A language is only dead if it has no one to speak for it.
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
For my Oral History class in Monmouth University, I decided to write a research paper about the interviews conducted of the Manx citizens who volunteered for the Manx Heritage Oral History Project. It would be interesting to share with an American audience the information about this unique place.
The Isle of Man is a small island that is 32 miles long and 14 miles wide. The name of the island, Man, was said to have come from the Celtic sea god, Manannan Mac Lir. It resides in the Irish Sea between the British Island and Ireland. It is not it’s own country, rather it is a Crown Dependency of the United Kingdom.
As of July 2017, there are approximately 89,000 people. Two percent of the entire population has some knowledge of the indigenous Manx Gaelic language. It belongs to the Celtic language family alongside Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Breton, and Welsh.
The unique part of the Manx parliament, the Tynwald, is that it was originally of Norse origin, brought by the Vikings who settled there. It has three branches: the House of Keys, the Legislative Council, and the Tynwald Court. It is older than 1000 years and is the oldest unadjusted parliament in the world. Every July 5th, Tynwald Day is held at a four-tiered hill built by Norse settlers called Tynwald Hill.
The flag itself is unlike any other, as can be told from the headline picture. It was said to have been originated in 1270. Even the Manx national motto is meant to represent the three leg triskelion, which is the Latin phrase “Quocunque jeceris stabit,” meaning, “wherever you throw, it will stand.” This may reflect the Manx’s own unique, self-reliant identity among the British isles.
I will end in the Manx Gaelic way: Gura mie ayd.
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 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.
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
An important part of language revitalization is the language speakers themselves, for they are the ones who are responsible for their own linguistic renaissance and their language reaffirms their connection to each other, their land, and the country outside of their communities. Although there can be help from outside the language community, truly sustainable revitalization can only come from within the language community. This would be an important factor, as it would mean that the language, whether endangered or revived, is not only spoken at a gathering but in every speakers’ everyday life.
The linguists who are involved are merely there to guide the progress of the project. Just like in the case of Natalie Warner and her team of linguist working to reconstruct the Mutsun language indigenous to southern California, they joined with the Mutsun community to create language-teaching materials such as textbooks. The linguists also provide the technology purchased through grants in order to publish a dictionary, create a software for Mutsun speakers who live miles apart, and provide a database to preserve the original notes that recorded the last Mutsun speaker who passed away in 1930.
Since the speakers are the center of these types of projects, this would enable them to connect with any deceased community members who may have contributed to providing field-notes to any linguists. By revitalizing a language like the Okanagan language from the Salish language family, it enables the Okanagan tribe to reclaim their place on their ancestral land within the U.S. state of Washington and the Canadian province of British Columbia. What brings indigenous peoples and scientists together is the language and oral legends that may provide insight into any natural phenomenon that may have occurred. Indeed, a language is more important than for communication, for it provides, as Patricia A. Shaw of the BC Studies Journal would call: “…a seamless,tightly integrated, interactive symbiotic relationship between the people and the land.”
So it would make sense that language revitalization can only be an organic phenomenon, not just as a way to have less reliance on outside help but also to give the speakers themselves a large degree of importance. It helps to shatter the identity crisis indigenous people feel, when they are neither white nor resembling their ancestor in terms of the language they spoke. In fact, the language would not be confined to the past and can be given relevance through media such as film, music, and video games. Bringing new speakers to the Salish languages, for instance, is a way of preserving the cultural identity behind the Salish nations.
As such not only does a language revitalization project require the language speakers themselves, but it also requires a diverse array of skills they may have, such as music, pedagogy, illustration, grant-writing, etc. Language speakers would need to congregate in order to transmit their language, either through developing conversational levels of fluency or learning the basics through word-based games. If they cannot do it physically, then they can do it through internet connection.
It also helps to create connections between the language-speaking community and the rest of the society that speaks a dominant language in terms of the language-speakers developing benefits of bilingualism and overall well-being. This was shown by Quechua speakers in Peru when given a Quechua-Spanish bilingual education. The students became less shy and more vocal in the classroom when their native language was used for instruction. By instructing in the native language, students would be more responsive.
