If history remains history, then this part of history should remain in a museum.
Its modern-day usage is a language revitalization miracle.
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
Thanksgiving is an important holiday for America, as it represents the harmony of a feast that brings people of different races and entire families together. However, while the celebration continues to be cherished, the language spoken by the Wampanoag Nation did not. In this article, I want to explain why it is not just important to revitalize the Wampanoag language, but incumbent upon every American to assist in anyway.
After years of English encroachment and the resulting language shift, Wampanoag, or as it is currently being spelled Wopanaak, stopped being spoken in the 1800’s. For the recent decades, the dormant language has been in the process of revitalization through the endeavor of linguist and Wampanoag native Jessie Little Doe Baird. There have been five different Wampanoag class locations throughout Massachusetts teaching 500 people.
By attending the language workshops sponsored by the Wopaanak Language Reclamation Project, the members would reclaim their identity. Come every Thanksgiving, they would play an incredibly important role in broadcasting their historical importance in feasting with their visitors from the Mayflower. By doing so, Thanksgiving would no longer be a holiday with kitsch enticements, such as the Black Friday sales that would come a day after; but an authentic and integral part of American identity that brings together natives and non-natives. The long-term effects of this language revitalization would help make the American population more well-educated about Thanksgiving.
Although the story of the meeting between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans was romanticized, it does show how diplomacy played a role in the early English settlements of America. For Americans to help with the revitalization process, it is itself a diplomatic act of awareness, letting the Wampanoag nation know that they are no longer ignored or pushed from American society. By providing assistance for the Wopanaak language revitalization, the government would attempt to right the wrongs that had been committed against the indigenous population, one nation at a time.
There were actually recorded documents written in Wopanaak during the 17th century. In fact, the Wopanaak language has the largest written body of work of all the other Native American languages. One of the most notable, and one that Jessie Little Doe Baird used as a main reference, was a copy of the Holy Bible written in Wopanaak by John Eliot, a missionary sent to convert the Indians to Christianity.
By focusing on the Wopanaak language, we are focusing our attentions on a group of people who are integral to American history and deserve tremendous respect. Their role in helping the Pilgrims and the impact it made also removes the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon superiority on how history was recorded. A reporter for CBS News even noted the irony that the Wopanaak-translated Bible that was used to make the Wampanoag Nation into English-speaking subjects ended up being used to bring back their language. This language revitalization project would make American history more complex and give the marginalized Native Americans a voice.
Their voice may have even vocalized the place-names throughout New England, such as Mashpee, Nahant, Swampscott, Natick, and even the state of Massachusetts itself. To increase scholarship into the Wopanaak language is to decipher the etymologies of these place-names, or toponyms. Since those Wopanaak-originated names described the landscape, the research would result in a more grounded interpretation of American history based on the New England geography and a more accurate imagination of how the Pilgrims dealt with this foreign land.
What can be more patriotic than examining the landscape of your own country? That is what makes deciphering the toponyms so important, especially since the indigenous population has an intimate relationship with their landscape and are willing to shape their own beliefs and languages revolving around it. This is where linguists, astrophysicists, and scientists alike can reach a common-ground agreement. K. David Harrison, who traveled to Siberia to record the indigenous languages, stated that 83% of all plant and animal life are unknown to Western scientists. What average Americans can also take from this is that indigenous languages, like Wopanaak, are not as irrelevant as they think.
As well as the landscape, the words and knowledge of the nation present at the first Thanksgiving would be important for young Wampanoag children to acquire for their personal well-being as well as the cultural well-being of their community. In order to have increased scholarship, study, and overall awareness into this part of American history and geography, there needs to be an entire generation of people proficient enough to use it as a first language, just like every other struggling language like Irish Gaelic and Hawai’ian. For this reason, a Wopanaak immersion school for kindergarteners was established in 2015, dedicated to teaching social studies, history, art, science, math, and many other subjects in Wopanaak in more than 1000 lesson plans.
How would I like to see Wopanaak revitalized to include all Americans? There are more clear ways of helping, but I would also like Americans to learn more about the place-names that come from this nation’s language during the time the Pilgrims settled. It would help if those areas of New England had Wopanaak translations on their cities’ websites, in the same way the Australian city Adelaide has Australian Aboriginal translations on their website. Every Thanksgiving would be the opportunity for Americans to learn salutations and other phrases such as “Hello,” “My name is…,” and “Thank you” in Wopanaak. These efforts would show that Americans appreciate Thanksgiving as a holiday as well as the recognition of the nation that made it happen.
