Native Americans spoke as many as 300 languages at one time in history. But centuries of conflict, forced removal and forced assimilation killed half of the languages.
Bringing back a dead language is a big job, but making sure it survives is just as much work.
Jessie Little Doe Baird is a co-founder of the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project. The award-winning linguist is also a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in the American state of Massachusetts.
In the 1600s, Wopanaak, the language of her ancestors, was spoken by tens of thousands of people in southeastern New England. Baird said missionaries worked with the tribe to create written alphabets in order to translate the Bible and other books.
She said the Wampanoag people welcomed the idea of writing and soon “used it as a tool to protect themselves” during land deals and other situations.
“We have the largest collection of Native-written documents in North America,” she said.
Baird said her organization has been working for about 25 years to bring back the language that died out a century ago. It has put together around 12,000 words from those early documents.
Today, the Wampanoag have two expert linguists and a Wopanaak language school for small children, which Baird hopes will expand in the future.
Creating new words
For a language to survive, it has to be passed on to the next generation. And that means making the language likeable to young people by creating new words and phrases.
“The Wampanoag pretty much do what English speakers do,” Baird said. “Communities borrow words, and if somebody at some point decides that something is important, they will give it a name in that language.”
Some tribes would rather not borrow, said James Andrew Cowell. He is a linguist at the University of Colorado. Cowell is working to preserve Arapaho, an Algonquian language native to a large area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.
Cowell is interested in keeping Arapaho culture and the structure of the language unbroken. He gives some examples.
In Arapaho, the word for computer translates as ‘It knows everything.’ And there is also a way to turn verbs into nouns. Cowell said, “So, ‘I am typing on the ‘It knows everything’ means ‘I am typing on the computer.’”
The word in Arapaho for Facebook is "gossip," and for Twitter is "little gossip."
Creating new words and expressions is not new to tribes, said Ben Black Bear. He is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Tribe and founder of the Lakota Studies Department at Sinte Gleska University in South Dakota.
“Back in the early 1900s when they first established the reservation,” he said, “we Lakota had to create words for all kinds of new things we had never seen until the Europeans came — wooden houses, clothing, the automobile.”
Often, the tribe did this by describing an item’s qualities.
“The apple did not exist in nature before we met the Europeans, so we had to create a word," Black Bear said. "When you bite into an apple, the inside is sort of like wet snow. So, we combined the words for wet snow (spanla) and fruit that has skin (tha) to come up with a new term, 'thaspan.'"
Today, Black Bear and other Lakota linguists meet every year for a summer language development program. In addition to taking a class in developing new words and expressions, the linguists debate and approve new words just as their ancestors did.
“Once we come up with a new term, we put it out there for the community,” he said. “If people like them, they’ll use them. It’s not up to us.”
More help to come
In 1990, the United States Congress passed the Native American Languages Act to provide money and programs to help tribes bring back their languages.
Recently, the National Endowment for the Humanities, a government agency, and the First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit organization, announced financing to support language efforts in 13 tribes across the country.
Among the awards: The Wampanoag in Massachusetts will receive $90,000 to help expand their language school by another three school levels.
I’m Susan Shand. And I’m Alice Bryant.
Cecily Hilleary reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
assimilation – n. the act of causing a person or group to become part of a different society or country
linguist – n. a person who studies language and the way languages work
alphabet – n. the letters of a language arranged in their usual order
translate – v. to change words from one language into another language
type – v. to write with a computer keyboard or typewriter
gossip – n. information about the behavior and personal lives of other people
reservation – n. an area of land in the U.S. that is kept separate as a place for Native Americans to live