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

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

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

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Updated: August 4, 2016 — 4:22 pm