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
For my final semester in Monmouth University, in order to appease my 200+ level Language course requirement, I decided to settle with an independent study course personally arranged by my Spanish professor, who is also a professional linguist. This independent study course involved researching the Coptic language and writing its history, from the ancient Egyptians to the Copts during the Islamic rule in Egypt to the present and concluding with the future.
As such, this involved learning about the changes that occurred. This happened when the hieroglyphics typical of ancient Egyptian tombs began to be transferred onto Greek script when the Ptolemaic era began. Along with the physical change was the inclusion of loanwords from the Greeks, which I have noticed borrowed words for abstract concepts such as “love.”
For the materials needed for this research, I could only find a few Coptic translations of parts of the New Testament in the Guggenheim Library, either in physically bound books or in digital articles in the databases. I also had to purchase from my own pocket a comprehensive etymological dictionary of the Coptic language. This is how driven you must be when committing yourself to an independent study course.
It also made me wary of how much research there actually is into the Coptic language. Besides the Biblical translations and the dictionary, there did not seem to be much information that did not include the complicated relationship between the Copts and the Arabs who would become the majority in Egypt today. I did the fact that I had to incorporate into my essay periods in Egyptian history when either Copts flourished under a renaissance or they were persecuted. Although both scenarios depended on which rulers were in charge, what did matter was that the result was still the same, that the Coptic language became more reserved into a liturgical language.
I had to work that information into my essay by describing an event during Egyptian Independence when there was a Coptic-language newspaper being circulated which encouraged all Egyptians, whether they were Coptic or Arab, Muslim or Christian, to learn the Coptic language in order to reconnect themselves to the Egyptian landscape of pharaohs and ancient civilization. Although Coptic and Arab relationships are bitter in modern Egypt, I argued that in order for the Coptic language to remain relevant, it would be necessary to appeal to the Arab majority not as Arabs or Muslims but as Egyptians. How that would be accomplished I have no idea, but it is a suggestion nonetheless.
I will say that if anyone is willing to try an independent study course, it would have to be in a subject that is not available at your university and it has to be something that you are deeply interested in. Unless you are self-directed in your scholarship and have a firm grasp on research skills, I would not recommend an independent study course. If you have to take an English elective and you are a huge fan of, say, the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, you may suggest taking an independently driven course revolving around what makes Fitzgerald’s work “Fitzgeraldian,” by finding common themes throughout his most famous works.
There will be moments, however, when there are circumstances that are beyond your control that you cannot do anything about. Not to derail this too much, but my professor’s close friend who is Coptic had a divorce problem, so she did not make herself available to contribute to this study.
Because it was 200 level, there wasn’t a lot of expectation being put from me, for all I had to do was to detail my research in a 10+ page paper, but I felt like it was not enough. When my professor told me that I did enough to satisfy the course, I told him that somebody still needed to care about the Coptic people and their plight.
I would strongly encourage taking it if it involves a project that’s relevant to not just you but to anyone else in your university’s community. In my case, I specifically decided to work with the Coptic language since there are collections of Coptic Orthodox Churches here in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
This link, in the case of the Narragansett language, can only be established by the Narragansett nation itself, specifically the young generation being taught it. It would involve entire generations of Narragansett natives, including the ancestors who wrote down their words in the publication “The Narragansett Dawn” and by Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island who transcribed Narragansett words. It would not only bring the living descendants together, but it would connect them to the very ancestors who passed down the words, either through the place-names in Rhode Island or on print.
The ethnonym Narragansett means “people of the small point of land.” That small point, of course, refers to the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, which has other place-names derived from the Narragansett language, such as Aquidneck, Miantanomi, Pojack, and Sakonnet. Upon developing the Rhode Island colony, Roger Williams wrote down Narragansett words in his book A Key Into The Language Of The Americas. This text provided the main cornerstone for the revitalization of the Narragansett language by the Aquidneck Indian Council. Of course, there were mistakes made by Roger Williams that the Council noticed, such as not providing examples of the obviative case.
