Some decades ago, back when Tillie Olsen was a big name in American literature (in the sense that everybody who read the classier book reviews felt obliged to read her), I read several of her books, perhaps including Yonnondio — I frankly don’t remember. But the name has always stuck with me, and it recurred to me just now as I read Why the Lakota Migrated West, the latest in Joel’s extraordinarily interesting sequence of Far Outliers posts with excerpts from Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, by Pekka Hämäläinen (Yale UP, 2019). The final paragraph begins:

By the mid-eighteenth century the Sioux had shifted shape many times over. They had opened their lands and villages for real and potential allies—Sauteurs [Ojibwe], Cheyennes, Mesquakies [Fox], Frenchmen, and many others—while contending with numerous rivals as they struggled to find a place in the rapidly changing world. They had reached out to Onontio [‘Great Mountain’, the French colonial governor] far in the East—Sioux visits to Montreal had become almost commonplace—while expanding aggressively in the West.

“Onontio sounds like Yonnondio,” thought I, “but that must be a coincidence.” Apparently not, though; googling turned up Gerald Torres and Kathryn Milun, “Translating Yonnondio by Precedent and Evidence: The Mashpee Indian Case” (Duke Law Journal, Sept. 1990: 625–659), which says:

When Walt Whitman wrote his poem Yonnondio for the collection Leaves of Grass, he added the following parenthetical explanation under the title: “The sense of the word is lament for the aborigines. It is an Iroquois term; and has been used for a personal name.”‘ In fact, Yonnondio also is the title of a long narrative poem by William H.C. Hosmer published in 1844 with the subtitle Warriors of the Genesee: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century. That poem, Hosmer wrote, is a description of “the memorable attempt of the Marquis de Nonville, under pretext of preventing an interruption of the French trade, to plant the standard of Louis XIV in the beautiful country of the Senecas.” In a note following the poem itself, Hosmer explained that “Yonnondio was a title originally given by the Five Nations to M. de Montmagny, but became a style of address in their treaties, by which succeeding Governor Generals of New France were designated.”

It is easy to understand that Whitman took “Yonnondio” to signify “Lament for the Aborigines”; if “Yonnondio” was indeed the word the Iroquois used to address the state, then as Whitman says in his poem, its mere mention “is itself a dirge.” For the Iroquois, “Yonnondio” itself took on new meaning as the relation to which it referred shifted. Even as the word became a greeting, its meaning was different for the Iroquois than for the French and other Europeans with whom the Iroquois had contact. This cascade of meanings reflects the highly volatile system of relations produced by contact between the Iroquois and the various Europeans intent on “opening up” or “claiming” the “New World.”

We know that Olsen took her title from Whitman, so the provenance is clear, and the Wikipedia article Onontio (which should probably link to Yonnondio) says “Onontio is a Mohawk rendering of ‘great mountain’, the folk etymology translation of ‘Montmagny,'” so it all fits. But does anybody know how exactly onontio means ‘great mountain’? What’s the morphology?


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    Onontsi = “head” (Mohawk)

  2. Thanks! So the ‘mountain’ is metaphorical?

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    I can only speculate, e.g., a mixed tribal assemblage used the Mohawk word, and the translator on the French side did not know Mohawk but knew it was a term of respect for the addressee, in this case a Frenchman called Montmagny–from where you get “great mountain”.

  4. If this is really the situation, it’s hilarious in an obnoxious way. The title just means chief, but the French orientalized it into something silly to their ears.

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    Not orientalisation necessarily: Montmagny = mons magnus = great mountain

  6. Very interesting! So the Wikipedia article Onontio should be amended to reflect that the Mohawk word doesn’t actually mean “great mountain.”

  7. In romanticized Indian, everything is “great”. Except princesses, who are “little”.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    Added discussion topic:
    Mohawk source, folk etymology

    The statement that ‘Onontio is a Mohawk rendering of “great mountain”, the folk etymology translation of “Montmagny”‘.’ is misleading–the Mohawk word “onontsi” has the meaning “head” and possibly by extension “chief”. The source of the folk etymology is Latin, i.e., the name of the first person addressed as Onontio was a M. (de) Montmagny, which name can be Latinised as Monsmagnus = “great mountain”. [My IP] (talk) 19:19, 5 January 2023 (UTC)

  9. I get that Montmagny means (or has a folk etymology of) Big Mountain. But Montmagny isn’t a title, and I think making it a title would sound silly in French, as it would if I went to my state capitol and formally addressed my Governor as Big Mountain Pritzker — “Hear our complaints, Big Mountain.” And as it probably would in Mohawk. There’s also an insinuation that the native Indians were so unsophisticated that they couldn’t understand the difference between his name, Montmagny, and a title. But if they were addressing him as Chief, that’s false and obnoxious.

