Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving Thanks For Native American Languages

In celebration of Thanksgiving in the United States (October 8th in Canada), we're going to focus on native North American languages. In particular, we'll look at Wampanoag, the language of the Native Americans present at the so-called "First Thanksgiving".

No turkeys were harmed in the making of this blog.
We said "the so-called First Thanksgiving" because it wasn't really the first Thanksgiving at all... feasts to thank God for a plentiful harvest had been celebrated for quite some time before 1621 by Europeans. However, 1621 marks the year of the Thanksgiving that every American child is taught about as they trace their hands and add feathers, feet, and a face in an attempt to draw something that resembles a turkey. According to legend, this particular Thanksgiving feast lasted three days and was shared by Pilgrims (colonists who left England seeking religious freedom) and members of the Wampanoag tribe, who had taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels and grow corn in order to survive their first winter.

We're very glad that the centerpiece to a traditional
Thanksgiving meal is turkey and not eel! 

The Wampanoag language was a member of the Algonquian language family. It was spoken by the aforementioned Wampanoag tribe, who lived in the area around what is now Boston, Massachusetts. Wampanoag (also known as Massachusett, the name of a nearby nation) was one of the first Native American languages learned by English colonists, who even translated the Bible into the language. Despite the fact that they did this in order to convert them to Christianity, it did serve at least one good purpose... it helped Wampanog become one of the best documented Native American languages.

Those of you with a keen eye for detail may have noticed we've used the past tense to refer to Wampanog, which is an extinct language. However, it may not be for long! In 1993, a linguist named Jessie "Little Doe" Baird started a movement to revive the language. Reviving a language that's been extinct since the mid-1800s... sounds crazy, right?

It's a huge undertaking, but quite an exciting one. The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project is a joint effort among various Wampanoag groups to revive the language with the hope that one day their community will once again speak the language of their ancestors. So far, they've managed to compile a dictionary with over 11,000 words, develop curriculum for teaching and learning the language, and even mention a child who is the first native speaker of the language since the 1800s. Perhaps in another twenty years, the language will be alive and flourishing once again! (We'd love to classify it as a living language now, but we don't dare to disagree with Ethnologue.)

If you're as interested in Wampanoag as we are, you should definitely check out the Language Reclamation Project's site, especially the "Fun with Words" page, which provides some words in English that come from the language. Our favorite is "skunk", derived from sukôk, which literally means "ejects body fluid". 

They'd be so darn cute if they didn't always stink up the place!
The Americas were home to thousands of languages before Europeans came and colonized the continent. Here's a map that attempts to show the geographic distribution of indigenous languages in North America before contact with European colonists.

Each color represents a different language family.
Grey areas denote language isolates and unclassified languages.

North America was especially linguistically diverse, but sadly, most of the indigenous languages on this map are critically endangered, if not already extinct. So today, we're giving thanks for the languages that have survived (like Navajo, with over 150,000 speakers) as well as those like Wampanoag that just may come back to life through the extraordinary efforts of people who love their ancestral language. Happy Thanksgiving!