The Narragansett people belong to the Narragansett Indian Nation of Rhode Island. They have lived in New England for 30,000 years prior to European colonization. Alongside the Wampanoags, Nipmucs, and other nations, the Narragansett nation was among the first to interact with British colonizers. One of them was Roger Williams. Decades later, they entered the Pequot War of 1675, by allying with King Philip to fight against the Puritans, until they were brutally defeated and sold into slavery. Their language was ultimately lost due to the encroachment of English linguistic hegemony.
Although a team of linguists can play a role in bringing back a dead language from archives, the language-speaking community itself would need to develop new speakers through a myriad of talents ranging from pedagogy, music, illustration, etc. Skills of many backgrounds would create a diverse interaction between members of the Narragansett Indian Nation. As such, all of them have a role to play in the revival of their own language. This is also what makes the academic linguistic community more connected with the cultures they study, by not sitting upon an ivory tower rather by actively engaging with the language-speaking community. Frank Waabu O’Brien, although a member of the Abenaki nation, has been the scholar who has been ardent in restoring the Narragansett language-speaking community. His articles span for two decades and has been an active leader in the Aquidneck Indian Council in their efforts to restore Narragansett.
Although writing the Narragansett language did exist in the past, tribal members trying to actively bring it back were also not exclusive to it. From 1935-6, a newspaper headed by the Narragansett chief, Princess Red Wing (whos birth name was Mary E. Glasko), began to circulate among the Narragansett community. Among other sections that discussed sports and issues involving Native Americans at the time, there was a section on each issue titled “The Narragansett Tongue,” which showed a list of words and their conjugations.
That is why the language-speakers must take advantage of every form of technology that has been innovated in order to transmit their language and hopefully preserve it. There exists a very cute way of teaching Narragansett words, which is a Facebook page titled “Speaking Our Narragansett Language,” which often include memes and videos with Narragansett words or translations.
To bring in new speakers of Narragansett means circulating it among themselves, which was the major importance of “The Narragansett Tongue.” It would become an integral part of Narragansett life and literature, as it would help educate the nation about their own language in order to regain fluency, even if it starts with phrases such as “Hello,” “My name is…,” and “Thank you.” Indeed, the word phrase for “hello” in New Zealand English, spoken by both native and non-native New Zealanders, is “kia ora” which is Maori for “be healthy.”
In the most successful example of extinct language revitalization, the speakers of the Hebrew language sought to bring it into their own homes. In other words, they had to invent words for appliances and food. This need to fill in any lexical gaps is a common feature in languages that were extinct by the time telephones were invented. This would be an obstacle I can imagine might happen to the Narragansett speakers.
There are different methods of introducing new speakers in a language revitalization project. When it comes to endangered languages, the remaining speakers are often the ones who teach the language. However, in an extinct language with no living speakers, there has to be at least one speaker that is fluent enough to pass it on to all generations, especially the young generation. As such, the transmitters of the language would have to be the ones who have adept scholarly knowledge about their own language. This was especially true for Jessie Little Doe Baird when she wanted to bring back the Wampanoag language and Daryl Baldwin who wanted to bring back his Myaamia language.
Considering how the Narragansett language is very similar to the Wampanoag language, with some scholars saying they are dialects, then it would be appropriate to see how the Wampanoag language is reclaiming its speakers. One way they have done so was to open up a preschool where young Wampanoag children are immersed in the language. For the Narragansett nation, they used to have a school.
I definitely think that it would be important to the Narragansett nation to restore their language, not just as words or phrases but as an active component of their Native American identity. Bringing back new speakers of the Narragansett language would also help to preserve the reservation’s unique identity in America that does not involve a casino, which has become a stereotype characteristic of many Native American nations. It would also help create a more well-educated view of Rhode Island, especially since when people think of that state, they think of Family Guy. I do believe that restoring the Narragansett language would be beneficial to Rhode Island as much as restoring the Wampanoag language would be to Massachusetts.
As Frank Waabu O’Brien would conclude in Narragansett:
“Peace be in your hearts.”
Image Attribution: Twitter
DISCLAIMER: This was written as an assignment for my Language & Linguistics class and was originally posted on Academia.edu.
Language revitalization benefits speakers of languages through acquisition as well as comprehension, community, and immersion. While the languages discussed originated from different continents, they share the common outlet of technology as a means of transmission. The use of technology as a resource for the propagating of dwindling languages is important because languages, generally and inherently, contain a wealth of societal and cultural information that may otherwise be taken for granted. There is to be more inquiry into the many ways technology can be expanded for the purposes of language revitalization.
Who are involved?
