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.


  1. Passamaquoddy, with 500 speakers, is in pretty good shape, actually. There is a healthy base to build on. (more on Passamaquoddy and Malecite at, a generally neat site for Native language resources, but so far only covering the Algonquin languages and Cherokee.
    Hard core revival projects are going on in California, among the non-reservation Hupa, for example ( and Maidu, for whom the last speaker is a non-indian linguist, Bill Shipley ( A lot of times, these projects – and there are a lot of them – fail to succeed simply because they are not set up as efficient language teaching/acquiring courses. The most successful seem to be the ones that immerse pre-schoolers in a “language nest” system. But this is what you can see on an BBS aimed at Iroquois language (
    “Salamanca has been teaching Seneca in the schools for over 25 years. There still is no speakers from that situation. Parents will proudly say that their child/ren are learning Seneca language. If you look closely you discover that these children (K-5) are receiving instruction for a half an hour every six school days. This scheduling is convenient for the school district but hardly ensures future Seneca speakers.”
    That’s not how you should teach a language to kids, much less “revive” one.

  2. See, that’s what I like about having this site, I can find out about things from people who know far more about them than the Times. Thanks, zaelic!

  3. I’m torn on language revival. As an aesthete and (passable) linguist, language variety is beloved to me, but I recognize the fact that for 99.99% of the world, language is a practical matter of communication and socialization. I find many revival efforts to involve heavy-handed guilt about culture abandonment, and that’s unfortunate.

  4. Guilt doesn’t really play a part in many cases. A lot of people may mourn the “passing” of Yiddish, for example, but they can still maintain a sense of a “Yiddish” community without it. The Armenians of Transylvania have been losing their language for a century and a half – it is about to lose its last speakers – but still maintain their sense of “Armenian-ness” and its institutions. In the case of something like Calabrian Greek in Italy the language will pass due to a lack of cultural context to butress it. It is mainly learned from songs linked to religious festivals. In all cases, the language serves to define a unique community. Lose the language and – in certain cases – the community follows.
    In some cases the circumstances that make a language die out are external, as in most Native American languages. Check out the web site of the Ioway Cultural Institute for a linguists’ description of how one language fell into obscurity. / The revival of Wampanoag in Martha’s Vineyard is an interesting case of how a revived language has added to a stronger concept of what “community” means, while the Miami language in Indiana is being revived from point zero by Daryl Baldwin ( Language demographics are misleading as well – maybe on 600 people speak Koasati in Kinder, Louisiana, but that is 95% of the tribe. Mississippi Choctaw is doing well – children learn it, while Choctaw in Oklahoma is struggling. Kickapoo is still spoken by all of the Mexican/Texas band, while their cousins in Kansas have to worry about revival courses. ( but then, even there, the classes are short.
    The fact that these languages are being taught in a desultory, lax manner is symptomatic of all foreign language teaching in the US. Face it – most Americans do not acquire a second language in school. It’s rather pathetic that even Universities are dropping language reqirements. That’s why the rather radical “immersion” programs work best.
    Truth is, a lot of these revival programs are not going to success, while each one that does should be credited as something of a miracle.

  5. Very nice blog, been dropping by occasionally. I did want to make a few comments about this.
    This is not specifically aimed at anyone, but one has to be careful making the perfect the enemy of the good in this. For many endangered languages, complaints that the lack of intense lessons or the absence of overarching goals of fluency are often offered by some as justification for not teaching languages. The struggle that some groups have in having school systems take their language seriously enough to introduce them as subjects that deserve attention has been enormous and marks a reawakening of pride in one’s culture, so from that standpoint, a once a week 30 minute lesson is very important. Also, for many groups, the language will serve a ceremonial function, so that community activities can be carried out with the ‘proper’ opening and closing speeches and the like. While holding up the goal of total fluency in all realms is unrealistic, this sort of language usage is still important.
    One also should keep in mind the attitude that one would take with a child taking up a musical instrument. If the child says that they want to play piano like some famous pianist, you don’t start in on explaining how unlikely it is that they will ever reach that level of performance, so why don’t they spend their time on something realistic. I don’t mean to say that endangered language communities are like children, but just to point out that we accept much lower returns for our children, because we know that the journey to get there is just as important as the eventual goal.
    I’d encourage any of your readers to get involved in some of the organizations that are doing work with endangered languages. Here are a few
    The Foundation for Endangered Languages
    Endangered Language Fund

