So you’re ready to learn a new language. How about Wampanoag?
You’ll find it useful if you plan to visit Massachusetts. That is, if you’re traveling by time machine to visit the Massachusetts of about 350 years ago. That was when Wampanoag (aka Massachusett) was the principal language spoken by long-time inhabitants of the region, though it (and they) were being displaced by English invaders.
Poor Wampanoag! Back in the 17th century, it was important enough that some English-speaking politicians and preachers took the trouble to learn it, but chiefly to talk Wampanoag speakers out of their lands and convert them to Christianity.
The earliest and most important record of the language is a translation of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, undertaken by the missionary John Eliot and published in Cambridge, Mass., in 1663. To make his translation, Eliot had to invent an orthography for the heretofore unwritten language. Here’s Psalm 33, Verse 3, in Eliot’s translation:
Ketoohamohk wuske ketoohomaonk: mishontoowae wunnuppuhpequagk.
That corresponds to the English: “Sing unto him a new song: play skilfully with a loud noise.”
Eliot’s orthography spread among the Wampanoag, even as disease, wars, and the continuing influx of English speakers pushed them close to extinction. The last person who spoke Wampanoag as a native language, we are told, died about a century ago.
If you don’t have access to a time machine, though, why should you be interested?
Because Wampanoag is in the news nowadays, being revived as a native language. The revival is being led by Jessie Little Doe Baird, who literally followed her dream of fellow Mashpee Indians singing words unknown to her. She sought help from the late Kenneth Hale at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, eventually earning a master’s degree in linguistics there, and today is a leader in teaching Wampanoag to tribal members.
All this began a decade or so ago. So what’s new? A prize-winning documentary film, Âs Nutayuneân: We Still Live Here, produced and directed by Anne Makepeace in 2011.
In case you’re wondering, the second part of the title is a translation of the first.
You can see the current status of the Wampanoag “reclamation project” at its website.
It lists English words borrowed from Wampanoag: pumpkin, moccasin, skunk, moose, powwow. And it offers to translate from English to Wampanoag too. But it does draw a line. You won’t be able to get a Wampanoag name for your pet, your tattoo, or your nonnative child. And if you’re writing a historical novel and want help in using Wampanoag words, you’ll have to have it vetted by the Wampanoag community. In short, it’s not just words or a language that are being revived, but a whole culture.
And you might just reset your time machine for another time and place. It’s time to give the Wampanoag some space.
Author Bio: Allan Metcalf is a professor of English at MacMurray College, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and author of OK: The Improbable Story of America\’s Greatest Word and five other books on language.