This monograph contains 11 self-contained brief treatises, listed in the Table of
Contents. These chapters comprise material on linguistic, historical and cultural studies of
the extinct American Indian languages of southeastern New England. These Indian
languages, and their dialects, were once spoken principally in the States of Rhode Island
and Massachusetts. They are called Massachusett
and Narragansett. These Indian
tongues are a subset of a larger group of about three dozen Indian languages called the
Algonquian language family.
The manuscript summarizes work over the past decade relating to the
documentation, analysis and reconstruction of these lost and sleeping American Indian
languages. The primary focus is comparative Algonquian vocabulary and elementary
grammatical structures, derived from the scholarly linguistic and anthropological literature,
oral tradition, and the authors own (hypothetical) reconstructive contributions.
Our objective is to reach a diverse audience interested in these old Indian
languages. As such, my approach is quasi-historical, linguistic and phenomenological.
Each chapter contains vocabularies and extensive grammatical notes relating to
individual topical areas. For example, the paper in Chapter III, “Animals & Insects,”
shows translations and glossary notes for about 100 names for Animals & Insects taken
from the extinct American Indian Algonquian languages of southeastern New England,
Narragansett and Massachusett. Comparative linguistic data are selected from the Pequot
language, Ojibway, Abenaki or
Wampano for purposes of comparison, or when existing
terms for biological species were not recorded by the missionaries documenting the Natick-
Massachusett or Narragansett languages. Reconstruction of such words in Natick-
Massachusett or Narragansett may be modeled on these terms from similar Algonquian
languages. Occasionally the author suggests his own reconstructions for words never
recorded by the Colonial missionaries.
Published and unpublished authors and commentators, both Native and non-Native,
disagree on the time period when these American Indian Algonquian languages became
“extinct.” Estimates range from 1 to 2 centuries ago, depending on the definition of
“extinct” used. What is believed to be certain is that no one living today has heard a
speaker express themselves as a fluent speaker in those languages and dialects that once
filled the Algonquian villages, wigwams, woods, fields and mountains in those parts of
America called “New-England”. No extinct American Indian language has ever been
brought back to life, as was the case with the Hebrew language in Israel.
The major European names associated with the recording and documentation of the
vocabulary, grammar and dialogue of mainland Narragansett and Massachusett are the 17th
and 18th century Rhode Island and Massachusetts missionaries; i.e., Roger Williams
(Narragansett Language), John Eliot (“The Apostle to the Indians”, Massachusett, Natick
Dialect), Josiah Cotton (Massachusett, Plymouth-Cape Cod dialect), and others listed in
As would be expected, the extant Colonial records and documents from this period
leave much to be desired from a modern perspective. The data and information are scanty,
ambiguous, inconsistent, and prevalent with “noise”. However, the heroic efforts of the
Christian missionaries who attempted to translate the Bible, record the vocabulary,
grammar and dialogue of a people who spoke a language vastly different from the
European Romance tongues, must be respected. And their works are what must be used as
significant inputs into any extinct language revival efforts.
Figure 1, below, shows the historic ancestral homelands of the major Indian nations
and tribes in southern New England (the gray-shaded region).. Here we see what are
believed to be the Indian Nations who spoke fluently some dialect of the Narragansett and
Massachusett languages: Pokanoket Nation (Wampanoag), Massachusett Nation, Nipmuck Nation,
Figure 2 displays a reconstructed map of Colonial Rhode Island, from Rider (1903). This map is interesting
because it documents a substantial number of Rhode Island Indian place names no longer
in existence in contemporary government data bases. Approximately 2/3 of Indian place
names on this map have been lost to time.
Fig. 2. Old Colonial Map of Rhode Island. Courtesy of The Rhode Island Historical Society Library.
More detailed historical and other technical information may be found in
Vol. 17 of The Handbook of North American Indians, edited by Dr. Ives Goddard, Senior
Linguist, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
About the Author
Frank Waabu O’Brien (Dr. Francis Joseph O’Brien, Jr.) is an historical consultant. He
has Indian Status from the Abenaki Nation (Sokoki and St. Francis bands). Waabu is
the former President, Aquidneck Indian Council, Inc. He is a member of and has served
as Council Secretary, The Rhode Island Indian Council, and is currently a Tribal Member
of the Dighton Intertribal Indian Council. Waabu graduated from Columbia University
with a Ph.D. degree, doing a dissertation on applied linguistics. Waabu is an elected
member of the New York Academy of Sciences. He was presented the American Medal
of Honor in 2004 by the American Biographical Institute. In 2005 he accepted the
International Order of Merit (IOM) from the International Biographical Centre of
Cambridge, England. Waabu is a disabled veteran from The Viet Nam War Era, and
makes his living as a career civil servant mathematician for The Department of Defense.
This project was funded [in part] by the National Historical Publications and Records
Commission (National Archives and Records Administration), The Rhode Island Council
[Committee] for the Humanities/National Endowment for the Humanities, Expansion Arts,
a joint program of the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and the Rhode Island
Foundation, The Rhode Island Indian Council, and the Aquidneck Indian Council.
We acknowledge the assistance of our Principal Humanities Scholars, Tall Oak , and
Karl V. Teeter . We also acknowledge the
guidance, support and love of the late Slow Turtle, Supreme Medicine Man of the Wampanoag Nation.