Why Revitalizing The Wampanoag Language Is An Act Of Patriotism

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.

Why The Gullah Language Is Not “Poor English”

DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.

 

To the reader who might hear this and read the translation of a Biblical passage below, you might remark “Oh, it’s just poor English,” but how do you know it’s even English? Because it has the same words? As it turns out, from 1066-1476 AD, the English borrowed a lot of French words from their Norman conquerors. Now, French-origin words consist of 25% of the entire English lexicon, so is English just a gutter form of French? A simplistic view of the language may be the reason behind such opinions without understanding the Gullah language’s history and parent-languages. Yes, parent-languages, for this goes beyond the English language and into the arduous fieldwork done by the linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner, who spent years on the islands that the Gullah inhabited. He listened and recorded their speech and then compared their pronunciations to the recorded words of the people of West Africa. Turner’s findings were published in his book “Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949)”.



To provide historical context, the Gullah language is spoken by the descendants of African slaves along the South Carolina and Georgia coastlines, in the islands Hilton Head, Sapelo, Wadmalaw, Daufuskie, etc. These slaves came from coastal West Africa, specifically from Nigeria to Angola. The English language was implemented upon them in order for them to communicate with overseers and the land-owners. While slaves who spoke the same native languages were moved around away from each other to prevent plots of rebellion, the emerging language simply expanded. This is usually how creole languages are formed, by raising generations of people speaking the means of communication between the ruling class and the slaves as a native language.

One crucial part of the language that the slaves inherited from their African languages was their pronunciations. A common feature in words that, in English, start with the pronunciation [yoo] end up being sounded as [nyoo] in Gullah; such as united: nyunited; use: nyuse; and young: nyung. This sound is called the palatal nasal and is found in Ewe, Efik, Ga, and Nupe. The way it was written varies, since Lorenzo Dow Turner used the International Phonetic Alphabet to accurately record it, while the Wycliffe Bible Translation (from the picture above) and Virginia Mixson Geraty, author of “Gulluh fuh Oonuh (Gullah for You): A Guide to the Gullah Language,” used slight modifications of the original English words. It would not be a simple coincidence if their original languages managed to seep through.

If anything, the language serves as a testament to the endurance of the Gullah people in American history. The Gullah word for “money,” which is babbidge, comes from the word “babbit,” which were metal coins used as currency in plantation commissaries. Just a single word can provide a glimpse into the value behind it and what it represented, as in the case of the Civil War being referred to as gun-shoot; with fo-gun-shoot meaning “before the Civil War” and attuh-gun-shoot meaning “after the Civil War.” There is also vocabulary within the Gullah language that can be traced to the languages that the original slaves spoke. There are words such as de which from Ibo means “to be;” kootuh: “turtle” in Malinke; oonuh: “you” in Ibo; buckruh: “a white person,” from Efik meaning “he who surrounds;” and tabby house: “cemented house,” which came from the mixture of cement, oyster shells, and pieces of brick used by African Muslims when building a house.

There are also Gullah words and phrases that are direct translations of the African phrases, such as describing someone who is covetous as big eye, just as in Ibo. The Gullah word for “dawn” is day-clean, which comes from the same Wolof etymology for “dawn.” To call someone an honest person in Gullah is to call him/her a trut-mout, which comes from the Twi expression anokware meaning “the mouth true.” While these Gullah sample sentences: “he gone,” “he been gone,” and “he done gone” appear to look like incorrect English, they are reflections of grammar from African languages, specifically with the use of past tense. In those languages, spoken by the first slaves, it uses the near past (in the case of “he gone”); remote past (by using “been” in “he been gone”); and a completed action (“he done gone”).

Reduplication, when intensifying a word, is also a feature of Gullah grammar as well as several African languages. The reduplication for dey, which is Gullah for “there (indicating a general location),” is deydey, which is “there (indicating a specific location) or correct;” just like in Kongo lunga means “to take care of,” while lungalunga means “to take good care of.” One of the few occurrences in English for reduplication is very, as in describing someone as “very, very mad.”

But, even with all of these grammatical rules and African-origin lexicon, it still might be looked upon as a dialect; even the title of Dr. Turner’s book calls Gullah a dialect. What makes a dialect different from a language is that although a dialect consists of its own variation of grammatical rules and lexicon, a language is a system of communication that develops independently from the other dialectic variations of the same language for political or geographical reasons. In the case of the Gullah language, it developed in isolated parts of the American colonies. As seen from the Biblical passage above, it also has a slight degree of unintelligibility, making it distinct from any American English dialect (which is also why there are English translations on the fringes of the pages).

Researcher Melville Herskovits has studied cultures of coastal West Africa and how much of them were maintained by the slaves and passed down. They were studied in places such as Guiana, Haiti, the Caribbean, and in the United States and the Gullah-speaking area (the latter two were considered distinct). He found that the language of the Gullah people was “quite African.” While the interpretation is not meant to become dogmatic, it still provides credence to the Africanness of the Gullah language. Based on my analysis of the Gullah language, these African languages are the mother-languages that pass on phrases, grammatical rules, pronunciations, and even some of the words; while English is the father-language that disseminates the majority of its words. I will say that it is uniquely African in the face of slavery. It brought the African languages they originally spoke as a way of creating an identity out of those conditions and applying them to everyday life.

How Language-Speakers Are Central To Language Revitalization

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.