Bringing Back Our Lost Language

by Dr. Frank Waabu O'Brien, Aquidneck Indian Council

An earlier version of this article was printed as “Bringing Back Our Lost Language”
in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 1998, 22 (3):215-222, Moondancer/Strong Woman.


Before the Europeans came to these shores in search of wealth and religious freedom for themselves, about 12,000 Wampanoag Indians lived here in southeastern New England—about 8,000 on the mainland and about 4,000 on the islands. After the King Philip’s War (1675-1676) only about 400 Wampanoag people survived. No one has done a complete history of all these people following the war.

Over the years the forces of blood mixing, enactment of laws, disease, racial attitude, and isolation have disintegrated the looks, language and lore of the First Americans of our region. But Indian culture was never completely replaced by Christianity or European culture. A people do not want to die!

The ancient language of the Wampanoag Indians, and related Algonquian speakers, is called nowadays Massachusett. This language, like most Indian languages, was oral. It was the language spoken by The Massasoit Ousa Mequin, and by Annawan, and all of the Indians that lived in this region.

The Massachusett language has been sleeping since the early 1800s. Even in the early 1700s, some were not speaking fluently the language anymore. Because our ancestors were considered a conquered people and no longer able to practice our culture, the new ways of Europeans slowly replaced many of the old ways. It seems that the parents and grandparents just refused to teach their children the old language, maybe because they saw the pain involved in being Indian in a world no longer theirs.

Eventually the old language fell silent, as did all of the Indian languages across southern New England, from Cape Cod and beyond to the Hudson River. Across Turtle Island—what we call the United States of America—over 125 American Indian languages have become extinct through the harsh lessons of American history. Many more are on the brink of extinction.

Today many people want their ancient Massachusett language back and are willing to work hard to learn a very complicated language. A language is the essence of one as a human being. Knowing the language of ones Native American ancestors makes one unmistakably Indian. Rebuilding the Massachusett language involves intense research and cooperation among Indians, language scholars and others. Next to no funding is available to tribes or Councils who want to bring back their lost language.

The Massachusett Language

Let’s give a brief overview of how the oral language was recorded. In 1620 when the English landed at Plymouth, MA they walked into the abandoned village of Patuxet. The English were on the land of the Wampanoag. When a separate group of English landed in 1630 [first in Salem, MA, then Boston, MA] they entered the land of the Massachusêuck (The Massachuset People or “People of the Great Hills”). The Massachusêuck, the Wampanoag and other indigenous people along the coast, were victims of catastrophic diseases introduced by previous European explorers as early as 1612-1613. The mortality rate reached 90%. This is the main reason why Europeans met virtually no resistance when they came ashore.

Up in the Boston area, the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Company said that the principal aim of the English colony was to “incite” the Native peoples to accept and practice the Christian religion. Certain laws were even passed later to insure that the Indians would accept Christianity and not practice their own religion.

Only the English missionaries took seriously this goal of conversion. One English name stands out above all others in connection with the recording of the language of the Wampanoag and other Algonquian-speaking peoples of southeastern New England. This man was John Eliot, a Congregationalist Minister who came to New England in 1631. Eliot began to learn this unwritten language. He was convinced that only by being able to communicate with native peoples in their own language could he achieve the goal of spreading Christianity to the Indians. One day the local Massachusett Sachem called Waban asked Eliot to explain Christian teachings. Later Eliot and his now “praying Indians” founded a European-styled village at Natick, MA. This village was called a “praying village”. Here Eliot worked with his devoted teacher (and servant of 35 years) Job Nesutan to learn the language. Eliot worked with Job Nesutan and other Indians in translating the Holy Bible into the Massachusett language. The Indian Bible (written entirely in the local Natick dialect of Massachusett) was published in 1663 at Harvard University and a second edition was printed in 1685 (so many Bibles were destroyed in the King Philip’s War, 1675-1676).

Other Indians that made possible the translation and publication of the Bible are John Sassamon, Cochenoe and James Printer. Hardly anyone ever mentions the necessary contributions of the Indians. Without these Indians there would have been no Bible. If Issac Newton, one of the greatest European scientists could humbly claim he stood on the shoulders of giants to accomplish his work, we can say the same of John Eliot and his Indian teachers.

Now, the Indian Bible is not the way Indians spoke the Massachusett language. Like the English language Bible with its abstract language, the Indian Bible was meant to teach the Christian faith which is very different from the Indian religion. But the Eliot Bible is one of the most important primary sources we have for the pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar of the language. In fact, the Massachusett language is perhaps the only language which has any chance of being revived since we know more about this language than any other in the region.

It is ironic that the missionary John Eliot, who came here to destroy Indian culture, actually preserved the language in written form. We must be thankful to the Natick Indian Job Nesutan, and John Sassamon, Cochenoe and James Printer for they ultimately are the safekeepers of our language.

The Narragansett Language

The Narragansett language, once spoken by the Narragansetts, is quite similar to Massachusett. Narragansett was understood throughout New England. Scholars refer to Massachusett and Narragansett as dialects of the same language. Narragansett was partially recorded by Roger Williams and published in his book A Key into the Language of America in 1643. Williams was writing a book so that the English who came here would have a phrase book to use in communicating with the local people. This book is well worth getting. His book seems to give some of the actual speech patterns of the Narragansetts (and the Wampanoag). Williams did a better job than Eliot of recording the sounds of the language.

The Massachusett Language as Written by Indians

Ten years ago a book came out called Native Writings in Massachusett by Ives Goddard and Kathleen Bragdon, two of the top scholars who work on the technical aspects of our language. This book is actually in two volumes. The first volume has writings from Wampanoag Indians of the 1600s and 1700s. The second volume is very technical, dealing with grammar of the language.

Teaching the Language

Last year we published the first book written for Indians on the language. The textbook—Understanding Algonquian Indian Words (New England)—was published with the help of a grant from The Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities (a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities). We give about 1,400 entries in the dictionary part of the book and cover grammar and other aspects of the language at a very basic level for the beginning learner†.

We are recognized throughout the area as knowledgeable about the language. Several years ago (1997) the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities contacted us to provide a Massachusett language translation to be carved on a permanent monument in Providence, RI5. This engraving may be one of the few public testaments of the Indian tongues spoken here for over 12,000 years.

Since the time of our book’s publication, our Council has been preparing many classroom teaching materials on the language. Our efforts at reviving the language involve making up teaching materials to instruct tribal members on pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. These materials along with the book can allow us to teach the elements of the Massachusett-Narragansett language. A second language book—A Massachusett Language Book, Vol. 1—was the result of our recent efforts to bring the language back to our brothers and sisters here in southeastern New England.

The following diagram shows the main sources we use in our research into the language. (Full references are given in References and Sources.)

Go on to Chapter 2: Spirits and Family Relations
Go back to the Algonquian Language Revival Table of Contents

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