Friday, October 8, 2010


by Sheila Connolly

I’m one of those dinosaurs who still reads a daily newspaper—yes, one of those paper ones. I know it’s possible to read it on line, but the process of skimming on-screen is entirely different. I like to pick and choose what I skip and what I read in detail.

I find such interesting articles (which now and then actually lead to story ideas). I’m still mulling this one over: an article that appeared a week ago in the Boston Globe about a MacArthur Foundation grant made to a local Massachusetts woman. You’ve probably all heard of the MacArthur grants—they’re the so-called “genius” grants of $500,000 each. How nice it is that somewhere a committee thinks that someone who has a good idea should be rewarded.

This grant was made by the Foundation to preserve a dying language. I have a soft spot for languages: I’ve been studying Irish for the past five years, and while I’m still terrible at speaking it, at least I understand more than I used to. My father’s parents were both born in Ireland, but for various reasons I never knew them, and I have always hoped that by learning the language I could understand them and their culture a bit better. And as a writer, I think it never hurts to listen to how a language is spoken—the inflections, the sentence patterns, the vocabulary choices. Plus the Irish have traditionally been a race of bards and poets, and I’d like to hope that a little of that has come down to me.

The newspaper article was about a language even more obscure than Irish: Wampanoag. It’s a language used by the Indians who were living in my neighborhood (literally) when the first colonists arrived, who fought those settlers in King Phillip’s War, and who can still be found in parts of Massachusetts (in fact, they toyed with opening a casino in my town, and still hold an option on over 500 acres of land). The director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, Jessie Little Doe Baird, is the grant recipient.

Even though the language is not in current use, and hasn’t been since late in the nineteenth century, it lives on in a lot of New England place names. The Wampanoag tribe, now much reduced in numbers, does make consistent efforts to sustain and pass on their cultural traditions. Baird will use the grant to record surviving records in Wampanoag, and will try to establish a school where children can learn the language. She has been teaching her own daughter to speak Wampanoag since birth—possibly the only child to do so for more than a century.

In a peculiar twist, I knew something about the Wampanoags before I ever moved to Massachusetts. When I worked at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, I was asked to write a brief pamphlet about the dramatic actor Edwin Forrest (1806-1872), whose collections were housed there. One of Forrest’s efforts to support his craft was to sponsor a play-writing competition beginning in 1828. The first winner was John Augustus Stone, whose submission was Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags, which Forrest produced and starred in for many years. (Sad to say, despite this success Stone committed suicide by jumping into the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia a few years later.) The play was based on the life story of the Wampanoag chief Metamora.

I think we all are impoverished when a language vanishes forever. Any language reflects the values and character of its speakers, and I salute Jessie Little Doe Baird for fighting for her heritage, and the MacArthur Foundation for supporting her.


Ron Scheer said...

Just within the past 1-2 days there was a new story about a new language discovered, in the Himalayas. The story reported that of the 6900 languages spoken in the world, half will be extinct by the end of the century.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Fascinating post, Sheila. I've been researching and writing about the Taino, the "Indians" who greeted Columbus, who say (on various websites) that reports of their extinction have been exaggerated, though they're reconstructing the language very slowly, one word at a time. I'd heard the name Metamora before because the play is mentioned by Louisa May Alcott--if I remember right, by Jo's stagestruck niece Josie in Jo's Boys.

Sandra Parshall said...

We lose a culture when we lose its language. Any effort to preserve a dying language is worthwhile, IMO, because it means preserving a piece of human history.

MaxWriter said...

As a former linguist, I was so happy to see that story. Another MacArthur grantee is a linguist who works on sign language. There's a movie you can rent called The Linguists, that tracks a couple of guys who go around the world recording dying languages. It's important work.