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Pierre-Étienne (Peter Stephen) Du Ponceau

DuPonceau, circa 1790
Born June 3, 1760
Saint-Martin-de-Ré, France
Died April 1, 1844 (aged 83)
Philadelphia, United States
Occupation Philosopher, linguist, jurist

Peter Stephen Du Ponceau or DuPonceau, born Pierre-Étienne Du Ponceau, (June 3, 1760, Saint-Martin-de-Ré, France - April 1, 1844, Philadelphia) was a French linguist, philosopher, and jurist. He spent the majority of his life in the United States.


Early life and war career

DuPonceau's education took place at a Benedictine college, where he gained an interest in linguistics. However, he abruptly ended his education after only 18 months over a dissatisfaction with the scholarly philosophy taught at the college. He emigrated to America in 1777, at age 17, with Baron von Steuben. Once there, he served as a secretary for Steuben in the Revolutionary Army. After the American Revolution, he moved to Philadelphia, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Work in philosophy and linguistics

DuPonceau joined the American Philosophical Society in 1791 and served as president of it from 1827 until his death. He became famous in the field of linguistics for his analysis of Indigenous languages of the Americas—as a member of Society's Historical and Literary Committee, he helped build a collection of texts detailing the native languages of the Americas. His book concerning their grammatical systems (Mémoire sur le systeme grammatical des langues de quelques nations Indiennes de l'Amérique du Nord) won the Volney Prize of the French Institute in 1835.

DuPonceau was also one of the first western linguists to hold the view that Chinese characters represent spoken words, not ideas.[1] He used the example of Vietnamese using chữ Nôm at the time to show that the Vietnamese employed Chinese characters primarily for sound and not for meaning. It would be over 100 years before this idea would become accepted in linguistic circles.[2]


  1. ^ DeFrancis 1984: 145
  2. ^ DeFrancis 1984: 145–146


American Philosophical Society (n.d.). "Peter Stephen DuPonceau Collection 1781-1844 Mss.B.D92p" (PDF online publication, updated version of Stephen Catlett's A New Guide to the Collections in the American Philosophical Society [Philadelphia, 1986]). MOLE: The Manuscripts Online Guide. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. Retrieved 2009-09-22.  
D.H. Ramsey Library Special Collections (2003). "Pierre-Etienne Du Ponceau (1760-1844)". Speculation Lands Collection. D.H. Ramsey Library, University of North Carolina at Asheville. Retrieved 2009-09-22.  
DeFrancis, John (1984). "The Ideographic Myth" (unpaginated online reproduction of chapter at The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (1st pbk ed.). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press. pp. 133–148. ISBN 0-8248-1068-6. OCLC 10800032. Retrieved 2009-09-26.  
Du Ponceau, Peter Stephen (1999) [1826]. "Essai de solution du problème philologique proposé en l'année 1823 par la Commission de l'Institut Royal de France, chargée de la disposition du legs de M. Le Comte de Volney". in Joan Leopold (series ed.). The Prix Volney, volume II: Early nineteenth-century contributions to general and Amerindian linguistics: Du Ponceau and Rafinesque. The Prix Volney series, vol. 2. chapter ed. and notes to Du Ponceau's "Essai de solution" by Robert H. Robins. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic. pp. 37–99. ISBN 0-7923-2506-0. OCLC 313609822.   (French)
Mooney, James (1909). "Peter Stephen Duponceau". in Charles G. Herbermann, Edward A. Pace, Condé B. Pallen, Thomas J. Shahan and John J. Wynne (eds.). The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church. vol. V (New Advent online reproduction ed.). New York: Robert Appleton Company. OCLC 1017058.  
Robins, Robert H. (1999). "Du Ponceau and General and Amerindian Linguistics". in Joan Leopold (series ed.). The Prix Volney, volume II: Early nineteenth-century contributions to general and Amerindian linguistics: Du Ponceau and Rafinesque. The Prix Volney series, vol. 2. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic. pp. 1–36. ISBN 0-7923-2506-0. OCLC 313609822.  
Wilcox, David R.; and Don D. Fowler (Spring 2002). "The beginnings of anthropological archaeology in the North American Southwest: from Thomas Jefferson to the Pecos Conference" (unpaginated online reproduction by Gale/Cengage Learning). Journal of the Southwest (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, on behalf of The Southwest Center, U. of Arizona) 44 (2): 121–234. ISSN 0894-8410. OCLC 79456398.  

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