    So I’m not really understanding why you’re hesitant to call that orientalizing. I mean, the exact word choice may be poor (“noble savaging”?). But I don’t think that’s what you’re objecting to.

    By the way, what is the etymology of Montmagny? Is it not big mountain? Surely it’s something mountain?

  10. The wonderful online Mohawk dictionary that I recall seems to be offlline now. But here are the two apparent elements in the morphological breakdown of Onontio, from Charles Julian (2010) A History of the Iroquoian Languages (I have silently expanded the abbreviations of the language names):

    Proto-Northern Iroquian *{ -nõt- } ‘hill, mountain’
    Tuscarora. { -nəɁn- } in / oˈnə ̃ ːɁnɛh / ‘hill, mountain’ (cf. Rudes 1999:368). ̃
    Nottoway *{ -nõˀt- } in ‘a mountain’ (cf. Rudes 1981a:46), ‘Mountain’ (cf. Rudes 1981a:48).
    Mohawk { -nũt- } in / oˈnũːtaɁ / ‘mountain, hill’ (cf. Maracle 1990:72).
    Oneida { -nũt- } in / jonũːˈtêː / ‘(it’s) a little hill, a little mound’ (cf. Michelson & Doxtator 2002:613).
    Onondaga { -nũt- } in / onṹːˈtaɁkeh / ‘on the hill’ (cf. Woodbury 2003:719).
    Cayagua { -nõt- } in / onõtaˈhõːnjõɁ / ‘hills’ (cf. Froman et al. 2002:525).
    Seneca { -nɔt- } in / oˈnɔ ̃ taɁkeh / ‘on the hill, Onondaga Reservation’ ̃ (cf. Chafe 1967:72).
    Huron { -nõt- } in / oˈnõːtaɁ / ‘Montagne’ (MS 59:120).
    Wyandot { -nɔt- } in / kjuˈnɔ ̃ ːtut / ‘the hill sticks up ̃ there’ (cf. Barbeau 1960:306).

    Proto-Northern Iroquoian *{ -ijoːh } ‘be beautiful, be good, be great’ Tu. { -ijoː } in / ˈwiːjoː / ‘it is beautiful, it is great’ (cf. Rudes 1999:265).
    Mohawk. { -ijo } in / kanũhkʷaɁtsheˈɹiːjo / ‘good medicine, a good remedy’ (cf. Maracle 1990:273).
    Oneida. { -ijo } in / kakhwiːˈjo / ‘good food’ (cf. Michelson & Doxtator 2002:441).
    Onondaga. { -ijoh } in / ohahíˈjoh / ‘good road’ (cf. Woodbury 2003:635).
    Cayuga. { -ijoː } in / ohneːˈkiːjoː / ‘good water’ (cf. Froman et al. 2002:363). Se. { -ijoːh } in / wiːjoːh / ‘it’s good’ (cf. Chafe 1967:46).
    Huron { -ioːh }, cf. ‘beau, bon, grand’ (MS 59:204), long vowel and / h / assumed present.

    Is Yonnondio more specifically originally *’there is a good mountain’?

  11. And then I reflect that aristocrats in England were indeed addressed by geographic titles of transparent etymology at the time, “Hear our complaints, Corn Wall! We require your benevolence, Rich Mond.” so maybe it didn’t sound ridiculous and was just a misunderstanding.

    (And after posting, I see Xerib’s post that seems to show onontio does mean big mountain.)

  12. You can hear the Huron-Wendot word for ‘mountain’ online here. The ethnonym Onondaga is also Onöñda’gaga’ ‘Hill Place people’, showing the ‘mountain, hill’ element.

    The -io element is evidently also in Ohio (apparently Seneca ohiːyo’ ‘good river’) and Ontario (apparently Wyandot ‘great lake’; Huron-Wendot ontara ‘lake’ can be heard here), for example.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    Was hoping a pukka linguist would come up with a better answer. But both Yonnondio and Onontio have an n (or nasalisation?) after both of the first two o’s. For the first o this is clear in your reconstruction. Is nasalisation what the ‘~’ superscript in IPA means here? Also your Mohawk etymon has a u for the second o, so it seems to me you have to take another of your forms, because French transcribers would have differentiated “un” and “on” ( or maybe you would say the transcriber had L1 which did not have “un”, but this seems special pleading).

