An interesting story by Katie Zezima in today’s NY Times: Allen Sockabasin is trying to revive Passamaquoddy, the rapidly vanishing language of his tribe.
…Fewer than 600 people in the Passamaquoddys’ indigenous land — eastern Maine and the adjacent region of Canada — now speak Passamaquoddy or Maliseet, a dialect. And of those who do, fewer still can pray in the language, in part because most prayers were taught their ancestors in either Latin or English, by the Jesuits and the Anglicans who followed.
The 58-year-old Mr. Sockabasin is trying to change all that. Having previously recorded his translations of songs and poems from English to Passamaquoddy (pronounced pass-eh-meh-KWAD-ee), he is now translating the rosary and recording it on compact discs that he plans to distribute to schools and churches in eastern Maine and the adjoining Canadian province, New Brunswick. The project is the first in which the prayers have been translated into the native language, professionally recorded (in a local studio) and distributed.
Most of those who still speak Passamaquoddy at all are aging, now over 50. Some tribal members say the language is dying out because many parents simply want their children to learn English so that they can pursue education and better jobs, and so leave rural Maine.
Tribal elders tried to preserve Passamaquoddy orally through the years, but English often seeped in, tainting it. Linguists have studied the language since the 1970’s, but members of the tribe say they have not benefited from the research, which has for the most part been scholarly and, they say, not focused on helping Indian communities.
So they have started their own programs, at schools and community centers. The prayer project, however, is the most moving, they say.
One tribal member, Brenda Commander, who for three years has run a language program in the Indian community of Houlton, Me., said she first heard a prayer in Passamaquoddy last year, at a funeral. The words took on a different meaning. “I just can’t even describe it,” Ms. Commander said. “I felt inspired. It made me really emotional.”…
Mr. Sockabasin works with the aid of a computer program that reads back written text. He types letters that he believes will translate orally to Passamaquoddy. Then, when the computer speaks them back to him, he tinkers with those that sound awry to his ear, and tries again. Once a rough translation is complete, he takes the printed word, reads it aloud and adds correct inflections. Once an accurate translation is complete, he records it.
He also teaches the language to anyone who is interested in learning it. “If I can teach a computer how to sound out a Passamaquoddy word,” he said, “I certainly can teach native children how to sound the words.”
I suppose there’s not much chance of reversing the language’s decline, but I’m always glad to see people giving it their best shot. A language is a terrible thing to waste.