Honoring the First Black Linguists in the Americas

Honoring the First Black Linguists in the Americas

black linguists

As many of you know, in the United States and Canada, February is Black History Month! an ideal time to draw attention to figures in history who should be celebrated like Mathieu de Costa and John Horse – two great trailblazers in translation and linguistics.

Mathieu da Costa


Who was the first recorded man of African descent to arrive in Canada? An interpreter named, Mathieu da Costa. Da Costa was a Black Ladino Moorish Jew born in the Azores, and is believed to have traveled to Canada in the early 1600s on an expedition with Samuel de Champlain. His role was to interpret between the native Mi’kmaq people and French explorers.

During that time period, it was commonplace for Africans to work as interpreters alongside European explorers. Even before Da Costa’s time, Africans had worked as interpreters for at least a full century as Europeans explored along the African coast. Da Costa already knew Dutch, French, and Portuguese before coming to Canada. He likely also spoke a form of Basque, which was commonly used as a trade language at the time, since the Basques of northern Spain often visited the Atlantic coast. Da Costa learned to speak Mi’kmaq when visiting the Americas from 1604 to 1607.

Da Costa is significant for many reasons, not only because of his ability to connect so many speakers of different languages, but because his personal background spanned so many different cultures. His legacy is a reflection of true multiculturalism and a reminder that identity is beyond skin deep… and never about just what you see on the surface..

John Horse


John Horse, also known as Juan Caballo, Juan Cavallo, and Gopher John, was born in 1812 and was a Seminole-Hispanic-African-American. Due to the diverse nature of his background, he was fluent in Seminole, Spanish, and English making him valuable as a tribal interpreter during the Seminole Wars and briefly for the U.S. army.

He moved to what is now Oklahoma during the Indian Removal where he became a tribal leader, and was officially freed in 1843. When the Black Seminoles faced threats from slave raiders, he led a group to Mexico, where they eventually achieved freedom and many still live today. He also served as a captain in the Mexican army.

Until his death in 1882, he fought tirelessly to obtain more rights for his people. His legacy lives on as a talented negotiator, interpreter and freedom fighter. To learn more about John Horse and present day Black Seminoles, visit his website here.

Know of any other great Black American translators, interpreters, or linguists in history? Leave us a comment here and share their story!

About Nataly Kelly

Nataly brings nearly two decades of translation industry experience to Smartling, most recently as Chief Research Officer at industry research firm Common Sense Advisory. Previously, she held positions at AT&T Language Line and NetworkOmni (acquired by Language Line), where she oversaw product development. A veteran translator and certified court interpreter for Spanish, she has formally studied seven languages, and is currently learning Irish. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, Nataly lives in the Boston area with her husband and daughter. When she isn’t working, you’ll usually find her translating Ecuadorian poetry, writing books, and exploring the world (36 countries and counting!).


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