  6. Hi all — I grew up in Passamaquoddy/ Maliseet/ Penobscot /Abnaki territory but the only language I ever heard spoken other than English was Quebecois (though we did have a steady diet of Glooskap stories). Zaelic’s point about the difficulty of artificially reviving a dying language is well taken, but I can’t help feeling that it’s a good sign for those communities that someone is trying. I’m wondering, are there any lessons to be learned from the reintroduction of Hebrew as a vernacular in Israel? Obviously it’s got a life of its own now but I’m curious if anyone’s studied the process of getting it off the ground. I know very little about this subject and would love to be enlightened by those who know more.

  7. There is an anecdote about Eamon DeValera, the Irish Prime Minister asking Israeli PM Abba Eban about what the Hebrew revival could teach Gaelic revivalists. Eban replied “We had to learn Hebrew.” There wasn’t really any choice. Unlike most small endangered languages, Hebrew had the weight and support of a state behind it. And it was revived at the cost of pushing many smaller local Jewish vernaculars into extinction.
    Regarding Joe Tomei’s point, I think that while cultural pride is important, a lot of these children are getting a half-baked language learning experience. It can take as much time and effort to teach a language badly as to teach it efficiently. Those same kids will be expected to pass tests in french or spanish in High School, so why should the target native language be taught as a “cultural hour” where the kids memorize lists of words when so many better pedagogical methods exist? The Hawaiian Language Nest experience is a case in point – there were only a few native-speaking Hawaiian children left to help other, non-fluent students in the schools. The schools actually began before recieving state accreditation in order to get a mix of children including some who had been raised with Hawaiian in their homes. If the immersion programs had to wait to get accredited then that opportunity would have been lost. And they actually did succeed.
    When I read about Richard Grounds’ projects maintaining the Yuchi language in Oklahoma ( get the sense that maintaining these languages is similar to maintaining natural resources. When they are gone they ain’t coming back, and then there is a domino effect of cultural erosion. And Grounds does things for his Yuchi language group like organizing weekly Yuchi pot luck dinners and maintaining a community vegtable garden to be farmed in Yuchi.
    Ian Fraser, in his book “On The Rez” talks about how Indians are often criticized for “not getting with the program.” He says it is comforting to know that some people choose not to adopt the “fake smile of the service employee” and maintain an autonomy from mainstream mass culture, even if it means living in poverty or isolation. It is a sense of cultural payback to see people from these communities taking back command of their language’s fate.

