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New England Algonquian Language Revival

a series of articles by Dr. Frank Waabu O'Brien, Aquidneck Indian Council

Table of Contents

Chapter I: Bringing Back Our Lost Language
Chapter II: Human Beings and Family Relations
Chapter III: Animals and Insects
Chapter IV: Birds and Fowl
Chapter V: Fish and Aquatic Animals
Chapter VI: The Human Body
Chapter VII: Corn & Fruits & Berries & Trees
Chapter VIII: Heavens, Weather, Winds, & Time
Chapter IX: Algonquian Prayers and Texts
Chapter X: Spirit Names and Religious Vocabulary
Guide to Historical Spellings and Sounds


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 individual essays.

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, Pawtucket 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. 1. The broad white lines show tribal territories (ancestral homelands). A black square indicates a modern non Indian town. A large bold-type name refers to an Indian Nation (e.g., Massachusett), the smaller bold-type names indicate tribal subdivisions (e.g., Neponset), present day State boundaries are indicated by dashed lines — - — - and State names are capitalized (e.g., MASSACHUSETTS), and geographical features are italicized (e.g., Atlantic Ocean). Source: Bruce G. Trigger (Volume Editor), Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15 (Northeast), © 1978. Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution (Page 160). Used with permission.

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.

Copyright © 2005 by Francis J. O’Brien, Jr., 12 Curry Avenue, Newport, RI 02840-1412, USA. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the author. Printed in the United States of America.

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.


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