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
and stories.
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.)


  1. Well, there seems to be no doubt that the chain of transmission via L1 acquisition is broken, and that whether the correct number of full native speakers is twenty-odd or zero, it’s damn small. (Zero would be consistent with all the remaining supposed native speakers being in fact either semi-speakers or word/phrase rememberers.) As one of the people in the linked articles remarks, we have the language, but we’ve lost the meaning behind it.
    Indeed, Eastern Algonquian is in very poor shape generally, as is all of Algic except the Cree, Ojibwa, and Plains families, not that they are exactly thriving either.

  2. This seems to be quite an old article – Conor graduated two years ago.

  3. SnowLeopard says

    Odd. A search on Ethnologue for “Penobscot” yields Abenaki; a search for Abenaki on Amazon yields “New familiar Abenakis and English dialogues”, whose “View it now” back cover says the language is “seriously endangered”, but spoken in more than just Maine. (As an aside, I recall that Abenaki was co-opted on those few occasions my Vermont boy scout troop wanted to solemnize an initiation with a code word; but I’m not suggesting that counts, nor am I persuaded that they got the word (which I forget) right anyway.) Also, the examples you’ve listed have far thicker consonant clusters than either the snippets in the Amazon view, or spot comparisons I just made with Cree, Micmac, and Blackfoot, all of which seem to prefer longer, better-aerated constructions. All the more reason to preserve, teach, and document this one, I suppose.

  4. krselrmzl – is it possible to explain simply to me how this transliteration (or rather, I suppose, rendering into a written form)can come about ?
    One vowel in nine letters simply doesn’t make sense to me, and I find it hard to believe it accurately reflects the pronunciation, however “consonant heavy” the language may be.

  5. The book SnowLeopard found (which is from 1884 and also in Google Books) gives what is presumably the same word as kezalmel. So perhaps the r is Ə and the z some other vowel.

  6. SnowLeopard says

    Also available on Google Books is “The Abenaki Indians, Their Treaties of 1713 & 1717, and a Vocabulary”, which indicates that Penobscots as well as Kennebecks were signatories. The signatures, starting at p. 25, are worth a look.

  7. Claire, the DownEast article is current.
    Unfortunately, the web version fails to reproduce the phonetic characters used in the print version.
    MMcM is correct about r is Ə. And, z is &#945 (alpha).

  8. See also pronuciation chart here (scroll down past the Google ads):

  9. I know virtually nothing about Penobscot, and very little about Croat, but I’d like to point out that Croat manages to have words that are apparently vowelless (like the Adriatic island Krk, for example), because r acts as a sort of vowel.

  10. Yes, and Georgian has words as long as the Penobscot one with only one vowel, but it makes more sense that r is Ə and z is α.

  11. marie-lucie says

    The technical term for the r in Krk or Brno is “syllabic”. This is quite common for sounds like r, l, m, n, witness the final -le (pronounced just l) in English bottle or little.

  12. On the ‘page’ it looks like backwards English. An odd effect.

  13. A remarkably memorable word. I immediately connected it with Donald without being able to recall why. (Vive la Google!)
    The connection is Maine.

  14. I should note that there are a few languages which have syllables that lack vowels entirely, even semivowels like /r/. Nuxalk (Bella Coola) is an example. The verb /xɬp’χʷɬtʰɬpʰɬːskʷʰts’/ means “he had a bunchberry plant”, per Hank Nater (1984). Wikipedia has a few more examples.

  15. Abenaki is a closely related algic language facung a lot of the same fate as Penobscot. A good site with an interesting on-line documentary about the language revival effort is at

  16. I figured this topic would bring you, zaelic!

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