Researchers and linguists piece together dead language
"Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe. Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak. " In his house overlooking the silvery Mattaponi River, Ken Custalow said the words over and...
The Washington Post
MATTAPONI INDIAN RESERVATION, Va. — "Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe. Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak."
In his house overlooking the silvery Mattaponi River, Ken Custalow said the words over and over until his wife yelled from the next room: "Have you memorized that thing yet?"
Custalow, 70, a member of the Mattaponi tribe, was preparing to give a blessing at a powwow for Virginia Indians in England, part of the events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Colony. He was nervous. He would be speaking — and some of the audience would be hearing — his native language for the first time.
"Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe," he began the salutation. "Great Spirit ... " Then: "Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak."
"All nations ... "
The words came from a language that once dominated coastal Virginia. Pocahontas spoke it. Colonists littered our maps with mispronunciations of it: Potomac, Anacostia, Chesapeake. Then, sometime around 1800, it died out.
But now, in a story with starring roles for a university linguist, sloppy 17th-century scribes and a perfectionist Hollywood director making a movie about Jamestown, the language that scholars call Virginia Algonquian has come back from the dead.
A sampling of words from the language of Pocahontas.
English: Hello, my friend
Virginia Algonquian: Winkapew, nitap
Phonetic spelling: win-KAW-poe, nee-TAWP
English: I eat
Virginia Algonquian: numicin
Phonetic spelling: nuh-MEE-cheen
Virginia Algonquian: Petawamuk, meaning "trading place"
Phonetic spelling: peh-tah-WAH-muck
Virginia Algonquian: arehkan
Phonetic spelling: aw-REH-kahn
Virginia Algonquian: tumahak
Phonetic spelling: tuh-mah-HAWK
Source: Blair Rudes, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
The result, for Virginia Indians such as Custalow, has been a stunning opportunity: to speak in words that their grandparents never knew.
"It was absolutely awesome," Custalow said. "To think, 'Golly, here was the language that my people spoke.' "
The language they spoke was just one of several in Virginia before colonization. Its home territory probably included the lower Eastern Shore and the coastal plain between Hampton Roads and the Potomac River, experts say.
The Virginia it described is hard to superimpose on today's. It was a place where bears and elk roamed, where life alternated between stints at farming villages and seasonal migrations for hunting and gathering.
Then Europe landed on its doorstep, and language became one of many casualties.
"It is a natural process that happens to small communities," said Helen Rountree, a professor emerita at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., who has studied Virginia tribes. "They had to go out and speak English to do all sorts of ordinary things." Without everyday use, Virginia Algonquian withered.
The same thing happened across the continent. Of perhaps 400 Indian languages spoken in North America in 1500, about 45 are in common use today, one expert estimated.
The Virginia language left behind those mangled place names as well as a few words absorbed into English, such as "raccoon," "pecan" and "tomahawk."
A few traces survived among Virginia Indians: Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock tribe said her family didn't use the word "bread."
"My grandparents and my parents would say, 'I'm making up 'apone,' " she said. The old Algonquian word had been "apon." Corn pone shares the same linguistic link.
By the 1970s, interest in the old Algonquian language began to grow.
Researching it was not an easy task. The best source was a list of Indian words and their meanings compiled by a Jamestown colonist in the 1600s. But it had been recopied by some of the 17th century's most incompetent scribes. Their N's looked like A's, which looked like U's, and they had a serious problem with spelling. The Algonquian word for "ants" had been mislabeled as "aunts," and the word for "herring" had become "hearing."
Then Hollywood entered the picture. In 2003, director Terrence Malick was preparing to film a movie about Jamestown, "The New World," which ran in theaters in late 2005 and early this year. Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was hired to translate dialogue for Pocahontas' people.
Rudes started with the Colonial-era word lists and scholarly work and filled in the linguistic blanks using better-known Algonquian languages from all over the Eastern Seaboard. His task was a bit like trying to rebuild modern Spanish using only a few pages from a tourist phrasebook, plus Italian. One scene with three pages of dialogue took him a month.
At the end, people were speaking entire sentences in Virginia Algonquian — or at least a linguist's best guess at it — for the first time in 200 years.
"In order to do it, you don't think about that," Rudes said. "Then, when it's all over, you look back and say, 'Wow, I just re-created a language.' "
A glimpse of the future might have come over the summer in Great Britain, at a powwow the tribes held in the town where Pocahontas is buried. This was what Custalow had been preparing for: In the end, he didn't trust himself to memorize the strange syllables, so he brought along a cheat sheet.
Custalow said he did it flawlessly, ending the prayer with the Algonquian word "NAH-daych." The crowd responded with the same word in English: Amen.
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