How a 17th Century Bible is Helping to Revive a Native-American Language

by Mark Hay

September 17, 2014

Four hundred years ago, before the Pilgrims washed up on Plymouth in 1620, the Massachusetts coast was home to at least 12,000 Native Americans united by a common language: Wômpanâak. Also known as Wampanoag, Natic, or Pokanoket, Wômpanâak was one of the Massachusett languages that gave the modern state its name. It was the language of Massasoit and Tisquantum; traces of it are still found in English, with words like skunk (squnck) and squash (askosquash). While Wômpanâak should rightfully be enshrined as a major touchstone of early American culture and history, instead, it was a language put under assault. Between smallpox, endemic warfare and enslavement, flight to other Native American tribes, and centuries of forced Christianization and European assimilation in New England’s infamous praying towns, by the close of the 18th century there were only a few hundred Wômpanâak speakers left. By 1833, the language was dead. Until, 160 years later, it suddenly wasn’t dead anymore.

Today, after regaining their tribal identity in 1928, there are 2,000 Wômpanâak in southern Massachusetts. And one of them, Jessie Little Doe Baird, has found a way to bring their language back to life. Born in 1963 in the Mashpee (Massippee) band of Cape Cod, Baird claims when she was 30 she began having visions of her ancestors, pushing her to revive the tongue. She started the Wômpanâak Language Reclamation Project in 1993, eventually composing her Master’s thesis on Algonquian Linguistics at MIT. Baird and linguists Kenneth Hale and Norvin Richards used religious texts and letters written by Natives and missionaries to painstakingly reconstruct Wômpanâak grammar and vocabulary. And miraculously, with the aid of volunteers from the region’s Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond (Manomet or Comassakumkanit) bands, there are now many classes and teaching tools in the language. As of 2014 there were at least 15 competent Wômpanâak speakers in the world. Baird’s success is exceptional—some say she’s the fulfillment of a prophecy—given the number of dead and dying languages in the world, and the rarity of revival. But she’s also the start of a new wave of language resurgences, as what once seemed an impossible act of resurrection becomes more and more common.

Although it’s hard to track, some linguists believe that every 14 days a human language dies, and that half of the world’s languages will be gone by the close of this century. Some language loss is inevitable, as young people lose interest and tongues lose meaning and function. For many languages, though, decline and death are far from natural phenomena. Hastened on by centuries of cultural and physical genocide, it’s no accident that hundreds of Native American languages have gone extinct, and that of the 299 or so remaining, only 20 are spoken by the youngest generation. Even the most widely spoken, Cherokee and Navajo, are considered threatened languages. Some linguists, ardent enemies of sentimentality, question the purpose of stemming this death march, saying that fading languages ought to die. But their opponents argue that if these languages are going to perish, it should be by individual choice, and not by the sickly half-life of imperialism.

Up until the millennium, many efforts to keep waning languages alive focused on revitalization, creating new resources to help remaining speakers of endangered languages—like the indigenous Ainu tongue of Japan or native Hawaiian—to spread their cultural traditions to younger generations. Up until around 2000, many observers thought the only true case of bringing back a language that hadn’t been spoken for generations, was the 19th century effort to move Hebrew from a priestly relic to an everyday language spoken by millions. Even this revival, though, drew upon the continued use of the language by limited classes over millennia, whereas many dead languages don’t have any speakers or readers, period.

Tribal Territories Southern New England by Nikater; adapted to English by Hydrargyrum - Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, Wômpanâak’s unprecedented revival benefitted from the forces that killed the language in the first place—its early interactions with colonists. From 1620 on, pious arrivals started learning Wômpanâak. They developed a system of writing for the language so that they could convert and minister to Native Americans. By 1651, they’d established entire convert towns. By 1663, they’d completed a Wômpanâak Bible. And by 1674, a Massachusetts government survey of the region found that in some Wômpanâak-speaking areas they’d achieved over 50 percent literacy, enabling the creation not just of Christian tracts, but vocabularies and personal Wômpanâak-to-Wômpanâak correspondences throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Baird and her collaborators were able to use the Wômpanâak Bible, comparing it to contemporary English versions, and seeing how that stacked up against similarities in related Massachusett languages. This and other primary, documentary evidence helped them to slowly revive the structure and vocabulary of the language. And, thanks to certain linguistic similarities to 38 extant Algonquian languages, they were able to recreate the sounds as well.

Wômpanâak isn’t the only language pulling a Lazarus act nowadays. In America, the Chochenyo language of California’s Muwekma Ohlone tribe, dead since the 1930s, has several conversational students. In Europe, the languages of the southwestern British region of Cornwall, dead since the early 1900s, the Irish Sea Isle of Manx, dead since 1975, and the Livonian tongue of Latvia have become the first UNESCO-recognized revived languages within the space of a decade. And, most amazingly, in Australia where there are often far fewer records and living correlates, the Barngarla, Kaurna, and Palawa Kani (Tasmanian) Aboriginal languages, all dead for over a hundred years, are coming back to life as well.

Baird’s efforts have gone above and beyond other revivals. She’s written over a dozen books of phrases, prayers, stories, and teaching tools, and at least one-fifth of Wômpanâak tribe members have taken language classes. Most of that was achieved before she won the MacArthur Fellowship, often called the Genius Grant, for her work in 2010, lending the project its first great rush of publicity and funding. Now Baird is working towards finishing a comprehensive dictionary, currently at 10,000 entries, and launching a Wômpanâak-language charter school next August, which will teach Wômpanâak to both tribal and non-tribal students. That’s not bad for a movement that was a mere vision just two decades ago, with no revenue or institutional support.           

But not every language has a Baird to lean on. Despite all of these success stories, extinction is still a real threat for many traditional languages. Eyak, the first Native Alaskan Athabascan language headed to extinction, and one of 19 endangered languages in the family, has only one native speaker. She has recognized the precarious nature of her culture and been cooperating with University of Alaska linguists for years to document her tongue. For those whose youth expresses little interest in revitalization, this may be the best choice—putting a language in deep freeze. That way, even if youth choose not to speak a language anymore, it doesn’t die. It just sleeps, waiting for a time when it will be reawoken.

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How a 17th Century Bible is Helping to Revive a Native-American Language