The language speakers are the most important factors in language revitalization, primarily since it is their own language that is the subject of renaissance and the social library of their identity (Anderson 275). They would be dependent upon the rest of the population and the social change that occurs. This was the case of the Irish language revival in Northern Ireland in a theory that Olaf Zenker proposes called “distributed agency.” This would mean that any works of an individual might be the byproduct of the events beyond his control (Zenker 24). In language revitalization, the people who speak the language are the main contributors of their own culture. They are also the ones who use the technology in order to advance their language.
Even though the language-speaking community plays a central role, they still need the assistance of a linguist in documenting the language and the creation of its grammar textbooks and dictionaries. Linguists, specifically applied linguists, are also directly involved in the propagating of the language with establishing immersion schools (Anderson 282). Some of the authors of the primary sources, Olaf Zenker and Rob Amery, are linguists who applied their own experiences of language revival into their work.
Universities are especially important since they are directly involved in the research involving linguistics. Having extensive research helped eleven languages of South Africa (De Pauw 264-5). They may not be threatened with no native speakers left, but the way that they’re preserved ensures that they still have active speakers. As far as tweeting in Maori, there are significant locations in the less populated areas of New Zealand, such as Tauranga, that contain the presence of colleges and universities (Keegan 70). Tertiary institutions become important hubs of language revitalization, considering how universities are innovating new forms of communicative technology (De Pauw 264).
The government plays a crucial role in reviving a language, primarily since they authorize and fund the projects specializing in that area. Compromise is often necessary between a language revitalization project and the local government. The creation of an immersion school usually must try to meet the requirements for a local school district’s secondary language curriculum requirement (Anderson 283). It can be instrumental in assisting a minority language (Amery 96); or in phasing it out, in the case of imperialism (Anderson 279).
What types of technology?
Although languages have been disappearing for the past century, the innovation of technology used to rejuvenate those languages has increased (Whalen 322). The phenomenon became special during the year when Whalen wrote his article since linguists had to find data in an old-fashioned, costlier way, such as manually traveling to the American Philosophical Society (Whalen 325). The endangerment of languages becomes less of a bleak possibility with the advancing of technology.
In the 1970’s, a group of Irish speakers claimed ownership of a small newspaper within West Belfast called Andersonstown News, and it became a beacon for the Irish-speaking community as they would publish articles either exclusively in Irish or promoted their language in English (Zenker 33). The technology that was used was print publishing, which is a traditional form of language spreading. It was also used by a small group of linguists looking to restore the Mutsun language by publishing dictionaries, textbooks, and other teaching materials (Warner 136).
While acquiring the language is important, simply publishing dictionaries, textbooks, and educational programs is not enough for language revitalization (Eisenlohr 35). Not only that, but publishers are reluctant to produce linguistic texts, since it costs money with little quantity of texts (Whalen 325). For that, the language must be used on a daily basis through interaction (Eisenlohr 35). Television and radio does what print cannot, since they involve the use of both space and time (Eisenlohr 33). Media, such as those, contributed to the spread of dominant languages. If minority languages were to be used with the same technology, it would make them more relevant in the modern world as well as help native speakers preserve their languages (Eisenlohr 23-4). The Radio na Gaeltachta is based in Ireland, while the Red Quechua Satelital Continental, a Quechua-speaking satellite radio network, is in Argentina (Eisenlohr 30-1).
Technology in language revitalization is important if it especially involves communication. Twitter is a social media site used for the purpose of quickly sending out messages that can be forwarded or can convey a social message with a hashtag to make it searchable (Keegan 61). There are five hundred languages spoken on Twitter. Just as television and radio were used to promote dominant languages, social media is also used for the same purpose but, like the two forms, is also used to propagate dying languages (Keegan 60).
Language also must be consistent and not filled with errors. The North-West University in South Africa contains the Centre for Text Technology, which has created spell-checkers, language instruction packages, and research on machine translation and speech technology (De Pauw 264). Within Warner’s team of linguists, a programmer offered his expertise in creating a Mutsun spell-checker. When applying a spell-checker to a dead language, it’s very important since the words are constantly updating as more research is done and the spell-checker automatically corrects the original typed word with the new word (Warner 141).
Technology in language revitalization also enables the connection between spoken and written languages. The Meraka Institute in South Africa focuses on text-to-speech technology, which involves spoken language identification (De Pauw 264-5). In a study involving young adults who were bilingual in Welsh and English, an N400 modulator was used to record the amplitudes of their voices when completing a Welsh or English sentence (Ellis 1392).