  8. Regarding Joe Tomei’s point, I think that while cultural pride is important, a lot of these children are getting a half-baked language learning experience.
    As opposed to full baked learning experiences? ;*)
    Being a throughly cynical teacher, I think that almost any formalized teaching situation is going to be largely half baked, and any program in the US is, as you note, going to suffer from the various problems of foreign language teaching in the US. But I’m also hesitant to complain about teaching techniques, given that what was yesterday’s hot new trend is today’s derided fad.
    (As an aside, Arts & Letters Daily has a lead on an article that goes “How can the CIA recruit skillful spies when any Hungarian headwaiter knows more languages than U.S. doctoral students in comp lit?” The article is not about language learning, but it is a telling point)
    But also remember that there are a number of rather unique problems faced by tribes with a small number of members. First, they are trying to overcome the notion that anything that constituted their cultural heritage was not ‘scientific’ enough to be included in formal education. In fact, a lot of language learning programs often are ‘hollowed out’ in that the generation of grandparents are teaching their grandchildren, because the parents have often developed such strong affective barriers to learning the language.
    Furthermore, when you have this situation, the tight web of social relationships can make it difficult to hire the best teacher. Some have gotten upset, deriding rez life as full of nepotism, but any small community confronts these problems if they value human relationships.
    Also, Hawai’ian has the advantage of a very simple phonology, the floating presence of lots of Hawai’ian words in pidgin, and a large (and perhaps growing) younger demographic that picked up on Hawai’ian as a badge of identity (it is possible to listen, at least 4 years ago, to AM stations in Hawaii and hear the DJs drop in Hawaiian words, phrases and hold call in contests for name that word in Hawaiian) It also had the example of Maori, where the notion of language nests started, which shares a lot of cultural traits with Hawai’i (I had to go back an add the apostrophes/glottal stops to Hawai’ian when I realized that I had left them out after typing Hawai’i)
    I love Fraser’s book, and it’s only someone with such a keen sense of the absurd (as can be judged by his hilarious essays) can understand what Native Americans face everyday. But I didn’t take away the idea choosing cultural autonomy means poverty and isolation, but that it means not being attached to what ‘civilization’ values, which I would include ‘efficiency’ in language teaching techniques, based on homogeneously populated language classes. I don’t disagree that we should try to identify language teaching techniques that are best, we should be very aware that what works is not always going to be what ‘we’ (by which I mean the academy) thinks works.
    To move this into the question of xiaolongnu’s, I’d recommend the works of Joshua Fishman for information about the revival of Hebrew and of other European minority languages. However, the situation of those languages is quite different than the situation of almost all, if not all native American languages, in that the population base of such languages (as well as the tolerance/support of bilinguality in Europe) gives them a much greater access to resources.

  9. Joe, all points well made and accepted. I used to live in the US, and now live in the very same country where those aforementioned headwaiters outperform US doctoral candidates. Hungary has a pretty antiquated system for teaching foreign languages, and in fact is about to enter the EU as the most monolingual of member states. However, those waiters and others learn languages out of necessity. Few US learners of language “have to” learn a foreign toungue. I used to work at the Boston University Geddes Language Center, so I was exposed to a lot of different teaching methods. And fifteen years in Europe has shown me that it is not by luck or chance that a Dane or a Dutch teenager can speak four languages without blinking an eyelid.
    The point is, the Hawaiians learned from the Maoris that this system “worked”. Other groups need to use systems that work. Ken Hale knew how to train native linguists in systems that “work”. It can be done. The usual US “hour a week is all we can afford” is OK, but OK doesn’t produce speakers. In the case of endangered languages, if there is going to be funding to vitalize a language, it is an urgent priority that these teaching programs be better than the ones used to simply glide through the US school systems by passing French 102 exams.
    There is a young linguistics student at Harvard now, Bruce Stonefish, who is from the Munsi Reserve at Moraviantown, Ontario. The Oklahoma Lenapes lost their last few fluent Unami speakers over the last two years, but there still are about ten speakers of Munsi at Moraviantown. Stonefish is working hard to inspire enthusiasm for Lenape descendants to learn the language. He gets some flack for teaching Lenape to various “non-official” Lenape groups like the Nanticoke of Delaware, but the man has the right idea and backs it up with real language training. A few more folks like him and Richard Grounds and we will have a few more generations of linguistic diversity.

  10. What a great thread of comments!
    I hope I’ll be excused for veering off topic a bit, I found an anecdote on one of the sites zaelic linked to that was too good to pass up, recounted by a linguist who was working on Maidu. It’s a little cheesy, but oh well 😉

    Me: Mrs., Gallagher, how do you say ‘brain’?
    Maym: That’s ono’m huni’m.
    Me: Oh, ono’m humi’m! How poetic!
    ‘Head’ is ono’m and ‘heart’ is huni’m! So, ‘brain’ is literally ‘heart of the head’!

    Myam looks at Lena, who’s sitting nearby, and laughs.

