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

One human language may die every 14 days, but the ancenstral tongue of M.I.T.-trained linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird won't be one of them.

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.

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