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    I realized I didn’t know the etymology of Pritzker, and am advised that is in fact toponymic, meaning someone from the shtetl of Pritski [which as you can imagine has a variety of Latin-script spellings …], somewhere nearish Kieff/Kiev/Kyiv/etc. Apparently J.B.’s older sister visited it while serving as Commerce Secretary back in 2015: https://www.timesofisrael.com/us-commerce-secretary-visits-her-jewish-roots-in-ukraine/

    But I don’t know if the toponym Pritski itself has an etymology that is transparent if you know the relevant language …

  15. Perhaps this has been said elsewhere in the texts linked to, but Jesuit priests and other clerics would have been involved in facilitating relations between Iroquoian peoples and the French government. With their knowledge of both Latin and the Iroquoian languages, they could easily have rendered Montmagny as Onontio.

  16. Trond Engen says

    For more or less faithful translation of names between American and European languages, the examples into European are innumerable. Is there any reason to think that wouldn’t go both ways, at least before the Native Americans became functionally bilingual?

    For personal names becoming titles, see Kaiser and Kralj

  17. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Surely Cornwall is one of the Wales/Gaul/etc words which we have discussed before, although it’s actually only just occurred to me that it’s sitting there in plain sight…

  18. @Trond Engen, you forgot “Putin’s elections” that we used to have once in a while:-(

  19. Some interesting related material from Jean-André Cuoq (1882) Lexique de la langue iroquoise (available on here on Google books).


    M. l’abbé Ferland* assigne la véritable origine de ce mot, en le faisant venir du nom du célèbre Arendt Van Corlaer. Mais voici ce qu’il faut ajouter : Des gouverneurs hollandais d’Orange et de la Nouvelle Amsterdam, le titre de kora passa après eux, aux gouverneurs anglais d’Albany et de la Nouvelle-York et s’étendit ensuite à tous les gouverneurs dela Nouvelle-Angleterre. Actuellement le gouverneur-général du Canada se trouve investi de ce titre d’honneur, et pour Sa Majesté la Reine de la Grande-Bretagne, on a coutume d’en relever encore l’éclat en y ajoutant l’épithète KOWA. Voy. ci-après ONONTIIO.

    * HISTOIRE DU CANADA, tom. 1. p. 321 ; tom. 2. p. 57. – Québec, 1865 .

    And further on:


    Ce nom fut donné pour la première fois au successeur de Champlain dans le gouvernement du Canada, Charles Huault de Montmagny, chevalier de Malte. Nous avons vu l’origine du titre de KORA donné aux rois et reines d’Angleterre et aux gouverneurs anglais du Canada. Ce titre est, si je puis parler ainsi, de création purement iroquoise, puisque ce n’est autre chose que le nom du gouverneur hollandais CORLAER prononcé à la sauvage. Mais il en fut autrement du titre d’ONONTIIO conféré au chevalier de Montmagny : on traduisit son nom, et pour cela, les missionnaires durent prêter leur concours, sans quoi les Sauvages n’auraient pas même soupçonné la signification de MONTMAGNY, Mons magnus. Remarquons toutefois qu’en traduisant le nom du gouverneur français par onontiio, on n’en a donné qu’une traduction libre, le mot iroquois signifiant littéralement la belle montagne, et non pas la grande montagne = onontowanen.

    Du chevalier de Montmagny, le titre d’onontiio passa à ses successeurs jusqu’au temps de la conquête (1760).

    Pour les rois de France on y ajoutait l’adjectif kowa.

    Des rois de France le titre d’ONONTIIO s’est étendu ensuite à tous les rois indistinctement, sauf aux Souverains de la Grande Bretagne qui portent le nom spécial de KORA.

  20. Great finds, thanks!

  21. I second LH! Thanks very much, Xerîb!

  22. David Marjanović says

    / ohahíˈjoh / ‘good road’

    Is that where Ohio is from?

    Is nasalisation what the ‘~’ superscript in IPA means […]?

    Yes, and Iroquoian languages are full of nasal vowels that go all the way down (tend to be older than the nasal consonants actually).

    Surely Cornwall is one of the Wales/Gaul/etc words which we have discussed before

    Yes. At one point it was apparenly called West Wales ( = “‘Welsh people in the west”, not the western part of Wales).

  23. At some point, I’d been led to believe that Ohio was cognate with the first part of the Youghiogheny River, a tributary of the Monongahela and ultimately the Ohio itself. Does anyone know whether that’s true?