    Me: Why are you laughing?
    Maym: No, no. It’s not humi’m, it’s huni’m! Huni’m means ‘snot.’ Brain is, literally, ‘head snot.’

    We all three laugh. We take a giant step toward real friendship.

  11. Someone above mentioned the work of Joshua Fishman — actually, his research addresses language revival in both European and Native American contexts. (His term for it is “reversing language shift.”)
    Those interested should definitely take note of two landmark books of his: “Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical foundations of assistance to threatened languages” (1991 [I think]) and “Can threatened languages be saved?: Reversing Language Shift, revisited” (2000 [again, I think]). Both include essays on languages around the world and in a variety of states of disrepair.
    The case of Yiddish, which I know something about, is particularly interesting, involving as it does a struggling, mostly secular Yiddish-speaking community (of which I am a part) and a thriving (if also threatened), ultra-Orthodox community of Yiddish speakers.

  12. The poet Ray Young Bear (Winter of the Salamander) apparently writes his poems in Mesquaki ( = “Sauk”, = “Sac [and Fox]”), spoken in Tama Iowa) and then in English.

  13. I’m not sure what the etiquette is for keeping comment threads alive, and given my luck, I’m probably over the limit. But anyway, as much as I respect Fishman’s work, I feel that he has made a model that applies reasonably well to language endangerment in Europe, and is simply ramping it down to apply to native American communities. I don’t think this works because endangered languages now have three overlapping but relatively distinct groups. The first is larger minorities such as Yiddish, Basque, Welsh, even Cornish, whose speakers have some recourse to political power within the system, which is Fishman’s original research. The second group are what has been termed 4th world groups, which lack political representation within their own nations (Australian aboriginals, Ainu, and to a certain extent, Native American groups, though the recent court cases based on treaty agreements and various casinos, etc. have given them access to more resources than 4th world groups traditionally have) The final group, which is the subject of some argument, are those ethnic minorities living in other countries whose children are losing their language. For example, Turkish gastarbeiter in Germany have argued that Turkish is an ‘endangered’ language because their children are not learning the language, which then prevents, for example, them from returning to Turkey to find suitable marriage partners. On one hand, I think this is a stretch of the endangered label, on the other hand, the problem they are facing is quite similar.

  14. I’m probably over the limit
    No, no, no! I love this comment thread, and hope it keeps going a good long time! (I also love it when I see ancient threads appear in the “Recently commented on” section; it’s nice to know they aren’t moldering away unseen.)

