A NY Times story by John Noble Wilford describes how linguists helped Terrence Malick get authentic Algonquian dialogue for his The New World (a wonderful movie, by the way, slow and gorgeous and moving):

When the director of “The New World,” Terrence Malick, decided that for authenticity Powhatan should speak in his own language, he called in Dr. [Blair A.] Rudes, who has worked with Dr. [Ives] Goddard in reconstructing the defunct Algonquian language of the Pequot of Connecticut. He is also engaged in language restoration for the Catawba of North Carolina and is collaborating with Helen Rountree, emeritus professor of anthropology at Old Dominion University, on a dictionary of Virginia Algonquian. Dr. Rudes was asked what Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas would say and how they would say it. It was a daunting assignment.

The related Algonquian languages were among the first in America to die out, and no one is known to have spoken Virginia Algonquian since 1785. Like many other Indians, except some cultures in Mexico and Central America, Algonquian speakers had no writing system, and their grammar and most of their vocabulary were lost. Just two contemporary accounts — one by Captain Smith and the other by the Jamestown colony secretary, William Strachey — preserved some Virginia Algonquian words, including ones that have passed into modern English as raccoon, terrapin, moccasins and tomahawk…

The first challenge for Dr. Rudes was the limited vocabulary. Smith, the colony leader, set down just 50 Indian words, and Strachey compiled 600. The lists were written phonetically by Englishmen who were not expert in linguistics and whose spelling and pronunciation differed considerably from modern usage, making it difficult to determine the words’ actual Indian form.

Dr. Rudes had to apply techniques of historical linguistics to rebuilding a language from these sketchy, unreliable word lists. He compared Strachey’s recorded words with vocabularies of related Algonquian languages, especially those spoken from the Carolinas north into Canada that had survived longer and are thus better known. This family of Indian tongues, in one respect, reminded linguists of the Romance languages. Each was distinctive but as closely related as Spanish is to Italian or Italian to Romanian. Comparisons with related languages revealed the common elements of grammar and sentence structure and many similarities in vocabulary.

A translation of the Bible into the language once spoken by Massachusetts Indians offered more insights into the grammar. The Munsee Delaware version spoken by coastal Indians from Delaware to New York, including those who sold Manhattan, may be dead, but its grammar and vocabulary are fairly well known to scholars. “We have a big fat dictionary of Munsee Delaware,” said Dr. Rudes, who adapted some of those words when needed for Virginia Algonquian. Recordings of the last Munsee Delaware speakers, a century ago, were a valuable guide to pronunciations.

Another research tool was what is called Proto-Algonquian. It is the hypothetical ancestor common to all Algonquian speech, 4,000 words that scholars have compiled from the surviving tongues and documentation of the extinct ones. The reconstruction involves educated guesses. Strachey set down words for walnut, shoes and two kinds of beast, “paukauns,” “mawhcasuns,” “aroughcoune” and “opposum.” In Proto-Algonquian, similar words are paka-ni (meaning large nut), maxkesen (shoe), la-le-ckani (raccoon) and wa-pa’oemwi (white dog). From this, Dr. Rudes reconstructed the Virginia Algonquian words pakán, mahkusun, árehkan and wápahshum,” or pecan, moccasin, raccoon and opossum.

When he started the project, he was handed the movie script for the parts to be translated. “I had to rewrite terms for the dialogue,” he said. “For example, we often use nonspecific verbs, ‘He went to town.’ In Algonquian, you have to tell the mode of travel, ‘He walked to town.’ “

There’s a little idiocy (“Pocahontas would not have said to Smith, if she ever actually did, ‘I love you.’ She would have used the verb for love, with a prefix meaning you and a suffix for I.”), but hardly worth mentioning in a generally good and fascinating story; how can you not like a newspaper story that gives an entire line of dialogue in reconstructed Virginia Algonquian?

So Smith’s reply was changed to “We came from England, an island on the other side of the sea,” and the translator then used documented words of Virginia Algonquian for sky, no, island and sea. The spelling was slightly modified to account for Strachey’s misspellings and conform to similar words in other Algonquian speech. Because the word signifying a question is not known in Virginia Algonquian, Dr. Rudes borrowed the word sá from a related language.

Of course, Powhatan’s interpreter could not be expected to have a word for England. He presumably did his best to reproduce what it sounded like in Algonquian, Inkurent, to which he added the general locational ending -unk, meaning at or in. He also followed the practice of naming the place first and adding the word for “we come from there.”

The translation thus reads: “Sá arahqat? Mahta. Inkurent-unk kunowamun – mununag akamunk yapam.”