Film is also important, since it helps spread the awareness of language revitalization to big productions along with a wider audience. Terrence Malick, in his 2005 film The New World, wanted to depict the Virginia colonies in a realistic way. He did so by making sure that the Virginia Algonquian language was spoken (Rudes 29-30). Film is especially powerful, since it appeals to the sight and hearing of the viewer. Rudes provides a basic example in his article of how Virginia Algonquian was used in the film and, quite possibly, hundreds of years ago. John Smith, played by Colin Farrell, says that he comes from England, or “the island on the other side of the sea.” Then his translator recites it in Virginia Algonquian, with Rudes noting the exceptions in sentence structure and the differences between the words from the two original wordlists and the words readapted by Rudes himself (Rudes 33-6).
The physical format of sound production, which is a CD, is especially important when understanding how the language is pronounced and communicated in different languages (Aronin 228). This was how Blair Rudes was able to help the Native American actors rehearse their lines in Virginia Algonquian, by recording himself reciting the words (Rudes 36-7). The linguists responsible for the resurrection of the Mutsun language have also experimented with CD’s (Warner 139).
It is also important to note that distributed agency is centered on language and the outlets that enable its spoken and written nature (Zenker 24). When technology transcends physical interaction, communication is often done online (Eisenlohr 37). The use of the internet is incredibly useful when developing a more interconnected community who are able to use their language (Keegan 60). In 2004, Whalen suggested in his article that revolutionizing the field of linguistics would be to combine the computerized texts that detail a language with the internet (Whalen 232). A technological tool lauded by Anderson in his experience was a Talking Dictionary, which consists of the combination of text, sound files, photos, and video as a form of online, interactive encyclopedia (Anderson 283). What makes the internet unique is that it removes the necessity to publish language texts through print publishing. This allows speakers to easily access them without any major costs (Whalen 325).
The storage of the language is the most important part of revitalization, especially if it’s a dormant language. Sixty years after the death of the last speaker of Mutsun, the original records written by linguist J. P. Harrington were stored into a database by a group of linguists (Warner 136-7). They also use a database from the Summer Institute of Linguistics called FieldWork Language Explorer to analyze the original material for the dictionary (Warner 141). In this case, technology was used to ensure that any form of information and field-work about a dead or dying language retains some form of durability. Whalen noted the importance of computers when it was applied to linguistics. He mentioned programs used to construct language family trees, digitizing dictionary entries, and the analyses of authorship and the sound of the speech (Whalen 323-4), which is also why the use of part-of-speech tagging within the digitally rendered texts is important (Zeldes and Schroeder 165).
Where are these languages?
A language can only die or be declared dead in a geographical place, which Gregory Anderson of the Living Tongues Institute coined the language hotspot, where they fail to compete with a dominant language, particularly one that was enforced via imperial and capitalistic hegemony (Anderson 276). The community shifting from native language-speaking to dominant language-speaking centrally has to do with the disruption of transmission between the speakers and their children. Understanding the history behind the language shift in various parts of the world means creating technologically assisting solutions that are unique to those languages. For language hotspots consisting of dormant languages, it’s best to use databases or the production of children’s books. In others, the propagation might be the main focus with radio and television.
In Asia, to provide an example, there is a notable language hotspot in Eastern Siberia, specifically around the Kamchatka Peninsula in rugged, mountainous villages. The population mainly thrives off reindeer-herding and sea mammal hunting. Although Imperial Russia established penal colonies and land for serfs, what exasperated the language shift from the indigenous Siberian languages was during the Soviet era when Russian-speaking populations were forced there. The Siberian languages stem from the language families: Turkic, Eskimoic, and Aleut and almost all of them are endangered, which means that the youngest speakers are 50-60 years old (Anderson 278-9).
There is often reliance on code-switching by preserving a native language at home while using the dominant language in the open. When it came to the relationship between the Irish-speaking community and the rest of Northern Ireland, there was the tendency to speak “…Irish if possible, yet English if necessary” (Zenker 34). However, there is a sense of guilt that comes with being a minority, such as the case of Mona Zaki, an Egyptian woman who refused to speak Coptic to her own children, since she felt that it had no value in a country with an Arabic-speaking majority (Mayton 60). Within the supremacy of a dominant language, whether it is English, Spanish, Arabic, or Russian, has to do with how much value children place on their own language, which diminishes as they get older (Anderson 274).