  15. Interesting stuff, Joe. I’m happy the keep the thread cooking.
    I know some German-born Turks whose command of Turkish is pretty basic, who identify themselves as “Berliners” but hesitate to consider themselves German. On the other hand, a lot of Kreuzberg identifies openly as Kurd, something not quite practical in Turkey, while the proto-nationalist developement of a written Laz (SE Black sea Mingrelian Muslim) language is happening in Germany, not in Turkey. (There is the old joke dating from the fall of the Wall: What is the difference between a Turk and an ‘repatriated’ Transylvanian Saxon? The Turk speaks German and has a job.)
    Back at the primordial dawning of time (Carter was President… how we miss him…) I was a Boston U. undergraduate anthro student with the great fortune to have Dennis Tedlock as my advisor. He would push his students to immerse themselves in”ethnopoetic” translation projects in oral cultures, and so I was running around Boston transcribing Vietnamese jokes, Garifuna recipes, and how Bolivians cheat in card games by code-switching to Quechua. It’s amazing how even in Boston you could find Micmacs, Black Caribs, speakers of Cuban Lucumi Yoruba, Pontic Greek, displced Mayas, you name it.
    Like our host, L-hat, I never got The Degree, but when I came to East Europe in the late 80s I got involved in collecting Yiddish oral traditions, mainly songs, in Hungary and Romania. Heck, I lead a klezmer band , and I didn’t have access to YIVO. The lessons I learned from working with American linguistics (from the “salvage anthropology” of Frank Speck or Harrington,to the language activism of Ken Hale) defined how I approached the situation of my own community’s language. Once I was talking with a Yiddish linguist who moaned that the communities of Yiddish speakers in east Europe were so small. I replied that a communityy of 200 speakers is pretty robust. Heck, Shawnee has had about that many speakers for a generation. They wouldn’t want to hear that they are a “small tribe”. Any California langauge with 200 speakers would be considered quite robust.
    The situation for Yiddish was similar to that facing Native American languages – a dwindling population of elder speakers, a middle aged generation with passive knowledge of the language, and a younger generation who had often discouraged from learning the language in order that they not be “held back” by it. Meanwhile, there was a younger urban generation – some were Jewish, but overwhelmingly these were non-Jewish intellectuals – in the universities during the early 1990s who couldn’t get enough of Yiddish. I used to fling them old copies of the NY Yiddish Forwarts like an Eskimo (oops! An Inuit) tossing frozen fish to his sled dogs. The ELTE University Yiddish course, however, produced only one speaker that I know of – Vera Szabo, who now teaches Yiddish in the US. Today it is no longer taught due to lack of interest.
    I was raised with Yiddish, but after my parents stopped using it when my mother learned English (she, however, addressed us kids in Hungarian, my father had an English-only policy) and after my Grandparents passed away I thought of it as a despised gutteral German dialect. It was only after moving to Hungary that I started to realize how much of Yiddish culture is embodied in the language. Luckily, I spent a lot of time with elderly Jews in Romania, where I could use my vestigial yiddish with native speakers without recourse to falling back on English in a conversation. My Yiddish isn’t really elegant, but I can still get corrupt ex-communist Jewish city officials in Moldavia to find me rooms in overbooked hotels with it.
    The lesson I learned is that small languages – endangered language communities – are as vibrant as any other speech community, but they have a shorter sell-by date. So why not take the plunge and keep them alive by whatever means possible? That means keeping communities alive. That ain’t easy, but it ain’t impossible.

  16. Hey zaelic,
    One thumbnail bio deserves another. I did an undergrad in Linguistics at the Uni of Southern Mississippi that worked only because I was able to substitute a raft of other classes and then cram in the requirements in my last year. Taught english in France and Spain and then returned home. Got in the JET program (A jpnese gov program that placed callow youth in schools in Japan) in its first year and did 5 years on the program. Returned to the US and did linguistics at U of Oregon. Started on the TESL track with an idea of teaching hs Japanese, and got interested in endangered languages. Imagined that I would get a PhD and live below the poverty line working in a reservation education office, but met my future wife, who hailed from Hokkaido. Finished the MA and was able to get a position at Hokkaido University and thought about doing something with Ainu language restoration, and return to do my PhD, but one thing led to another and I ended up finding a tenured job here in Kumamoto. I’ve been fortunate to get in touch with a number of japanese researchers who deal with small languages and I’ve tried to keep up with what’s happening, though a 4 year old daughter is doing her best to keep me occupied elsewhere. I’ve just become membership secretary for the Foundation for Endangered Languages, but am still struggling to use Access (I’m a mac person)
    I’m Japanese-American and my father was born in Hawaii and was the 7th child, so has a passive knowledge of japanese, but he hated J-school so much that he promised himself he’d never put us through it. So your point about Yiddish language and culture rings true.
    To make a big jump to the notion about small communities, you are right, small communities can be more vibrant, which is one reason that I find myself attracted to them. But I think that one difference is that (please correct me if I’m wrong) that the Yiddish communities (and other urban european langauge minorities?) were/are not intimidated by education, where as a lot of the small NA communities are.
    I like the ‘shorter sell-by date’ notion and I agree that we need to keep these communities alive. I also think that we need to be aware of the unique problems that exist for each community. A rough division by continents, so, for instance, that communities based in the US have to struggle much more with an assumption that monolinguality is the default state, or in Africa, where the ‘local’ language is opposed to the language of globalization (french or English) and small languages are endangered by clumsy attempts to resist globalism which the ‘local’ language then trumps language preservation issues. A further division by nations, a further division by etc. Though we can look for commonalities in approaches, we must start with the recognition that each language must be dealt with as an individual challenge.
    Of course, the issue that I skirt around but you address head on is the question of identity, which is something that occupies a lot of my thoughts, given that I am a US citizen in Japan, and my wife is Japanese and my daughter is going to have to ‘choose’. The NA communities have a special problem in that they are bound by tribal laws set to limit the number of people who are actually members (and therefore eligible for benefits from the government) These sort of tensions can tear a small community apart, and white society has always excelled at divide and conquer.
    An old, but interesting handout by Randy LaPolla at City UniHK is here
    which has more info. I’d love to know more about the situation with Yiddish (any Yiddish blogs?) and any other points or insights you may have.

