What Was Karankawa Language?
By Kam Wagert
History Center founding member
Documented by European explorers as early as 1528, the five major Karankawa groups of Native Americans lived along the Texas coast thousands of years earlier. Here in Aransas County, the Copanes lived along the shores of our bays. They were nomadic, staying on the shoreline in fall and winter and going inland in the spring and summer.
Archeological surveys in our county have unearthed artifacts that reveal what the Karankawas made in pottery, stone tools and weaponry, and jewelry. Soil analysis has determined what foods they ate: fish, oysters, deer, waterfowl, etc. But what has never been found is a record of their spoken language.
The Karankawas captured a young French boy, Jean-Baptiste Talon, in 1698 during their brutal attack on Fort St. Louis, near present day Victoria. He lived with the group for several years, and learned their language. He later wrote down the words he remembered from his capture, and their French translations.
Alice Oliver lived on Matagorda Bay with her parents from 1838 to 1848, from age 10 to 20. She befriended the Karankawas living nearby, and in 1871 compiled a list of 134 words she remembered with their English translations. Analysis of the words compiled by Talon and Oliver show a great similarity.
Oliver said in an 1871 interview that the Karankawas spoke with an air of ennui, with a slightly contemptuous expression. She noted they never looked at the person to whom they were speaking. She further stated they held their breath while conversing, and then emitted a gentle sigh when they were through talking.
Some of the Karankawa words that both Talon and Oliver remembered from being with these people include: ka’da (girl); ha’kes (sit); ba’ak (wigwam). Thus,” Ka’da ha’kes ba’ak” would translate to “the girl sits in the wigwam.”
The History Center for Aransas County is currently hosting the exhibit “Archeology: Early Peoples of the Coastal Bend.” The Center is located at 801 E. Cedar in Rockport, and is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.