Lost Language Department: Resurection of Wampanaug

by Translation Guy on November 11, 2011

At the first Thanksgiving, Wampanoag was the language of choice for most of the guests. It was the Algonquin language spoken in those parts in those days, but now, is not heard much around the Thanksgiving table.

It was hard times for the Wampanoag back then, when the Pilgrims hit Plymouth Rock. The English caught the Wampanoag down on their luck. An apocalyptic plague, remembered as “the Great Dying,” had killed nine out of ten of the original inhabitants of New England in 1609 – 1613. For the few remaining Wampanoag survivors, the English and their access to European markets and technology represented the best chance in a world turned suddenly and irretrievably upside down.

The Wampanoag took up the faith of the English and also took up arms as military allies, and survived.  But the cultural cost was high.  Much was lost, including the tongue of their ancestors. Up until recently, the last native speaker of Wampanoag had been dead more than a century.

Then, a few years ago, Jessie Little Doe Baird, a Mashpee Wampanoag, who spoke not a word of the language, had a dream (in English I’m guessing) where she was summoned by those same ancestors to reclaim the lost language of her nation.

So she did it, which has been documented by film documentarian Anne Makepeace, in “We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân,” playing tomorrow at the American Museum of Natural History from 12 to 2:30 pm as part of the Margaret Mead Film Festival. Makepeace tells a story of “a hero(ine) inspired by a dream that sets her on a path of adventure and self-discovery.”

Even though the Wampanoag where steadfast allies with the English as the colonists subjugated other Indians, their communities took heavy hits from disease and English exploitation, legal and otherwise.  Learning a trick from the English, the Wampanoag fought back in the courts, which helped to provide the testimony necessary for Baird to recreate the language centuries later.  But without Baird’s discovery of a Rosetta stone in the first Bible printed in North America, it might have been impossible to resurrect this linguistic Lazarus.

Makepeace thinks it’s ironic that the key to bringing back Wampanoag also happened to be the very instrument intended to destroy that culture.

“Their Rosetta Stone is a Bible that was translated into Wampanoag and published at Harvard in 1663 in order to convert New England Indians to Christianity and force them to give up their traditional ways, including their language. Without this translation, I don’t think they could have succeeded in bringing back the language, despite the existence of hundreds of documents — letters, deeds, petitions, wills, etc. — written phonetically in Wampanoag in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Bible has provided the side-by-side translation from which Jessie and linguist Norvin Richards have created a dictionary that now has more than 11,000 words.”

So from a long-forgotten Bible, a language raised from the dead. I wonder how it would sound to an original native speaker. It would be hard enough today to have an English  conversation with some Puritan hay seed from way back when. But maybe the resurrected Wampanoag, silent for so long, is actually closer to the way some old-time Wampanoag woodsman would sound in comparison to English after four centuries of accent drift and glossary shift.

Would the recreated Wampanoag sound like Bible lessons to some old-timer, echoing the cadences of the English Bible taught by the Anglo missionaries? We’ll never know.  So what the language sounds like is a question for Mae Alice Baird, daughter of Jessie and first native speaker of Wampanoag in seven generations. I predict she’ll say it sounds like strawberries (See photo.) I’m in favor of any language where the native speakers are all so cute.

Makepeace is going to be speaking Saturday (tomorrow) after the film at AMNH, so I’m looking forward to speaking to her. Hope to see you there.


  1. Peter says:

    This is on Independent Lens on PBS starting Nov. 17. You can also find a few small videos on Youtube.

  2. Sherry Rubin says:

    We keep celbrating Thanksgiving and our children keep learning about the Pilgrams, but the more I learn, the more I wonder how much good they actually brought at the time. They left to seek out religious freedom, yet they try to convert the locals! What about their freedoms?

    • Ken says:

      The law of unintended consequences. The Puritan evangelism among the Algonquin was motivated from the highest ideals. Most idealistic of the Puritans believed that the heathen savages that surrounded them required the yoke of Christ if ever they were to be saved. Freedom was strictly for English male property owners.

  3. Louis Harvey says:

    I say this with a smile on my face because I have a good sense of humor, but really, does it surprise anyone that the language was lost because of religion? Is convert a synonym for christianity?

    • Ken says:

      It’s a package deal, Louis.

  4. Edith Helms says:

    It’s great how some people try to hold on to cultural traditions. Not only has the language been recovered, but the Wampanoag peoples are recovering stories and writing original songs. Great story.

  5. Louis Lyons says:

    It is very ironic. Where on earth did they even find that bible? It must have been in a museum or something. The key to resurrecting the language was the very book that sought to end it.

    • Ken says:

      The translator, Eliot was a great evangeliser with the Indians, and a great fundraiser with the Puritans. He got thousands printed. Lots of the first edition were destroyed when the English-allied “praying indians” settlements were evacuated and pillaged (by the English) in ethnic cleansing ops during King Philips’ War.

  6. Paul Berger says:

    Thank you for the story. It was very timeful with Thanksgiving so close.

  7. Is it so bad for languages to be lost? Should everything from the past be held on to? Wouldn’t it be easier if -through time – we all evolve ourselves into a more common language to communicate globally?

    • Ken says:

      The number of languages spoken around the world has been dropping for centuries. People will drop a lanuguage like a hot potato if it doesn’t suit them. Walking the walk, instead of talking the talk, so to speak.

  8. Evie says:

    I’m sure I couldn’t understand a Puritan very much, but I think I would understand them more than some of the young people in this country today. It’s a shame how so many have such poor language skills.

  9. Not sure if the language sounds like it did a century ago, but if it’s close, that is really cool.

  10. jack says:

    yes, I agree with ken language spoken around the world has been dropping but advance technology is now making it very easy to learn new languages.


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