About the LeBoullenger Document

By Dr. David J. Costa

The French-to-Illinois dictionary written by Jean-Antoine Robert LeBoullenger is one of the three surviving Miami-Illinois dictionaries from the French Jesuit period. Given that LeBoullenger first arrived in southern Illinois in 1719 and died there in 1740, it is clear that it represents a slightly later form of the language than that of Pierre-François Pinet, who died in 1702, and that of Jacques Largillier, who died in 1714. However, it is likely that Largillier’s dictionary (AKA the Gravier dictionary) was composed in the 1690s, in which case the Pinet and Largillier dictionaries are roughly contemporaneous, and both composed at least 20-25 years before Le Boullenger’s work.

The main body of the LeBoullenger dictionary consists of Illinois words listed under French keywords. This section takes up 185 pages, with an average of eighteen French keywords per page, giving about 3,330 French keywords total. Each keyword can have anywhere from one to close to a hundred Illinois words given under it. In addition to the lexical portion of this work, there are also 42 pages of untranslated religious texts in Illinois, thirteen of them a translation of the Book of Genesis. This amounts to more textual material than it might seem, since the sheets are quite large, with each page tightly filled with two to four columns of small handwriting.

In addition, there are three pages of verb paradigms near the beginning of LeBoullenger’s dictionary. These sheets are quite large (roughly 17" by 11") and are entirely filled by small, clear writing. These paradigms are all extremely thorough and intelligently assembled, and no paradigms collected by later workers on Miami-Illinois are anywhere near as complete. Almost all possible combinations of verb inflections are given, for the independent, dependent, regular and delayed imperatives, negative, preterit, inverses, and almost all possible subject/object combinations. It is difficult to pinpoint which dialect(s) the data in LeBoullenger’s dictionary is drawn from. There is every indication that forms from different Miami-Illinois dialects are found in the manuscript, though unlabelled as to origin. To begin with, a large amount of the data in the LeBoullenger dictionary seems to have been taken straight from Pinet’s earlier dictionary, often verbatim. Given that the population at Pinet’s mission was very likely Wea or Myaamia, this means that much of the data in LeBoullenger’s ostensibly ‘Illinois’ dictionary is actually Wea or Myaamia, which are not normally considered to be Illinois dialects. In fact, certain words which are only found in the Pinet and LeBoullenger dictionaries but not in the Largillier dictionary are very likely Wea or Myaamia dialect variants originating with Pinet’s work at the Guardian Angel Mission at Chicago. Three good candidates for this are Pinet and LeBoullenger’s niišomeneehki ‘eight’, for which Largillier has only paraare; pikiwi ‘pitch, tar’, for which Largillier has only šinkwa; and irenaakohša ‘fox’, for which Largillier has only paapankamowa. Since these words are not found in Largillier, it is likely that they were not elicited in LeBoullenger’s work either, but were just copied by him from Pinet. Confirming that these are not southern Illinois dialect forms is the fact that Largillier’s forms are all attested as alternates by LeBoullenger as well, usually far more often than the apparent Wea/Myaamia forms.

There are several possible origins for the data in the LeBoullenger dictionary that is not drawn from Pinet. LeBoullenger began his career in Illinois country working with the Michigamea for at least four years before relocating to the nearby Kaskaskia mission, where he spent the rest of his career. Given that Largillier and Gravier are known to have done the bulk of their work with the Kaskaskia and Peoria, this might help explain why most of the Illinois data in LeBoullenger is basically the same as that in Largillier’s dictionary. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that some of the data in Le Boullenger’s dictionary represents the Michigamea dialect. If so, this would be our only known attestation of the Michigamea dialect, and there would be no principled way to distinguish Michigamea forms from Kaskaskia/Peoria forms. As there are not many forms in LeBoullenger that are consistently different from both Pinet and Largillier, one can only assume that either LeBoullenger did not include much Michigamea data in his dictionary, or that Michigamea and Kaskaskia were extremely similar dialects. Either way, it is clear that there is very little recoverable dialectal diversity in the French records of Illinois, and there was probably little dialect variation in the language as a whole. For the most part, most of the variation in the ‘old Illinois’ materials can just as easily be explained by being elicited from speakers of different ages as by coming from different dialects. A good example of this is the word for ‘in the prairie’, for which LeBoullenger gives both maskoteenki and mahkoteeyonki. maskoteenki is a much more archaic form than mahkoteeyonki; mahkoteeyonki shows both the change of sk to hk that is obligatory in the modern language, as well as the change of the archaic locative ending -eenki to the more regular -eeyonki, which is also the norm in the modern language. It is likely that LeBoullenger heard maskoteenki from older speakers, or perhaps earlier in his work, while he heard mahkoteeyonki later on, or from younger speakers.