The language ideology that is usually prevalent is the association of dominant-language media with commercial attractiveness (Anderson 275; Eisenlohr 30). Even in state-run television or radio in minority languages, it is often mingled with lexicon from the dominant language, such as Catalan media containing “light Catalan,” which includes Spanish lexicon with the Catalan language (Eisenlohr 30). There is the tendency among new speakers to gravitate towards the dominant language since it is seen as more sophisticated than the native language (Eisenlohr 32). Although social media is used to promote minority languages, there are increasing number of indigenous language speakers using dominant languages to reach out to a wider audience (Keegan 60).
Geography and the close proximity of the speakers are important especially when regarding technology. Language is transmitted through gatherings, such as organizing summer camps where only the language is spoken (Warner 137). The Mutsun people live in scattered communities hours apart, and they have family and job obligations, which keep them from taking part in immersive gatherings (Warner 138-9). As far as tweeting in Maori, the longitude/latitude reading is recorded. Maori twitter users also display their current location on their profile. In this case, the highest number of tweets were concentrated in the largest cities: Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch (Keegan 69).
To read more, visit the paper uploaded on Academia.edu.
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
However daunting the task, it is still a possibility that the language spoken by Pocahontas could have new speakers in years after the publication of this article. Although it is classified as the Virginia Algonquian language, for simplicity’s sake in this article I have decided to condense it to its commonly used name–Powhatan; which comes from the name of the chief who ruled over the tribal confederacy that dealt with the English settlers. There were and continues to be attempts to reconstruct the language 200 years later. The important names that are involved in Powhatan language revitalization are Frank Siebert, Helen Rountree, and Blair Rudes. They are the linguists whose contributions could shape the rebirth of the Powhatan language. Although, the information is unreliable, despite having 650 total Powhatan words, what are available are indications as to how the language may have been used.
As for the people who spoke it, this problem goes back to the European colonization of the Americas. Intended on finding the Northwest passage to the Pacific, English explorers settled in James River and established the Jamestown settlement in 1607. They started to learn the Powhatan language since the newcomers were dependent on them. As the number of English colonists increased, the reverse happened, as the Powhatan Nation needed to speak English for trade goods. By 1800, the language was no longer spoken. As a result of European encroachment, while the nations within the confederacy stayed, some of the Powhatan Nation migrated to modern-day New Jersey and settled alongside the Lenape Nation. From 1983-2011, their reservation was located on Rankokus State Park, before it fell to disrepair and the nation were forced to leave.
Although they have yet to have a reservation to call their own, they still hold claim to bits of their language. A lot of the hints are in plain sight within the place-names in Virginia (or what the Powhatans called “Tsenacomoco”). A lot of them were Anglicized from the Powhatan names, such as Appomatox (originally “Appomattuck”), Pamunkey, Mattaponi (originally “Mattapanient”), Accomac, and Chesapeake. Blair Rudes, an Associate Professor of the University of North Carolina, actually dispelled the widely believed etymology of Chesapeake, meaning “Great Shellfish Bay,” and accurately stated it meant “Great Water.” As for botany and cuisine, there are suggestions that they were used for specific purposes, which are also clues in their meanings. The Powhatan nobility, for instance, enjoyed walnut milk as a delicacy, which was recorded as powcohicora. Another word, wisakon, was used to refer to medicine in general as well as English spices and liquors that were considered “medicinal-tasting.” These are just ways of providing evidence to the etymologies of the originally documented words.
However, there are some words that are lost in translation and have yet to be deciphered. An example is the Powhatan Nations’ religion prior to the spread of Christianity. They worshipped a god named Okeus as well as lesser gods called kwiokosuk (kwiokos in singular). Deduction of those meanings are difficult because of the lack of understanding of the prefixes and suffixes that may have been used; as well as the correct spelling of Okeus, which had varying spellings in different parts of eastern Virginia, such as Oke, Okee, Okeus, Quioccos, Cakeres, and Quiquascacke. Though, Frank Siebert, a linguist who attempted to reconstruct the Powhatan language in 1975, did forewarn that there may have been dialects and these spellings just may be examples. However, Rudes did prepare to fill in any gaps in the language in his project. When he could not find a word or phrase recorded by Smith or Strachey, he tried to put together each word from three languages related to Powhatan. If there were at least two similar words, then those words would be used. The words as well as the grammatical rules indicating “he, I, they, etc.,” that were not noted in the original words, were borrowed from those languages.
