Jessie Little Doe Fermino Baird, whom I mentioned here five years ago and is the subject of the article linked here, has been working for almost twenty years to revive the Wampanoag (or, more correctly, Wôpanâak) language, and I am pleased to learn from a Boston Globe story by Laura Collins-Hughes that she has won a MacArthur Fellows “genius grant” of $500,000:

Baird, one of the principal authors of a developing 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary, does not view her personal role in reviving the language as critical. Instead, she talks about the benefits of being able to speak the language of her ancestors. “The opportunity to hear what my fifth great-grandfather had to say, even though he’s gone, because he wrote it down, really is a powerful motivation,” she said.
She hopes to spend some of the money to hire an artist to illustrate some of the children’s books she has written in Wampanoag.

In related news, Zvjezdana Vrzic is trying to revive Vlashki, the language of Istrian Vlachs: New York City Linguist Gives Dying Language In Croatia A Fighting Chance.


  1. I realize there’s a fair degree of variability with these things, but all the same a 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary strikes me as pretty substantial for an extinct language which, according to what I’m reading, differs sufficiently from the literary Massachuset[t] of Eliot’s bible translation for Mayhew to have had to translate the Psalms and John into it separately. All the more so since the main language I work with is living (albeit endangered), has a spoken form based on a literary standard, and the most comprehensive dictionary it has contains around 8,000 entries (and its dictionary partner isn’t English either).

  2. I assume the dictionary includes words created to meet the exigencies of modern life; she’s teaching her own kid Wampanoag as a first language, so it’s not intended primarily for the exegesis of old texts.

  3. First of all, my heartiest congratulations to Baird.
    Second of all, I have a soft spot for attempts at language revival, and wish her all the best. However, this should not be an excuse to remain silent in the face of poor scholarship. Her statement, in the BOSTON GLOBE article, that Wampanoag has been spoken in its attested location for at least 10 000 years is, quite bluntly, utterly impossible.
    Proto-Algonquian is estimated to be some 3000-4000 years old, and certainly spread from the Western to the Eastern half of the continent (the first language to split from Proto-Algonquian, Blackfoot, is also the westernmost Algonquian language. Furthermore, the two known relatives of Proto-Algonquian, Wiyot and Yurok, are spoken in Northern California). What language(s) was/were spoken in Southern New England (or, indeed, the American Atlantic coast) before the spread of Algonquian? Nobody knows.
    Incidentally, the spread of Wampanoag into its attested location might be even more recent: after all, it is quite possible that the location of the Wampanoag language is due to later shift to Wampanoag on the part of speakers of some pre-Wampanoag Algonquian language.
    I can only hope that some of the MacArthur grant money will be used to acquire a small collection of books on historical and comparative linguistics, both general and Algonquian. Present-day tribal members certainly deserve to have at their disposal the tools whereby fact and fantasy can be disentangled.

  4. Yes, all excellent points. She should know better than to say something like that.

  5. I assume the dictionary includes words created to meet the exigencies of modern life;
    I imagine that’s right and that the dictionary itself will clarify, but I suppose I’m wondering about three things: (1) how much spoken Wampanoag differs from literary Massachuset; (2) what proportion of the 10,000 words of the revival language is borrowed from the literary standard either generally or specifically ‘to meet the exigencies of modern life’; and (3) how much the dictionary relies on neologisms derived from Massachuset or even further afield. In short, how specifically Wampanoag-ic the (re)constructed lexicon is. Not so much a doubt, far less a challenge, just wondering.

  6. There is a man called Daryl Baldwin who has done pretty much what Jessie Little Doe Fermino Baird is doing, with the Miami language (not from Miami, Fla but another member of the Algonquian group): like Wampanoag, the Miami language had been extinct for generations but there was ample documentation from missionary days, which David Costa used in order to write a grammar. Daryl met with David Costa, realized that in order to revitalize the language he had to study linguistics himself, got an MA, and has been organizing language courses for tribal members, and raising his children in it.

  7. “Yes, all excellent points. She should know better than to say something like that.”
    It’s a standard trope and it has more to do with moralizing than historical accuracy. You even hear this kind of crap from Lakota and Cheyenne people, when everybody knows perfectly well when they went out onto the Plains and they know we know it.

  8. J. W. Brewer says

    The Algonquian languages are (if wikipedia correctly confirms my very vague recollection) largely polysynthetic. So different dictionary compilers might take different approaches as to what constitutes a “word” worth its own entry. Having more separate “words” listed than the bare minimum number of root morphemes from which everything you might want to say can be generated though the application of various rules could, in some contexts, lead to a more user-friendly result.

  9. Yes, a dictionary of an extinct language for the purposes of revival might very well be composed (however it’s presented) in either direction or both, Wampanoag-English and English-Wampanoag, in which case both lh’s point about modernity and JWB’s point about polysynthesis could readily account for 10,000 entries.

  10. I’m one of the other people helping out with the Wôpanâak Reclamation Project.
    Some of the texts written by native speakers (collected by Ives Goddard and Kathleen Bragdon in their book Native Writings in Massachusett) were produced in territory which is traditionally Wôpanâak, including Jessie Little Doe Baird’s hometown of Mashpee and the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Not surprisingly, we find some differences of vocabulary, and much smaller ones of verbal morphology, between those two communities.
    Eliot’s translation of the Bible is probably the product of work with multiple speakers of slightly different dialects; the verbal morphology, for example, isn’t totally consistent. But most of it matches the language of the Mashpee documents quite closely, both in vocabulary and in grammar. To describe it as ‘literary Massachuset’ therefore strikes me as a little odd.
    Mayhew’s translations of John and Psalms differ from Eliot’s largely in being more polysynthetic, in ways that suggested that Mayhew spoke the language better than Eliot did. This is unsurprising, since by Mayhew’s own account, he learned the language as a child, while Eliot was an adult when he came to Massachusetts (also, I believe that John and Psalms were among the first books that Eliot translated, when his grasp of the language was probably at its weakest). Oddly, Mayhew also reliably uses the Wôpanâak preterite morphology to translate the English past tense, while Eliot uses preterite morphology much less commonly, in a way that matches more closely the way cognate morphology is used in surviving Algonquian languages. Mayhew also occasionally uses vocabulary and verbal morphology that’s reminiscent of Martha’s Vineyard, where he grew up, though we find much less of this in the Mayhew translations than we do in the documents written by native speakers from the island.
    I think the ‘polysynthesis’ explanation for the large number of entries is probably closest to the truth; we have actually constructed very few new words, though we will probably have to do more of that as the project continues.

  11. Thanks, Norvin, that’s a very enlightening comment.

  12. marie-lucie says

    I second LH’s comment.

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