As a similar example, the usual Illinois word for ‘man’ is ireniwa; it is found this way in all the Illinois sources, and this is the only way it is recorded in the Largillier dictionary and the Allouez/Râle prayerbook. However, in the Pinet and LeBoullenger dictionaries it is occasionally found as irenia. The change of -iwa, -iiwa and -eewa to -ia on the end of nouns was a sound change in progress in Miami-Illinois during the late 1600s/early 1700s; it was complete by the late 1700s, and words that both have and have not undergone this change are found in all the Illinois sources. Thus, it is easy to attribute variation of this kind to the words being elicited from older versus younger speakers of Miami-Illinois as well.

About Jean-Antoine Robert Le Boullenger

By Michael McCafferty

This French~Miami-Illinois dictionary is in the hand of the Jesuit missionary Jean-Antoine Robert Le Boullenger (1685-1740). According to baptismal records at the Church of St-Maclou in Rouen, Le Boullenger was born in that city and parish on June 22, 1685. His parents were Robert Le Boullenger and Marie-Anne Boutiller. He was christened Jean-Antoine Robert Le Boullenger, and would sign his name Jean Le Boullenger and J. Le Boullenger. Le Boullenger had several siblings, including an older sister Marie Anne Magdeleine Le Boullenger, who became an Ursuline nun and who was in fact a member of the first group of nuns in Louisiana, and a younger sister, Marie-Louise Le Boullenger, who became an important figure in the faience industry in Rouen.

Jean-Antoine Robert Le Boullenger entered the Jesuit noviciate in Paris on September 3, 1700, at the age of fifteen, and arrived in New France at Fort St-Louis at present Mobile, Alabama, in 1717 at the age of 31. It was at Mobile that he spent the years 1717 and 1718. Although originally assigned to the Yazoo, Le Boullenger arrived in 1719 at the stockaded Michigamea village, known archaeologically as the Kolmer Site, on the Mississippi in western Randolph County in present southwest Illinois, where he had a dwelling and a church. He served there at least until 1723 and also at St. Anne’s Church outside the walls of nearby Fort de Chartres starting in 1719 when the French military arrived to build the fort. In these years he referred to himself as Aumonier des Troupes (“Chaplain of the Troops”). After the construction of Fort de Chartres, he also worked at St. Joseph’s Church in nearby Prairie du Rocher.

In 1726, Le Boullenger moved just down the river to work at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at French Kaskaskia and at the nearby Kaskaskia Indian village, also in Randolph County, a few miles up the Kaskaskia River, known archaeologically as the Guebert Site. He is known to have reburied the remains of Father Gabriel Marest under the Church of the Immaculate Conception floor at French Kaskaskia in 1727. In 1730, Le Boullenger was singled out in the Jesuit Relations for having made many Illinois converts (Le Petit to D’Auvagour), which likely led to his nickname “Jean-Baptiste,” a name that in the past was thought, incorrectly, to be his baptismal name.

According to Le catalogue de la Province de Paris de 1741-1742 at the Jesuit archives in Vanves, Le Boullenger died, of cause unknown, at the Illinois mission on November 4, 1740. His death was reported to government circles in a letter from Beauchamp to the Minister dated April 25, 1741.


The LeBoullenger document appears courtesy of The John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.


  1. Michael McCafferty would like to acknowledge here the assistance of Gail Moreau-Des Harnais, a genealogist of French Canadian descent in Detroit. Without her invaluable research our knowledge of Jean-Antoine Robert Le Boullenger would be much poorer, and this description of Le Boullenger’s l