A couple of newspaper articles on the revival of Penobscot, an Algonquian language barely hanging on in Maine (Ethnologue prematurely pronounces it extinct): the Boston Globe‘s “Last Words,” by Stacey Chase, and DownEast Magazine‘s “Lost in Translation,” by Abby Zimet. Both have good quotes and samples of Penobscot words. From the Globe piece:
Maine’s Native American tribes speak closely related languages that derive from the Eastern Algonquian family of languages once widely used from Maine to Virginia. But a common misperception is that tribal languages are relics linguistically frozen in the 1600s, when they were first heard by missionaries and explorers, and they are missing words critical to communicating in today’s culture. “It’s entirely possible to talk about the stock market or auto racing in Penobscot if you want to,” MIT’s Richards says. “There’s nothing inherent in the language that makes it unsuitable for modern use.”
And from DownEast:
According to many experts, Penobscot is among [the disappearing languages] — though debate continues as to whether it is “dead” or merely “dormant.” Either way, outsiders paint a grim picture. Dr. Ives Goddard, curator and senior linguist at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, has been quoted as declaring: “The Penobscot language is extinct. There are no native speakers.”
Of course this is news — alternately amusing and infuriating — to tribal members who exchange daily pleasantries in their native tongue. In reality, almost anyone of a certain age on Indian Island will say they can still hear echoes of a native-speaking grandmother or aunt, and many repeat the native phrases of daily life to their children: “scowi mits” (come eat!) “koli keseht” (good job!) “ciksrta” (be quiet!) “krselrmzl” (I love you).
The disconnect between white and native perceptions is centuries old, a fragment of what one Penobscot activist calls “our twistory.”
The latter has a sidebar on the white linguists who “have played a key role in the revival effort, a fact that prompts mixed feelings among Penobscots”:
Dr. Frank Siebert was an eccentric, curmudgeonly, nationally recognized expert on Native American languages who spent years deciphering the Penobscot language and compiling a dictionary. Over time, he also assembled two volumes of Penobscot legends
Much of that material made its way to the Penobscot via Conor Quinn, a young, white, gifted linguistics student at Harvard University who grew up in Portland. Quinn spent several summers in the 1990s working with Siebert, transcribing his lengthy notebooks and learning Penobscot in the process.
And here you can listen to an interview with Priscilla Attian of the Penobscot Nation in which she talks about learning the Penobscot language and how doing so was once forbidden and is now encouraged. Thanks for the links, Martin!
(I must say, krselrmzl is quite a mouthful for ‘I love you’—reminds me of the languages of the Caucasus.)