Washington: A Dead Indian language is brought back to life.
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Jan 21 17:21:24 UTC 2007
A Dead Indian Language Is Brought Back to Life
Relic of Va. Past Re-Created for Film
By David A. Fahrenthold Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, December 12,
MATTAPONI INDIAN RESERVATION, Va. -- "Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe.
Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak." In his house overlooking the silvery Mattaponi
River, Ken Custalow said the words over and over until it drove his wife
crazy. Until she yelled from the next room: Have you memorized that thing
yet? Custalow, 70, a member of the Mattaponi tribe, was preparing to give
a blessing at a powwow for Virginia Indians in England, part of the events
commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Colony. He was
nervous. He would be speaking -- and some of the audience would be hearing
-- his native language for the first time. Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe, he began
the salutation. "Great Spirit . . ." Then: Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak. "All
nations . . ."
The words came from a language that once dominated coastal Virginia,
including part of what is now suburban Washington. Pocahontas spoke it.
Tongue-tied colonists littered our maps with mispronunciations of it:
Potomac, Anacostia, Chesapeake. Then, sometime around 1800, it died out.
But now, in a story with starring roles for a university linguist, sloppy
17th-century scribes and a perfectionist Hollywood director making a movie
about Jamestown, the language that scholars call Virginia Algonquian has
come back from the dead. The result, for Virginia Indians such as
Custalow, has been a stunning opportunity -- to speak in words that their
grandparents never knew.
"It was absolutely awesome," Custalow said. "To think, 'Golly, here was
the language that my people spoke.' " The language they spoke was just one
of several in Virginia before colonization. Its home territory probably
included the lower Eastern Shore and the coastal plain between Hampton
Roads and the Potomac River, experts say. The Virginia it described is
hard to superimpose on today's. It was a place where bears and elk roamed,
where life alternated between stints at farming villages and seasonal
migrations for hunting and gathering. Then Europe landed on its doorstep.
Language was one of many casualties.
"It is a natural process that happens to small communities," said Helen
Rountree, a professor emerita at Old Dominion University who has studied
Virginia tribes. "They had to go out and speak English to do all sorts of
ordinary things." Without everyday use, Virginia Algonquian withered. The
same thing happened across the continent. Of perhaps 400 Indian languages
spoken in North America in 1500, about 45 are in common use today, one
expert estimated. The Virginia language left behind those mangled place
names (somehow " Nukotatunuk," the tribe living in the modern-day
District, became "Anacostia"), as well as a few words absorbed into
English, like " raccoon," "pecan," and " tomahawk."
A few traces survived among Virginia Indians: Chief Anne Richardson of the
Rappahannock tribe said her family didn't use the word "bread." "My
grandparents and my parents would say, 'I'm making up apone,' " she said.
The old Algonquian word had been "apon." Corn pone shares the same
linguistic link. For the first half of the 20th century, the loss of their
language was a minor concern for Virginia Indians. They were often lumped
into the "colored" side of a segregated society, barred from jobs and
schools, and many moved away. By the 1970s, though, discrimination had
eased, and interest grew in the old Algonquian language.
Researching it was not an easy task. The best source was a list of Indian
words and their meanings compiled by a Jamestown colonist in the 1600s.
But it had been recopied by some of the 17th century's most incompetent
scribes. Their N's looked like A's, which looked like U's, and they had a
serious problem with spelling. The Algonquian word for "ants" had been
mislabeled as "aunts," and the word for "herring" had become "hearing."
Then Hollywood entered the picture. In 2003, director Terrence Malick was
preparing to film a movie about Jamestown, "The New World," which ran in
theaters in late 2005 and early this year. Blair Rudes, a linguist at the
University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was hired to translate dialogue
for Pocahontas's people.
Rudes started with the Colonial-era word lists and scholarly work and
filled in the linguistic blanks using better-known Algonquian languages
from all over the Eastern Seaboard. His task was a bit like trying to
rebuild modern Spanish using only a few pages from a tourist phrasebook,
plus Italian. One scene with three pages of dialogue took him a month. But
the director loved it. He wanted 50 scenes. Rudes translated in his hotel
room for two weeks solid. At the end, people were speaking entire
sentences in Virginia Algonquian -- or at least a linguist's best guess at
it-- for the first time in 200 years. "In order to do it, you don't think
about that," Rudes said. "Then, when it's all over, you look back and say,
'Wow, I just re-created a language.' "
Among other things, his work has helped to dispel one of the area's most
widely held beliefs: that "Chesapeake" means something like "Great
Shellfish Bay." It doesn't, Rudes said. The name might actually mean
something like "Great Water," or it might have been just a village at the
bay's mouth. Linguists are interested in the language's tendency, much
like modern German, to mash together so many prefixes and suffixes that an
entire phrase or sentence is summed up in a single word. " Rappahannock,"
for instance, contains elements that mean "back," "current of water" and
"place." "Place where the water comes back" -- it means a river moved by
the tides. "What are the possibilities for how humans can organize their
thoughts and present them?" said Ives Goddard, an Indian language expert
at the Smithsonian Institution. "Here's another blueprint, another bag of
For the descendants of Algonquian speakers, who account for seven of
Virginia's eight state-recognized Indian tribes, the interest is more than
academic. At Rudes's request, the movie studio made his work from the
movie available to them. " Win-KAW-poe nee-TAWP," Chief Robert "Two
Eagles" Green of the Patawomeck tribe -- a group in Stafford County
without state recognition-- can now say in his talks to school groups.
Hello, my friend."It kind of awakens them a little bit to the fact that
everybody in America didn't always speak English," he said. Some tribes
have started teaching children pieces of the language; others say they
want adult classes. "I would like to see it as a restored language . . .
to be spoken in its fullness," said Richardson, the chief of the
Rappahannock tribe. "I don't want it partially restored. I want it fully
A glimpse of the future might have come this summer in Great Britain, at a
powwow the tribes held in the town where Pocahontas is buried. This was
what Custalow had been preparing for: In the end, he didn't trust himself
to memorize the strange syllables, so he brought along a cheat sheet.
Custalow said he did it flawlessly, ending the prayer with the Algonquian
word "NAH-daych." The crowd responded with the same word in English: Amen.
Visitors tohttp://www.washingtonpost.com/metrocan click on some of the
words in this story and hear Prof. Blair Rudes pronounce the modern word,
then its Virginia Algonquian equivalent.
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