The Perfect Ear

BAE GN 4305 A, J. P. Harrington posing with three Cuna (Tule) people while making dictaphone recordings of Cuna language and songs, 1924, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

John Peabody Harrington was a Bureau of American Ethnology ethnologist involved in the study of over one hundred Native American languages. Most of the material concerns California, southwestern, northwestern tribes and includes ethnological, archeological, and historical notes, as well as writings, correspondence, photographs, sound recordings, biological specimens, and other types of documents. In his field work, Harrington seems sometimes to have worked within fairly firm formats, this especially being true when he was "rehearing" material, that is in using an informant to verify and correct the work of other researchers. Often, however, the interviews with informants (and this seems to have been the case even with some "rehearings") seem to have been rather free form, for there is a considerable intertwining of subjects. Nevertheless, certain themes frequently appear in his work, including annotated vocabularies concerning flora and fauna and their use, topography, history and biography, kinship, cosmology (including tribal astronomy), religion and philosophy, names and observations concerning neighboring tribes, sex and age division, material culture, legends, and songs. His "perfect ear" allowed him to easily pick up and record languages - he was reportedly fluent in nine international languages and eighteen Native American languages. His linguistic abilities, combined with his thorough ethnological research and his relentless mission has resulted in some of the most extensive linguistic, anthropological, and ethnobiological data on the Native peoples of North America.


Harrington produced the earliest sound recordings of many languages and, in some cases, the only surviving audio record of the language. His earliest audio recordings were on wax cylinders. Those in good condition were copied to magnetic audio tape in the early 1980s as part of the Federal Cylinder Project. Copies are available for use at both the National Anthropological Archives (NAA) and the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In the 1930s he began recording on aluminum disks. Many of these disks were also copied to audio tape for use in the NAA although corroded disks could not be copied. New technologies are now being developed that will allow us to recover these sound materials and make them available digitally.


Support for preparation and digitization of the collections for online access has been provided by the Arcadia Fund.