Although, the Powhatan Nation did not record the words, archaeology does provide an in-sight into their daily lives and might make the connections to the recorded words more potent. On the very site of where the village Werowocomoco once stood, a husband-and-wife team own it and allow archaeologists and members of the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Nansemond, Mattaponi, Rappahannock, and Monacan nations to do excavations for research purposes. There are a lot of well-preserved artifacts found in that site; including ceramics that were tempered with crushed shell and pressed on fabric textures, stone arrowheads, and stains in the soil that belonged to posts used to maintain houses made from wooden saplings. The word for those houses, yi-hakan, was described by John Clayton, a minister in Jamestown, as being like a garden. Working for his PhD, Erret H. Callahan, Jr. reconstructed what this type of house may have looked like and ended up succeeded with red maple, black locust, red cedar, and yellow pine saplings. While archaeology would work hand-in-hand with the written records, it also seeks to correct the original vocabulary, since it turned out that the word for grass used along with straw and tree-bark to make baskets, pemmenaw , actually meant “rope” or “thread,” according to Siebert.
The names that are given credit for actually documenting the vocabulary but are treated with skepticism are: John Smith, William Strachey, John Clayton, and the other Jamestown people who recorded the Powhatan way of living. Not only did Strachey and Smith use the English language alphabet to roughly transcribe the language, they often incorrectly interpreted the words, with pemmenaw being an example. What muddied the transcription the most was that both men were not, by modern standards, educated in the field of ethnography. Smith was of yeoman class and Strachey was more familiar with the literary arts (who was also a close friend of William Shakespeare). The lack of trust also comes from the incredible bias on behalf of the colonists who regarded the Powhatan Nation as uncultured and barbaric.
A notable example of misinformation was the way the Powhatan Nation would “kill” their youth. As John Smith told, he was about to endure such a similar execution before he was famously rescued by the Chief’s daughter, Pocahontas. As it turned out, neither events happened. What was meant by “killing” the youth was a ceremony called huskanaw , which involved a rite of passage for transitioning Powhatan boys into manhood by beating them with bundles of reeds. In John Smith’s case, this may have happened in order for him to be “reborn” as a tribal member. Also, Pocahontas, who’s real name was Matoaka, was 10 years old at the time this would have taken place. John Smith was also notorious for his arrogance by the fellow colonists, which makes his accounts more illegitimate. When that part of John Smith’s captivity is proven untrue, then other documentations are also susceptible.
In the case of William Strachey, he acquired the main bulk of the original Powhatan vocabulary records by using his status as colonial secretary of the Jamestown fort to hold an interview with two Indian men named Kemps and Machumps. However, Siebert identified 263 “real” Powhatan words out of his list, because Strachey was as limited as Smith, in terms of writing out the words using 17th century English pronunciation. He also sensationalized his own account in the Virginia colony in order to outshine John Smith’s own embellished account.
Overlooking the mistakes made by the original transcribers, there are methods of restructuring the language. Helen Rountree, the author of “The Powhatan Nation of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture,” suggested comparing the Powhatan language to the ones spoken by nations in the New England coast, since they belonged to the same Algonquian language family tree. For Terrence Malick’s film “The New World,” Rudes followed Rountree’s advice when reconstructing the Powhatan language for the dialogue.
It was a 2005 film depicting a more realistic depiction of Pocahontas, John Smith, John Rolfe, and Jamestown; with one crucial element of realism being the Powhatan language itself (though there were fictional moments in the film, including the rescue of John Smith by Pocahontas). This assignment by Terrence Malick was so difficult, to quote David A. Fahrenthold, a Washington Post Staff Writer, it was “like trying to rebuild modern Spanish using only a few pages from a tourist phrasebook, plus Italian.” It was an interesting metaphor to use, considering how Spanish, Italian, and other Romance languages are also sister-languages, with an example being the word friend in Spanish (amigo), French (ami), and Italian (amico).
