Saving a Language
A rare book in MIT’s archives helps linguists revive a long-unused Native American language.
In 1992, Jessie Little Doe Baird, SM ‘00, began having a series of puzzling visions. A citizen of the Mashpee tribe of the Wampanoag Nation, she saw people who appeared to be her ancestors, speaking a language she couldn’t understand. Then one day, she passed a Cape Cod road sign for the village of Sippewisset. Seeing the traditional Wampanoag writing on it, she suddenly realized that her visions were about Wôpanâak, the language that her ancestors had spoken when they encountered the Pilgrims at Plimoth Plantation. According to an old prophecy, Wôpanâak–which the Wampanoags consider a living and animate thing–was destined to go away and then come back. Little more than two centuries after the Mayflower’s arrival, it was, indeed, disappearing; 1833 marks the last documented reference to Wôpanâak’s being spoken. But the prophecy also promised that the language would return when it could be welcomed back. And it predicted that the descendants of those who had broken the circle–the common language linking the Wampanoags to their ancestors–would have a hand in closing it again. In her visions, Baird was asked to go see if the people wanted the language to return.
At her urging, the Mashpee and Aquinnah tribes launched the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project in 1993. The project would lead Baird to MIT, where the stories of a Puritan minister and an eminent linguist would be united across three centuries by a rare book in the Institute’s archives. And that book, which had contributed to the decline of Baird’s ancestral language, would play a key role in the quest to bring it back.
The first story begins more than 300 years ago, when John Eliot, who’d likely taken orders in the Church of England, realized that his Puritan leanings meant he’d never find a pulpit in England. In 1631 the 27-year-old minister immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony; within a year, he’d become the first permanent minister of Roxbury and decided to devote his life to evangelizing Native Americans. He was the first Englishman to make a serious effort to learn Massachusett, the language spoken by local tribes.
Puritans placed a high value on reading the word of God directly, so Eliot decided to translate the King James Bible into Massachusett and teach Native Americans to read. To help him with the nearly 10-year task of translation, he enlisted several Native Americans, including John Sassamon, an orphan raised in Dorchester by an English family who probably converted him to Christianity. Eliot’s teaching method mirrored his own phonetic approach to learning Massachusett. He wrote, “When I taught our Indians first to lay out a word into syllables, and then according to the sound of every syllable to make it up with the right letters … They quickly apprehended … this Epitomie of the art of spelling, and could soon learn to read.”
Eliot regularly reported the progress of his translation to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, which had been founded in England in 1649. In 1658, the society sent Marmaduke Johnson, a professional printer, to the colony. Johnson’s busy wooden press creaked and groaned in Harvard’s Indian College, which from 1655 to 1665 housed and taught five students from New England tribes alongside the sons of English colonists. Aided by Samuel Green and a local Native American (known to history only as James Printer), Johnson printed 1,000 copies of the Indian Bible by 1663. It was the first Bible published in America, its title page reading “Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe up-Biblum God naneeswe Nukkone Testament kah wonk Wusku Testament”–“Entire Holy his-Bible God both Old Testament and also New Testament.”
Eliot wanted the Native Americans to give up the ways of their ancestors and adopt those of “civilized” European Christians; indeed, some of his translations smack of propaganda, such as his use of the native term for a person in charge of indigenous religious ceremonies as the word for “witch.” And his cause was aided by epidemics that ravaged Native American communities, leaving survivors demoralized and disconnected from their culture. By 1675, about 20 percent of New England’s Native Americans had converted to Christianity.
The encroachment of European culture and religion angered the Wampanoag sachem Metacomet, called King Philip by the English. Metacomet was particularly enraged when Eliot’s sometime assistant John Sassamon attempted to convert him at the Englishman’s behest. Sassamon’s body turned up in a frozen pond, three Wampanoags were tried and executed for his murder, and in 1675, the tensions erupted into what became known as King Philip’s War.
