their origin in misinterpretations of the Plains Sign Language (I do not quite understand how Nez Perce came about), but I did not find any in a quick search of Carayon.

  10. PlasticPaddy says

    Moindreau/Moindrot is actually an attested surname, but I don’t know how far back it goes or whether anyone in England had it at the time.

  11. David Marjanović says

    Oh, neat.


    That’s not a typo. I’m not sure what it is, though. The Wikipedia article mentions (well, tabulates) short and long but no overlong vowels, and the long counterpart to /ɔ/ is supposed to be /oː/.

    Also, as in the closely related Arapaho, there are no fully open vowels… in the table at the end of the article. The supposed endonym at the top of the box to the right does contain aa.

  12. Phonetically, it’s just what it looks like, an extra-long vowel. Phonologically, I’m not sure. It might be a sequence of a short and a long vowel. Sometimes you see in the orthography a VVV sequence, sometimes a V́V́V́, sometimes a V́VV (with the acute marking the higher pitch).

    That is the best I could do with Salzmann’s ‘Salvage phonology of Gros Ventre (Atsina)’, IJAL 35:307 (1969), and with the first chapter of Costa’s New Voices for Old Words: Algonquian Oral Literatures, ‘Editing a Gros Ventre (White Clay) Text’, by Brockie and Cowell. A reference grammar of the language, by Andrew Cowell, is to come out this fall.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I look forward to that. His Arapaho grammar is very nice.
    Something for the Christmas wish list …

  14. White Clay is the name of the closest hamlet to the Pine Ridge Reservation, home now to the Oglala Sioux and where Wounded Knee is located.

  15. I checked Eric G. Grundset and Patricia Law Hatcher, “Richard¹ Omohundro of Westmoreland County, Virginia”, The American Genealogist 82(4), 241 (10/2007). The authors are professional genealogists, specializing in that part of the country. They reject the French -dreau(x) theory, not having found any similar Huguenot names. Nor did the de Mohun family seem plausible. Their best suggestion is one Richard Ormond, who came to America in 1663 as a servant, and whose contract would have ended about the time that Richard Omohundro was recorded to have purchased his land. The surname Ormond elsewhere has the spelling variants Ormand and Ormerode.

    I am surprised that the spelling of one individual’s surname could be twisted this much within their lifetime. Surely Ormerode and Omohundro would not be pronounced alike? Could Grundset and Hatcher be too optimistic, in the face of no better match? Could Ormond have been an Ellis Island–like simplification of the original Omohundro, rather than the other way around?

    In an appendix, they provide abstracts of early documents mentioning R.O. Spelling variants include Omohundra, Amahundero (“paid 400 pounds of tobacco for 2 wolfs’ heads”), Amahundro, Amahundra, Amahundrah, Amahudra, Mahundra, Omahundra, Omahundroe, Omehundro, etc. Nothing too different, and nothing like Ormand/Ormerode.

  16. BTW, The American Genealogist has, among serious published articles, funny bits that researchers have run into on the side. This example, from 1602, comes from Churchwardens’ Accounts of Pittington and Other Parishes in the Diocese of Durham from A.D. 1580 to 1700. A court was taking the matter of a disturbance at the church of Heighington, County Durham. A deposition was given to the effect

    that at the tyme of the said contention Elinor Hutchinson was sett in her stall emongst others & that afterwardes the said Elinor Richmond did come into the same stall & did sitt upon the said Elinor Hutcheson & disturbe her there whereby the said Elinor Hutcheson did with a pinne prick the said Elinor Richmond in the buttock & thereupon rose speeches between them to the disquieting & disturbance of Divine service.

    The two were ordered to confess on the following Sunday, and to knock it off.

  17. The surnames Ormerode and Ormond are unrelated: the former is English, the latter Irish. This doesn’t help here, except to qualify Grundset and Hatcher’s philological judgment.

  18. Clearly an early Bengali immigrant, bearing the surname Mohendro and bringing the tidings of Indra to a different kind of Indian.

  19. Trond Engen says

    I see that Ormond is anglicized from Irish Oirmhumhain, which may suggest that he (or locally relevant speakers) pronounced it with three syllables, and that the second and third were separated by a weak glide or approximant. That could explain the -h-, but I don’t know what to do with the final -ro. What’s the origin of Ormondroyd?

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    Oirmhumhain would be three syllables only in the sense that the long u has a following schwa, so IR-wu-an, IR-wu-wan or (without the séimhú, this would be a non-native or maybe Leinster pronunciation) OR-mu-an. I can’t see how you get a h, unless you shift the stress from the first syllable .

  21. Trond Engen says

    PP: Oirmhumhain would be three syllables only in the sense that the long u has a following schwa, so IR-wu-an, IR-wu-wan or (without the séimhú, this would be a non-native or maybe Leinster pronunciation) OR-mu-an.

    That’s what I tried to be unspecific about.

    I can’t see how you get a h, unless you shift the stress from the first syllable.

    I meant h as a hiatus marker.

  22. January First-of-May says

    Omohundro previously on LH (very briefly, with no comment on origin).
    Still sounds Madagascarian to me, though of course that’s chronologically impossible.

    Is the name attested before Richard Omohundro showed up in Virginia? If not, I’d have first thought of Native American as a possible option (cf. Ben Pimlico). Not sure if there’s any good Algonquian explanation, though.

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