Jackson Landers of the Smithsonian reports on an exciting discovery:
American history has just been slightly rewritten. Previously, experts had believed that the Native Americans of central Massachusetts spoke a single language, Loup (pronounced “Lou,” literally meaning “wolf”). But new research shows that they spoke at least five different languages.
“It’s like some European families where you can have three different languages at the dinner table,” says Ives Goddard, curator emeritus and senior linguist in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “There was probably a lot of bilingualism. A question that is raised by there being so many languages is ‘how did that work?’ How did they manage to maintain five different languages in such a small area?”
The lost languages were re-discovered by taking another look at several manuscripts written by French missionaries who were also working as linguists in the mid 1700s. While working on her master’s thesis at the University of Manitoba, Holly Gustafson compiled lists of verb forms found in one of the manuscripts. Goddard noticed some contradictions in the compilation. […]
“This gives us a picture of the aboriginal situation in New England being fragmented into different groups,” says Goddard. “This tells us something about the social and political situation.”
Goddard believes that the situation may have been similar to that of the Sui people of the Guizhou Province of China. Women from a particular band of villages would always marry into a different band of villages in which a different language was spoken. The woman would continue to speak her original dialect, her husband would speak another, while their children would grow up understanding both but primarily speaking the father’s dialect outside of the home. Family and cultural ties are maintained between the different groups of villages while maintaining an independent sense of identity.
Goddard’s research begs the question of how many other native American languages may have been missed. The cultural diversity of pre-colonial America may have been underestimated. Rediscovering those languages can help to explain where the lines were drawn between different cultures.
Fascinating stuff — thanks, Trevor!