By the time English militias crushed the uprising in 1676, most of Eliot’s Bibles had been destroyed; just 37 are known to exist. So Eliot had the Bible reset and published a second edition in 1685. One of at least 53 surviving second-edition copies ended up in the special collections of MIT’s archives, a gift from I. Austin Kelly ‘26.
Wôpanâak, a language almost identical to Massachusett, had not been used for 150 years when the MIT linguist’s chapter of the story got off to its bumpy start. A year after her first vision, Baird helped organize a meeting of Mashpee and Aquinnah tribe members interested in reclaiming Wôpanâak. She was somewhat taken aback when a man who was clearly not a citizen of either tribe addressed the assembly on the possibilities of using native-language texts to rediscover the lost language. She’d never met Ken Hale, who spoke more than 50 languages and had an uncanny ability to absorb new ones quickly. And she didn’t know that he was a tireless advocate for cultural preservation who believed that letting a language go extinct was like “dropping a bomb on a museum.” So when he made an absent-minded error in discussing Wôpanâak, Baird pounced on his mistake and made it clear that he wasn’t welcome.
Two years later, Baird got a fellowship to study at MIT. Seeking an advisor, she discovered that the professor whose research interests matched hers was Hale. Given her earlier inhospitable behavior, she was apprehensive about making an appointment to see him. But Hale, who remembered the incident well, apologized for what he called his own rudeness. Their effort to restore Wôpanâak to its 17th-century richness began immediately. Thus Hale (a descendant of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams) and Baird (a descendant of Nathan Pocknett, an 18th-century Wampanoag opposed to the colonists’ missionary work) became collaborators and close friends.
To relearn vocabulary and grammar, they compared MIT’s copy of the Eliot Indian Bible with the King James Bible from which it was translated. They also examined other 17th- and 18th-century Native American texts, including letters, petitions to the government, other legal documents, and about 20 of Eliot’s religious tracts. And they compared these examples with other languages in the Algonquian family, a group of roughly three dozen languages that includes Wôpanâak. The dictionary of Wôpanâak that Baird started compiling with Hale in 1996 has burgeoned to 10,000 words.
Since receiving a master’s degree in linguistics in 2000, Baird has spent much of her time teaching Wôpanâak to citizens of her nation. She has also written 17 books, including Wôpanâak storybooks, phrase books, workbooks, and prayer books. Out of about 4,000 Wampanoags, an estimated 200 have taken a Wôpanâak class, and seven are fluent. And Baird is raising her three-year-old daughter, Mae Alice, to be bilingual, making her the first native speaker of Wôpanâak for seven generations. Teaching her people to speak and read Wôpanâak, she says, “is like taking care of your family.”
Hale retired from MIT in 1999 but continued to consult with Baird and his MIT successor, Norvin Richards, PhD ‘97, a specialist in Native American and aboriginal Australian languages. Hale lived to see the 2001 publication of The Green Book of Language Revitalization in Practice, a fieldwork manual he edited with Leanne Hinton. And just before he died of cancer that year, he told Baird that helping the Wampanoags restore their language was one of his proudest accomplishments. At his memorial service, eulogies rang out in Navajo, Hopi, and Warlpiri. Baird offered a prayer in Wôpanâak.
“Chills just overtake you,” said Tobias Vanderhoop, a member of the Gay Head Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal council, describing to an AP reporter what it felt like to hear the language spoken. “You know your ancestors can understand it. So it is a very powerful thing.”
Baird, Richards, and others hope that enough people will become fluent in Wôpanâak to make the language self-perpetuating. They know that preserving endangered languages is vital to studying the acquisition of speech, since different languages illuminate this innate capacity in different ways. But like their mentor, Ken Hale, they also see such restoration efforts as vital to maintaining indigenous cultures and preserving their literary wealth for future generations. “There are jokes that are only funny in Maliseet, and there are stories that only make sense in Lardil, and there are songs that are only beautiful in Wôpanâak,” Richards says. “If we lose those languages, we lose little pieces of the beauty and richness of the world.”
Read an article on how linguists revive a long-unspoken language according to associate professor Norvin Richards, PhD ‘97.