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Mashpee Wampanoag are Reviving A Long-Lost Language

Local tribe learning to speak the words of their ancestors

Photo by: Kelly Cronin Bicknell

Baird is modest about the achievements. “I think that any number of people could have been asked to do this,” she says. “I may have just been born at the right time and the right place. And,” she adds with a smile, “I sort of got conned into doing it.”
The Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) Language Reclamation project is widely acknowledged as the first successful effort to reclaim a language purely from written documents. Reclamation is possible only because so many religious and legal documents produced in the 1600s and 1700s were written in Wampanoag. Seventeenth-century missionaries bent on converting the natives to Christianity quickly deduced that it would be far easier to translate the Bible and other religious texts into Wampanoag than to teach all the Native Americans English. In fact, the first King James Bible published in the New World was printed in Wampanoag in Cambridge in 1663. The Wampanoag people would eventually go on to record, in their own language, everything from deeds to wills to contracts and letters. Hundreds of these documents survive today.

While at MIT, Baird learned the structure and grammar of Wampanoag and other Algonquian languages. Roughly 39 Native American languages, including Wampanoag, are categorized as Algic or Algonquian by linguists. By comparing Wampanoag writings with terms in still-spoken sister languages, such as Cree and Micmac, linguists can determine the corresponding sound changes from Proto-Algongquian across all sister languages.

The language is not easy to learn. The language classroom at the tribe’s headquarters in Mashpee looks much like any other primary school classroom, with colorful posters of objects that begin with each letter of the alphabet and numbers in words and numerals. But a visitor notices right away that there are only 20 letters in the Wampanoag alphabet, including seven vowels. One of the vowels looks like a figure 8 turned on its side and is pronounced “oo” as in “food.” Jennifer Weston, director of the tribal language department, says the letter made its way into the alphabet back when print was set by hand. Native American typesetters found it quicker to grab an “8” and turn it over than to set two o’s side by side.

Wampanoag also distinguishes between animate and inanimate nouns according to a complex set of rules that have to do with the way a noun moves in relation to other objects, and whether it controls its own or another object’s motion, says Weston. For example, the human body is considered animate, while most body parts are inanimate. Baird notes in the documentary that the word for sun is inanimate and the word for Earth is animate, suggesting that the Wampanoag knew long before Copernicus that it’s the Earth that moves and not the sun.



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