This is why language revitalization is important as it brings entire families of speakers together. To paraphrase Rob Amery of the University of Adelaide, “The family and the home are among the last bastions of retention of a language.” The household is definitely the most important component of language revitalization, since children receive speech from their parents or guardians. For parents just learning about the language, it would be crucial, in the case linguist Daryl Baldwin trying to learn his ancestral Myaamia language, to have constant reminders of the translations of every object in the house, so sticky notes could be applied on them with the language translations. This is also why naming in the indigenous language is so important, as it asserts an identity that differs from the one imposed by colonization, just as Daryl Baldwin gave his children Myaamia names and Professor Margaret Noodin gave her children Anishinaabeg names. Linguist Ghil’ad Zuckermann of the University of Adelaide makes the case that revitalization of indigenous languages increases communication between entire generations, which results in the decrease of suicide and juvenile delinquency rates.
This results in long-term benefits to the community and to the government that saves money. The rest of the dominant language-speaking society also takes part by preserving a part of their geographical culture. This is when the in-sight into indigenous languages shifts to linguistic anthropology. That is why studying the Salish languages means studying the place-names of Canada which have native etymologies, such as Musqueam, Kwantlen, Matsqui, and Chilliwack. Their indigenous lands are important since they relied on them for foraging and food-growing sites as well as providing a link to their oral traditions. When places have not retained their original names, the local governments and the indigenous communities often work together to rename towns and rivers, such as in the case of the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute which is responsible for renaming various locations in Adelaide, Australia to their Australian Aboriginal names.
The difficulties that can occur are when a language revitalization project does not have the funds to have fresh supplies, such as paper, pencils, erasers, electronic devices, ink cartridges, blackboards, etc. What donations demonstrate is that these types of projects can be limited based on any reliable funds. No language revitalization project is immune from this problem. When government grants are not enough, like in the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project’s case, the participants must find other means of procuring money. This is why crowd-funding can become a major component of language revitalization projects as it can provide the funds directly from the people who would benefit from these types of projects, as well as expand the contributions to include natives and non-natives alike.
As someone who received his undergraduate degree, it has been my goal to get into the field of linguistics in any way possible. Normally, I would settle with whatever degree would get me close to that goal (such as the Masters in English with a Rhetoric Concentration that I am currently pursuing), however, this piqued my interest, as I hope to study further into this underappreciated field.
It has been announced that the University of Berkeley has launched a new graduate program centered on language revitalization. Specifically it is offered as a graduate minor to Doctorate students. I will have to think about that when I reach that level. It is an interdisciplinary field combining ethnic studies with linguistics.
One of the students in this program, Sara Chase, has been taking advantage of this opportunity to revive the Hoopa language in her indigenous community. The Hoopa live in Humboldt County in northern California and their language is a member of the Athabaskan language family alongside well-known sister-languages Navajo, Gwich’in, and Apache.
Language revival has been talked about among academics, with the most notable being Ghil’ad Zuckermann, a professor from the University of Adelaide, who also has an online course dedicated to the subject. In the University of Victoria in Canada, there is a Certificate in Aboriginal Language Revitalization that is available.
However, it is only in America that I am starting to see language revitalization taken more seriously. In the case of the University of Berkeley, it is the university that takes that field most seriously as it applies to indigenous American languages. Of course an exemption would be Swarthmore College, where linguist K. David Harrison, who produced the documentary The Linguists, teaches. Though there are no graduate programs specifically dealing with language revival.
Though, I could imagine that it would be difficult to pinpoint language revival as a topic reserved for an academic degree beyond a minor or certificate, because it is intricately complex, as it would not only involve studying and transcribing the language, but also about being an active part in teaching the language to the descendants of the speakers. This could be important for Chase, as she is pursuing a PhD in Education. It would also be important for anyone pursuing this field to know that multiple specializations would not only be accepted but needed in language revitalization, such as pedagogy but also music and programming.
Nonetheless, it is definitely a good way to raise awareness of these languages that are either sleeping or endangered. Nez Perce scholar Beth Piatote noted the importance they have to the speakers as well as the environmental and medical knowledge that they contain. These reasons are why language revival is such an important field to examine in a collegiate level.