  17. My story is less interesting than Joe and Zaelics. However, when I was a HS ESL teacher I caught the Hmong students passing around this handwritten chapbook sort of thing. Before it disappeared I observed that it seemed to be written in 4-line stanzas. (Most of the Hmong had become literate in their native language in the camps; a few were literate in Lao also). I’m pretty sure it was a lyric cheat book for singers and I immediately thought of the Chinese Book of Songs, specifically the lewd “Songs of Cheng”. Independent sources in the biz confirmed that Hmong society expects teenagers to play around a bit before they marry — the teaching assistant said something funny about how the Hmong have adopted motels into their courtship rituals (along with vodka and Newport cigarettes at the wedding feasts).

  18. Joe: What is the situation with Ainu language these days? My girlfriend, who is from Tokyo (and can now actually follow converstional Yiddish by now, in addition to having learned Hungarian and Romanian. She needs to work on her Romani) tells me that it is mostly being learned by non-Ainu in Universities.
    Monolingualism may be a big factor in the US, but that isn’t going to be unique. Italy and Spain are remarkably monolingual as well. Most Nigerians I know are shockingly multilingual. You are right that the cultural milieu will define the tolerance of multilingualism. I spent this last summer in Turkey, and it was fascinating to watch the contexts by which groups of people would suddenly switch language – once the ferry leaves Istanbul on the way to the nearby Princess Islands 90% of the passengers start speaking Armenian or Greek, and the Turks suddenly feel in a minority. Not to mention Kurdish – I was staying with Kurds who would code switch constantly accordion to topic. And although turkey has some pretty draconian laws concerning language, minority language use seemed pretty common.
    Incidentally, one of the best pages on the web to get a real teach-yourself taste of a Native American language are the Creek pages at Fascinating language, and not as intimidating as many NA languages.

  19. I too would like to know more about the Ainu situation.

  20. OK, I’ll try and write something up this wkend, but I did want to pass on this email from Sholem Berger, which was:
    No points or insights here, but I couldn’t resist pointing out to you my own Yiddish blog, at
    It’s got links to other Yiddish blogs on the left. A particularly noteworthy and well-written example is “Katle Kanye”, who you can easily Google.

    OSX renders the Hebrew font, and armed with a few web pages ( and are two) you’re ready to play “find the cognate”. Cool!

