Language on TV

Bringing it Back: The Revival of a Lost Language (Thursday Thoughts, March 22nd 2012)

Just a warning: this may be one of my nerdier posts.

Having decided to give up cable when I moved to Virginia, to compensate I now watch a lot of PBS. Living in the DC area gives me about 5 different public broadcast stations from which to choose, and I also have an app on my iPhone that lists the daily schedule, plus previews of the major programs (like Downton Abbey)!

I am a nerd, and I am okay with this.

This past Sunday, I happened to catch a program called Independent Lens. This isn’t one of the shows I normally follow, but in this case the program was, you guessed it, linguistics themed.

Here’s a preview:

We Still Live Here-Preview

It was called We Still Live Here – Âs Nutayuneân, and it was about the revival of the language of the Wampanoag. The Wampanoag were the native people indigenous to the southeastern part of Massachusetts and they were the ones who were instrumental in the survival of the Pilgrims. Their spoken language disappeared due to colonization and disease, but a written record survived (the irony? the written record was made up of two parts: one was the Bible translation used by missionaries to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity, and the other consisted of legal documents which were part of the court system established by the colonizing Europeans whose main goal was to put a sheen of legality over their “purchase” of the Wampanoag’s native lands).

Now, here’s what I thought was cool, and I’m hoping the non-linguists out there will follow me on this. The spoken language has been revived! A Wampanoag woman named Jessie Little Doe went to MIT and worked with the linguists there to use those written documents to recreate the spoken language! Not only did she earn her linguistics degree in the process, but she is teaching her daughter to be the first native speaker in 7 generations.

And it gets cooler!

One of my favorite parts of this movie, made by Anne Makepeace (and containing some really cool animation), was when they talked about how to find the words and pronunciations for terms not found in the written record. Jessie Little Doe used the fact that Wampanoag is part of the Algonquin family of languages, several of which are still spoken today. She would find a known word in another language of this family, and converted the sounds to corresponding ones used in Wampanoag, to recreate the word.

One of the things we learn about as we study sociolinguistics is language death. There are thousands of languages that are currently considered to be “endangered” and many many more that will never be spoken again. How brilliant is it to know that a language, once considered lost, has been brought back to life?

In the interviews, several of the people making the effort to learn Wampanoag as a second language mentioned the connection they felt to their history and their culture. So not only is a language being revived, but also a cultural tradition, full of myths and knowledge spanning thousands of years that would have been gone forever.

Jessie Little Doe: you are a linguistic hero.

One thought on “Bringing it Back: The Revival of a Lost Language (Thursday Thoughts, March 22nd 2012)

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