The related words in Powhatan’s sister-languages definitely provide important hints as to how the vocabulary was pronounced. While other Algonquian languages use the letter “l,” the Powhatan vocabulary was written with an “r.” They also did not use the combination of consonants nor did they use the sounds [b], [d], [f], [g], [j], [ng], [th], [v], or [z]. While there is no recorded evidence for the common ancestor of the Algonquian languages, there are hypothetical words that share similarities to the same words in the related languages in what is called a proto-language. While the Powhatan word for sky was recorded as arrokoth, Rudes compared this to the Proto-Algonquian word a-lahkwatwi, which actually derives from the words for “cloud.” Since the recorded word had an “r” in it, he deduced that the reformed word is arahqat. This is important for finding similar written words that have an accurate meaning. It turned out that the word wisakon has related words in the Algonquian languages meaning “bitter.” In Rudes’ month-long analysis of the Powhatan vocabulary, aamowk, the word for “angle,” has related words in Natick (aumauog : “they fish”), Narragansett (aumaui : “he is fishing”), and Old Delaware (a-man : “fishhook”). He deduced that the reformed Powhatan word would be amewak. It is also important to note that the Carolina Algonquians referred to their god as Kiwasa, which might sound similar to the Powhatan Okeus mentioned earlier.
Another method of reviving the Powhatan language would be to look at related examples. One example is the reviving of the Cornish language, which is indigenous to the province of Cornwall in the southernmost part of the British Isle. As England started imposing its linguistic hegemony on the Cornish people, they started to lose their language. Its last written record was a letter written in 1776 by William Bodiner, who was not a native speaker but learned it from fishermen. From 1904 onwards, there were attempts at transcribing the language and reviving it. As it went, research lead to evening classes which lead to Cornish-language books and magazines. Just like the Powhatan language, the revived Cornish language had to borrow words from its sister-languages; in which case, the scholars borrowed grammar and vocabulary from Breton and Welsh, which belonged to the same Celtic language family. Another similarity is the propagating the revived language though popular media.
However, it is foreseeable that there will be controversy as to the standard writing convention of the reformed Powhatan. Cornish had four ways of writing, all based on updates. Eventually the Standard Written Form (SWF) was agreed upon to be the main way of writing. It would appear intimidating to any new speaker as to which way of writing they should use. Just like in this language community’s case, there needs to be unity in terms of how the Powhatan words are written. The ideal alphabet would reflect off every vowel, consonant, and accent, just as Rountree attempted to do by building upon Siebert’s reconstruction.
Working amongst fellow linguists is crucial for maintaining the reconstruction of a dead language like Powhatan. There continued to be efforts to bring back the Powhatan language, eventually culminating to the release of “The New World.” However, language revitalization did not end with that film, rather it accelerated it. As soon as the film was released, Rudes gave the results of his research to the Virginia Indian nations for their language revitalization efforts. Then, he worked with Rountree in constructing a Powhatan language dictionary before he passed away in 2008. It would especially help the reconstruction upon looking at the background of the linguists involved. In Rudes’ case, he was already involved in reconstructing the Pequot language prior to being hired by Terrence Malick; while Rountree is an ethno-historian specialized in anthropology.
It may appear that the return of the Powhatan language would be limited to the Powhatan Indian community; but I would argue that its funding and research should be national obligations, since bringing back the Powhatan language is just as important as the Wampanoag language, spoken by the Massachusetts nation who feasted with the Pilgrims in 1621 and established Thanksgiving Day. Both were spoken by two Native American nations who played an incredibly crucial role in the making of the United States of America before there was even such a geopolitical entity. It would make Americans appreciate the fact that the colonists’ survival were dependent on the indigenous population, especially when it came to scavenging for food. Indeed, words from this language have been borrowed into the English language, such as “opossum” and “raccoon;” just like how “moccasin” was borrowed from Wampanoag.
It can be possible to reconstruct the Powhatan language, but it wouldn’t be the exact same language it may have been hundreds of years ago (mainly because we do not exactly know how the language was used back then). Then again, I’m convinced that to bring back the Powhatan language is to put a lot of emphasis on archaeological breakthroughs, since they are needed in uncovering Powhatan Indian society. “The New World” might also become a historical artifact, in examining the history behind the bringing a dead language to famous directors and actors and their wide audience. As for the scant, written records of the Powhatan vocabulary, they are reliant as clues and hints as to what constituted a language that had its own variance of pronunciations and grammar within the Algonquian language family tree. They created a paradox where they are regarded with extreme skepticism and yet are the center of Powhatan language revitalization, but they are crucial for the restoration of that language-speaking community in the State of Tsenacomoco.