  21. Excellent. Here‘s the direct link to Sholem’s blog.

  22. The situation of Ainu
    First of all, apologies for repeating things that you may already know, but it is always preferable to lay out as much as possible.
    Endangered language situations are always glass half empty/full, so it is always a tightwire act. My take will be on the pessimistic side, but it shouldn’t be thought of as reflecting on the people’s efforts.
    In _Multilingual Japan_ (1995) Joseph DeChicchis has an enlightening essay on the state of Ainu in Japan and first notes that there is a disjunction between Ainu ethnics and those who speak Ainu, which is exacerbated by the increasing availability of language courses. This is further increased by the anxiety that many older Ainu feel about identifying themselves as Ainu.
    In 1997, the Ainu restoration law was passed, which was modeled to some extent after the efforts in the US and Canada for supporting Native American languages. This also coincided with a flowering in Japan of NGO (non-governmental organizations) because of some changes in the laws to make them possible.
    It’s important to understand why Ainu was in a more precarious position than the equivalent North American languages. At the end of the Meiji Restoration, Japan turned to the west for models to emulate. Given that the US was dealing with an indigenous population, and that Hokkaido was considered to be the ‘frontier’, it was only natural that Japan use the American experience in drafting their own laws concerning the Ainu. In fact, the law concerning the Ainu, called the Hokkaido Former Natives Protection Law (Hokkaido Kyudojin Hogo), has numerous sections that are simply direct translations of portions of the Dawes Act and other American laws dealing with Native Americans, especially sections about schooling and assimilation.
    While the American law had as its focus assimilation, and all of the provisions of the law were guided by that, but in the US, the Native Americans had the counter balance of treaty agreements and actual territory. The Ainu did not have this, and so, were unable to escape the assimilationist nature of the legislation, which coupled with the aggressively peer conscious nature of Japanese society, was deadly. For example, the Dawes Act authorized payments to Native Americans, as the Japanese law did. But in Japan, these assets were held by the prefectural goverment in ‘trust’
    When discussion about diversity began to take root, Japan began to emulate other countries. Some would argue that this sort of diversity corresponds with a sort of faux exoticism, propelled by touristic and mythic considerations. But the end result was that in 1997, The Law for the Promotion of the Ainu Culture (Ainu Bunka no Shinkou narabini Ainu no dentou nado ni kansuru chishiki no fukyuu oyobi keihatsu) was passed, which authorized monies for projects in Ainu culture and language. This has a good side and a bad side. The good side is that soon, a large number of efforts began to be funded, restoring a certain measure of pride to the community. A bad side is that the money was spent haphazardly, with efforts not only duplicated, but tripled and quadruplicated. This was to be expected, given that there was not a lot of organization (as well as some dissension) within the groups that represented the Ainu.
    So currently, I would typify the situation as widespread, but with shallow roots. This should come as no surprise, as Japanese, on the whole, have never maintained an realistic attitude to language teaching and learning. But a complaint is that the money channelled into Ainu studies goes to museum preservation and activities that don’t really affect the Ainu. The Ainu have always had the problem of being, because of discrimination, confined to lower social classes. There are special programs for getting Ainu heritage students into universities, but these aren’t successful because many don’t want to identify themselves as Ainu. So the observation that universities often are home to Ainu classes, which leads to the disjunction that DeChicchis points out. This may change when the court cases challenging the government’s valuation of land seized from the Ainu, though my observational experiences with the japanese court suggest that it would require a complete sea change in attitudes for the Ainu to be granted a favorable ruling.
    One of the most interesting developments is the formation of study groups for Ainu in the major cities, centered around Ainu who have relocated . This is parallel to the phenomenon of urban Native Americans (who, because they have relocated are often stricken from tribal rolls. A similar phenomenon can be seen in the Maori exodus, where educated young Maori tend to become expatriates)
    For an idea of the types of Ainu projects that are funded, go to
    The Foundation for Research and promotion of Ainu Culture (FRPAC) is the main channel for these efforts [2024: now
    My own feeling is that the Ainu position is very precarious until they have a ‘safe place’ that would include some sort of semi-autonomous region, but given current Japanese attitudes, that is not going to happen.

  23. Many thanks — your take on the situation sounds pretty convincing.

  24. A facinitating blog – I found this archive because I was doing a search on my father-in-law Allen Sockabasin. While I may be just a “bean counter” from a mixed up european background I’m pleased to see that many are keeping the languages alive. In many ways I imagine language is like this blog – it starts in one place – but ends in a far distant place. Is evolution of language such a bad thing?

  25. Glad you found it! This is why I hesitate to cut off comments on old posts, though it would help the spam-comment problem. And evolution of language is great; it’s extinction of language that’s bad.