Now I’m even more eager to see the movie again. Thanks for the link, Bonnie!


  1. John Emerson says

    “Father, I’ve made you some new moccasins.”
    “Why thank you. I’ve killed a raccoon and an opposum for dinner”.
    “Oh, good. I’ll make the pecan sauce right away.”

  2. Other Algonquian words in English: caribou, caucus, chipmunk, hickory, hominy, husky, papoose, pone, powwow, scuppernong, tamarack, terrapin, tomahawk, wampum, woodchuck.
    See Mark Rosenfelder’s list of Amerindian words in English.

  3. Oh, I missed these: Chicago, coho, moose, mugwump, musk- in muskrat, pemmican, persimmon, pung, quahog, sachem, samp, seapoose, skunk, squash, squaw, succotash, Tanis, toboggan, totem, wapiti, wickiup, and wigwam, all from specific languages of the Algonquian family.

  4. The project sounds interesting and fun. If I were doing a movie of that type, what I suspect would be the biggest difficulty would be getting the politeness and deference forms right, and then subtitling them. I read a screenplay about Confucius where people basically talked like college buddies and faculty colleagues, and it rang very false. (Hemingway’s attempts to translate Spanish politeness forms haven’t been admired, IIRC, but making the attempt was necessary.)

  5. I agree; it always bothers me when historical figures are made to talk and act like moderns. It’s obviously impossible to be accurate in every detail, but you should at least make it clear that these people were not like us.

  6. Question for John about ‘squash’ – what is the etymology? I had heard that it was something like “you eat it raw” which sounds like a (slightly) cruel joke if it refers to pumpkins and the like.

  7. Quoth Etymonline: “shortened borrowing from Narraganset (Algonquian) askutasquash, literally ‘the things that may be eaten raw’, from askut ‘green, raw, uncooked’ + asquash ‘eaten’, in which the -ash is a plural affix (compare succotash)”

  8. Råkost “raw food/diet” is a standard Norwegian term for uncooked vegetables and suchlike.

  9. So since the ‘raw’ part has fallen away, the English word simply means ‘things eaten.’

  10. Well, by the etymological fallacy, yes.

  11. ktschwarz says

    Re squash: “you eat it raw” which sounds like a (slightly) cruel joke if it refers to pumpkins and the like

    When Roger Williams wrote in 1643 about “Askutasquash, their Vine aples, which the English from them call Squashes, about the bignesse of Apples, of severall colours, sweet, light, wholesome, refreshing”, he must have been referring to what we now call summer squash, which are picked immature, while the skin is still soft. English speakers extended the word to cover the varieties that are harvested later, with hard rinds, that keep through the winter and require cooking.

    John Eliot’s translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language uses askꝏtasquash for cucumbers: in Numbers 11:5, “cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” is translated as askꝏtasquash, kah monaskꝏtasquash, kah leeksalh, kah weenuwasog, kah garlick. (The ligature ꝏ represents /u/, and is distinguished from oo, which represents /ʊ/ as in hook. The printer had to order extra o’s and k’s to print this Bible.) Presumably weenuwasog was one of the New World species of the Allium genus.

    Blair Rudes died untimely in 2008. Much more on his work at that link. He discovered Algonquian loanwords in Catawba, which is a Siouan language: see this interview.

  12. Very interesting interview, thanks. The opening gives a fine illustration of the wacky way life interferes with our plans and creates unexpected opportunities:

    When I first entered graduate school to study for my Master’s degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo, I was primarily interested in the Celtic languages, in particular Irish Gaelic, since my mother’s side of the family comes from Ireland. I happened to be living at the time in a house with a bunch of other graduate students, and the landlady, herself a graduate student in linguistics, was studying the Seneca language. I had the opportunity to sit in on some of the sessions in which she was being taught the language by a Seneca woman named Esther Blueye. After learning a bit about the Seneca language, I became interested in the Iroquoian languages in general. I was intrigued by how different they were in pronunciation and grammar not only from English, but from other languages I knew such as French, German, and Irish Gaelic. Of all the Iroquoian languages I looked at, I found the Tuscarora language the most interesting because it had the most unusual pronunciation. It turned out that Esther Blueye had a friend, Dorothy Crouse, who was a speaker of the Tuscarora language.

  13. Other Algonquian words in English: caribou, caucus, chipmunk,

    The OED has finally (September 2021) revised their “chipmunk” entry; see ktschwarz at (I agree with this: “I’m also surprised that the OED didn’t enter this word until 1972.”)

Speak Your Mind