  24. David Marjanović says

    Charles Jacques Huault de Montmagny

    Montmagny (Val-d’Oise), où habitent les Magnymontois

    “La localité est attestée sous le nom Mons Magniacus en 1116, Mommegina, Mommegnia, Mons menia, Monmagnie en 1243, Montmeignie en 1293, Montaigernie^11.

    Le nom de Montmagny fait référence à la butte-témoin proche qu’escaladait l’antique chemin conduisant de Meaux (Seine-et-Marne) à Pontoise, mais il s’agit en fait d’une formation médiévale, dans laquelle l’élément Magny conserve le nom primitif de la localité: nous avons affaire à un domaine gallo-romain (Magniacus), bien à sa place au long de la voie antique^12.”

    11 Hippolyte Cocheris, Anciens noms des communes de Seine-et-Oise, 1874, ouvrage mis en ligne par le Corpus Etampois.
    12 Mulon (M.), Noms de lieux d’Ile-de-France. Introduction à la toponymie, Ed. Bonneton, 1997, p. 15.

  25. Cornwall is just “horn Wales,” I believe (from its peninsular shape).

    One region further east, the name Devon comes from name of the Celtic Dumnonii people. Although Devon was heavily resettled by Anglo-Saxons, Celtic languages were supposedly still spoken in Devon until well into Normal times, and there are still strong strains of Celtic ancestry among the local people.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, from Kernow in the first instance.

    GPC doesn’t actually hazard a guess as to the origin of the corresponding Welsh Cernyw.
    The “horn” etymology seems to be just conjecture, really, though it may be right for all that, of course.

    The “wall” bit is the familiar Germanic oik term for Latin-speaking deplorables, of course, as in “Vlach.”

  27. I am still stuck on Tillie Olsen being a once major writer. I had honestly never heard of her (or completely forgot the name ) until today. From her Wikipedia article I gather she was most popular in the 1960s-1970s, which is maybe a decade before my time. But she apparently did not have a presence that lingered very far into the 1980s.

  28. Yes, her precipitate rise and fall are striking.

  29. @Vanya: I remembered Tillie Olsen’s name when it was mentioned, but not much else. When I refreshed my memory, I recalled that I had read “I Stand Here Ironing” in high school or college in the 1990s, but I didn’t remember anything more, or anything about the story itself.

  30. John Cowan says

    Celtic languages were supposedly still spoken in Devon until well into Normal times

    /me snickers

    Cadwallader Colden (1688-1776), surveyor-general to the colony of New York, Lieutenant Governor and acting Governor, and de facto ambassador to the Haudenosaunee Confederation, wrote the first history of the Five Nations in English[*]. He used the spelling Yonnondio, and may have been the first to do so in print. Colden also tells us that the governors of New York were in the same way collectively known as Corlear or Corlaer, after Arent van Curler/Corlaer, the Dutch founder of Schenectady, N.Y., who was famous for his fair dealing with the Mohawks, though he was never governor himself. Similarly, the Haudenosaunee applied the word Assigoroa to the Governor of Virginia, but the etymology of this name does not appear; it may have been geographical rather than personal. One of Colden’s footnotes reads: “When the Affair of which they speak concerns the Government of New-York, the Indians always address themselves to the Governor, whether he be present or not”, so that these names refer not only to the various governors, but also to the corresponding colonial administrations.

    [*] It’s usually called The History of the Five Indian Nations, but the title in full is:

    H I S T O R Y
    OF THE
    C A N A D A,
    Which are dependent
    On the Province of New-York in America,
    Are the Barrier between the English and French in that Part of the World.
    Accounts of their Religion, Manners, Customs, Laws, and Forms of Government; their several Battles and Treaties with the European Nations; particular Relations of their several Wars with the other Indians; and a true Account of the present State of our Trade with them.
    In which are shewn
    The great Advantage of their Trade and Alliance to the British Nation, and the Intrigues and Attempts of the French to engage them from us; a Subject nearly concerning all our American Plantations, and highly meriting the Consideration of the British Nation at this Juncture.
    By the Honourable C a d w a l l a d e r C o l d e n, Esq; One of his Majesty’s Counsel, and Surveyor-General of New-York.
    To which are added,
    Accounts of the several other Nations of Indians in North-America, their Numbers, Strength, &c. and the Treaties which have been lately made with them. A Work highly entertaining to all, and particularly useful to the Persons who have any Trade or Concern in that Part of the World.

