The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived
Nitana looks over the work and says, “Close,” then erases an accent from one of the words. The student objects. “I swear to God there’s an accent in the red book,” she says, as she starts flipping through a workbook at her desk.
Nitana looks honestly puzzled for a second, and then, almost questioningly, replies, “I swear to God you’re wrong.”
Some of the other students start weighing in, half on either side. Eventually they figure out that Nitana and her student have different editions. “It’s the updated one,” Nitana says, holding up her workbook. “It should be right-er.”
When Jessie began her work, Wopânâak existed only in written form, preserved on aging documents. Her ancestors were members of one of the first literate Indian nations, owing in part to the colonists’ eagerness to spread the Gospel; the first Bibles published in Boston were in Wopânâak. (Some experts believe the language was Massachusett, which is very closely related to Wopânâak.) The Wampanoag embraced literacy, having learned early on that when doing business with the English it helped to have things in writing. They’d left behind reams of contracts and letters.
When Jessie Little Doe Baird looks back at her early linguistics textbooks, she’s surprised she’s made it this far. “The writing is a little opaque,” she admits. When she began her studies, she was already in her thirties, a working mother with no better understanding of morphology or umlauting effects than the rest of us. “I literally cried reading this,” she recalls. “I thought I’d feel like I’ve been tasked with this as my life’s work, and if this is what I have to deal with, it’s not going to happen.”
But Jessie couldn’t walk away. She enrolled in the graduate linguistics school at MIT, where she began working with Kenneth Hale, Ph.D. Hale was fluent in 50 languages, an expert in indigenous linguistics, and a direct descendant of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. It was that last qualification that got Jessie’s attention.
The Wampanoag prophecy also stated that the children of those who had had a hand in breaking the language cycle would help heal it. That was the moment when the prophecy truly became real for Jessie Little Doe Baird. Any chance of a normal life was gone.
The first step in reviving the language was to free those words from the page and put a living breath behind them. Jessie and Dr. Hale scoured the language’s written record. Using related Algonquian languages as a guide, they stitched Wopânâak back together, one word at a time. When Hale passed away in 2001, the language was in good enough shape for Jessie to deliver a eulogy in her ancestors’ tongue. But delivering a speech was one thing; teaching the language to the rest of her nation would prove far more difficult.
The students in Nitana’s class continue to struggle through their lesson, sometimes breaking into laughter over their shared frustration. Wopânâak is not easy to learn. Language is more than just a tool for communication; it’s a philosophy. The way words and thoughts are constructed in Wopânâak is fundamentally different from the way that’s done in English. Take, for instance, the formation of nouns. If an English speaker were to encounter a new animal in the wild, he would likely give it an arbitrary name, like dog or cat or emperor penguin. A Wampanoag, on the other hand, would describe the animal’s key features–its size, its action, and how it moves in relation to other things–and that whole description would become its name. For example, the Wopânâak word for ant comprises individual syllables that convey the following information: It moves about, it does not walk on two legs, and it puts things away. If you were to add another syllable indicating that the animal is large, the word is no longer ant. It’s squirrel.
To make things even more difficult, the Wampanoag were starting from zero. When Jessie and Dr. Hale launched the Wopânâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP) in 1993, there was no one alive who’d grown up speaking the language; thus, even today, no one is fully fluent. Just as Nitana is teaching this class to beginners, she’s taking lessons from someone further along. All of their teaching tools–workbooks, dictionaries, and curricula–they’ve had to create themselves, revising them as the language comes into better focus.