  26. Joanne Light says

    Dear Language Hat,
    Very interesting. My grandparents were Hungarian immigrants to Canada. The language was lost for my father and for me. I later taught some Toronto kids whose father was Hungarian . Every Saturday they attended Hungarian Language School sponsored by the Hungarian community in Toronto. They’re retaining their father’s native language through the private efforts of citizens. I’ve worked in native schools in Mi’kmaq, Cree and Ojicree communities. The kids love their native language classes the best. It’s where they get a cultural connection with a teacher who speaks their own language, not like the classes with unilingual teachers (like me) of their other language, in this case, English. I sincerely hope Mr. Sockabasin’s work is progressing and finding roots in the school system.

  27. ktschwarz says

    That’s a really good discussion of marginalized languages above.

    This very New York Times article was quoted by the OED when they revised Passamaquoddy in 2005. That revision also updates the etymology from

    Micmac, = ‘place where pollack are plentiful’, with reference to Passamaquoddy Bay.

    to the more precise

    < Maliseet-Passamaquoddy pestəmohkatíyək, plural of pestə́mohkat, literally ‘person from the place where pollack are plentiful’, with reference to the Passamaquoddy River and Bay between southern New Brunswick and eastern Maine. The first element matches Micmac pestəm pollack rather than Maliseet-Passamaquoddy peskətəm in the same sense, suggesting that the place name was originally Micmac. Compare French †Pesomcady (1692).

    The Times reporter opines:

    Tribal elders tried to preserve Passamaquoddy orally through the years, but English often seeped in, tainting it.

    Yeah, purism is the enemy of language vitality.

    Here’s an optimistic update from 2012: the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary was completed and published by the University of Maine, and they got funding for a project called Language Keepers:

    Volunteer fluent speakers, or “facilitators,” convened groups of Passamaquoddy-speaking friends and guided them through the project. The groups talked for an hour or two at a time, only in Passamaquoddy but about anything they wanted, sometimes while doing things like picking berries or playing cards. All this was filmed, but speakers said they often forgot they were being recorded. Many conversations were held in places meaningful for the speakers, and these places prompted memories and sometimes language.

    Then the groups gathered to watch their recorded conversations and choose interesting sections. These segments were subtitled in Passamaquoddy and English, and published on the portal and on learning DVDs. Now there are ninety-five videos, ranging from 15 seconds to 16 minutes long, in which speakers discuss porpoise-hunting and cranberry-picking, talk about spiritual experiences and tell childhood stories. In the online version, many subtitles include hyperlinks to the words’ dictionary entries, which, in turn, provide lists of other videos where the words occur. Levine hopes these cross-references will help people see how ideas relate in culturally specific ways, as when people trapping muskrats discuss first the animals themselves and then flagroot, a plant they eat, and its medicinal uses.

    That online version is the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Language Portal, hosted by the University of New Brunswick.

  28. Thanks very much for the update (and for reviving this, as you say, most interesting thread)!

  29. ktschwarz says

    Another relatively recent update: from 2019, an NPR story on Historic Recordings Revitalize Language For Passamaquoddy Tribal Members, about the transcription and interpretation of wax cylinder recordings from 1890 by present-day Passamaquoddy speakers. The Library of Congress had sent cassette recordings taken from the cylinders back to Passamaquoddy elders in the 1980s, but they were very scratchy. It’s only in the last decade that the recordings have been digitally read out and enhanced to cut down the noise level. These recordings can be heard at the Library of Congress site (both enhanced and un-enhanced), and at the Passamaquoddy Peoples’ Knowledge Portal with some transcriptions.

    (The recording anthropologist, Jesse Walter Fewkes, can also be heard speaking in the extinct 19th-century-upper-class-Northeastern accent.)

  30. The link in the text  *ttp:// is a new site. The correct name is Ainu Folk Culture Foundation, a public interest incorporated foundation.

  31. Thanks, I’ve emended the comment accordingly.

Speak Your Mind