  31. They knew how to do book titles back then…

  32. Similarly, the Haudenosaunee applied the word Assigoroa to the Governor of Virginia, but the etymology of this name does not appear

    There is a nice explanation of Assarigoe, Assarigoa, etc., in the Wikipedia entry for Long knives (cf. Oneida -aˀshal- ‘knife’ and -kwan(ʌ)- / -owan(ʌ)- ‘big’, for example; here is Cuon on the collocation).

    Houwer ‘ensis, securis’ is also in Kiliaan’s Dutch dictionary (1613 edition here).

  33. …Mohawk etymon has a u for the second o, so it seems to me you have to take another of your forms, because French transcribers would have differentiated “un” and “on”

    I suppose that the reason one hears that Onontio is specifically Mohawk is that the Mohawk were the easternmost nation of the Iroquois Confederacy and thus the nation of the confederacy having the most direct contact with the French government and Jesuit missionary establishment in the 17th century. But I would be interested to learn if one language from among those of the member nations was privileged for the conduct of affairs among the nations within the confederacy.

    I was also wondering about the possibility of an interesting situation of language contact between Mohawk and French. It is worth considering the structure of the Mohawk and French vowel systems.

    The present-day Mohawk vowel system has oral /o/ and /oː/ but nasal /ũ/ and /ũː/. Wikipedia has an overview here. Perhaps this was the situation in the middle of the 17th century, too. The Oneida vowel system is similar. Julian discusses Proto-Northern Iroquoian */õ(ː)/ > Proto-Mohawk-Oneida */ũ(ː)/ > Mohawk /ũ(ː)/ beginning on p. 200 of his dissertation, available in open access here. (The name/title Onontio was introduced in 1645 or shortly thereafter, and Mohawk and the other Iroquoian languages have doubtless evolved since that time. I have no expertise in Iroquoian linguistics whatsoever, and I am not familiar with early documentation the Mohawk language, so I couldn’t say whether the Mohawk vowel was lower in the 17th century.)

    Turning to the French vowel system—the situation was the opposite: French has nasal /ɔ̃/ but no nasal /ũ/. Early Modern French /ɔ̃/ may have seemed the best phonetic approximation when the title came to be pronounced in French, and ⟨on⟩ the best way to spell it.

    (I suppose that any residual provincial French pronunciations of /ɔ̃/ as [ũ] or the like do not come into play at this late date. At any rate, such pronunciations are not reflected in any variety of North American French, as far as I know. And /œ̃/ ⟨un⟩ was doubtless not considered suitable for rendering Mohawk /ũ/ and /ũː/. I wonder, was it French /ɑ̃/ or /œ̃/ that was used to render Mohawk /ʌ̃/?)

    In fact, ⟨on⟩ seems to be the way that many Mohawk people prefer to spell the vowel /ũ/ nowadays: the word for ‘mountain’ is spelled onón:ta at the Kanien’kéha site here.

    LH readers can hear Mohawk plural iononténion ‘mountains’ pronounced here.

    I was curious and went looking on Google Books: the spelling Onuntio does occur in this account (twice on p. 80) from 1732, but otherwise seems isolated (weeding out OCR errors).

  34. PlasticPaddy says

    Thank you for spending so much time and effort explicating.
    I assumed /ũ/ = /œ̃/ because I think for me they are allophones, which then would favour a spelling of un (which of course you found in one instance, unless that instance is a misreading or miswriting). If you are saying that in Mohawk o only existed as a non-nasal and u only as a nasal, then a transcriber could quite naturally and conventionally use only one vowel symbol “for simplicity”–this is a peccadillo compared to some English or even French spelling conventions. Next time please feel free to answer my “it seems to me” with “maybe so, but you have not bothered to learn anything before forming your opinion” or indeed with no response whatsoever.

  35. Next time please feel free to answer my “it seems to me” with “maybe so, but you have not bothered to learn anything before forming your opinion” or indeed with no response whatsoever.
    Please don’t. I’m always grateful when someone like you who has bothered to dive in deeply gives detailed responses, because I learn a lot from them. (And if Paddy thinks he has deserved a snarky put-down, feel free to include some, but I don’t have the impression that that’s your style.)

  36. David Marjanović says

    I suppose that any residual provincial French pronunciations of /ɔ̃/ as [ũ] or the like do not come into play at this late date.

    Since then, however, the French /ɔ̃/ has moved back to [õ], so that beau and bon are a minimal pair for nasality. I have no idea when and where that started.

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