Thanksgiving tribe’s lost language is revived

Give and take: An artist’s impression of the original Thanksgiving feast in 1621.

Should we revive dead languages? As Thanksgiving approaches, the descendants of the Native Americans who originated it are remembering how to speak like their ancestors…

In the autumn of 1621, the story goes, the Pilgrims sat down with the Wampanoag people at Plymouth and feasted. They are said to have shared turkey, waterfowl, venison, pumpkin, squash and more. So America’s tradition of Thanksgiving was born.

Wampanoag culture did not fare as well. Over the years, the tribes were decimated by wars and diseases. Many of their traditions were forgotten; by the 20th century, they no longer spoke their own language. But that is changing.

In 1993, Jessie “Little Doe” Baird dreamed that she was among familiar people who spoke strange words. Baird, who belongs to the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Cape Cod, took this as a prophecy: she had to bring back the Wampanoag language. Working with expert linguists, she reconstructed the spoken language from written documents.

Today, Wampanoag has a dictionary of 13,000 words and a grammar book. It is taught to a few dozen people in the community — including, crucially, children. Ethnologue, a reference guide to the world’s spoken tongues, classifies it as one of just a few “reawakening” languages.

Languages are dying fast. There are many reasons for this, such as globalisation and government policies. But while a lot of effort is made to save “endangered” languages, it is very rare for a dead one to be revived.

A notable exception is Hebrew, which had been out of use for two millennia when Zionists decided to resurrect it as the vernacular of modern-day Israel. As the language of Jewish scripture, Hebrew held great symbolic value for those trying to create a Jewish state.

There are more modest examples too. In Cornwall, a determined group of people are trying to reintroduce Cornish. The last native speaker is thought to have died in 1777, but it is now used on street signs and heard in some households.

However, the future of Cornish is now in doubt: the central government cut funding for the language last year. Reviving languages costs money, after all. Is it really worthwhile?

Ny gonvedhav

No, say some. These efforts display a misunderstanding of how language works. Tongues are constantly dying out, while new ones are being born. Those that disappear were simply not needed anymore — bringing them back is just pointless nostalgia. The money and effort would be better spent on getting people to learn useful languages.

Language is about more than just communication, reply others. It gives you access to unique literature, history, and ways of thinking. As one student of Wampaonag puts it, learning her ancestral language “gives such a broader perspective on [my] culture”. People like the Wampaonag lost a lot through the centuries. It is only fair that they get to recover some of it.

You Decide

  1. If you could speak one (more) language fluently, which would you choose? Why?
  2. Would the world be a better place if we all spoke one language?

Activities

  1. One word in the story above originally comes from Wampanoag (apart from “Mashpee” and “Wampanoag”). Try to guess which. (Answer given in Q&A)
  2. Split into 10 teams, and each pick one of the extinct languages in BuzzFeed’s article in Become An Expert. Learn 10 words from that language by next week. Present them to the class, along with a brief history of the language.

Some People Say...

“Language is the dress of thought.”

Samuel Johnson

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Ethnologue counts 7,099 living languages. But that number is shrinking: it is estimated that one dies out every two weeks. Meanwhile, a mere 23 languages are spoken by half the world’s population. Mandarin has the most native speakers.
What do we not know?
How accurate 7,099 is. New languages are still being discovered by linguists, and it can take a while to register the deaths of old ones. It also depends on how you define a language. Experts continue to debate the point at which two dialects (variants of one language) become two different languages. Some define it as when speakers of the two can no longer understand each other. But that is not always true: speakers of Danish and Swedish, for example, can hold conversations.
What is the answer to Activity 1?
Squash!

Word Watch

Pilgrims
From England, one of the first groups of European settlers in North America.
Plymouth
The site (in modern-day Massachusetts) where the Pilgrims founded their first colony.
Written documents
Wampanoag has a big trove of historical documents. These include land claims, the personal diaries of tribal chiefs and a bible translated by the missionary John Eliot in 1663.
Government policies
Governments in many countries discourage or ban the use of smaller languages, generally on the principle that one common language helps communication. Of course, they have political reasons too: an attack on a language is an attack on the power and status of a minority.
Out of use
As an everyday spoken language, that is. Hebrew continued to be written (and read aloud), mostly by religious institutions.
Cornish
Closely related to Welsh and Breton (which is still spoken in the northwestern French region of Brittany).
Last native speaker
It is not clear exactly how much Cornish the fishwife Dolly Pentreath could speak. But accounts from the time agree that she could swear in the language.

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