Coining New Words Key to Revitalizing Native American Languages

WASHINGTON — It was a thrilling find for a then-graduate student in linguistics: While conducting research in Jesuit archives in Quebec in 1999, Michael McCafferty discovered a previously unknown manuscript – a dictionary of the Myaamia-Illinois language, handwritten by a 17th century Jesuit missionary.

Comprising some 22,000 entries, the manuscript has played a key role in helping the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma revitalize a language not spoken in generations.

In Massachusetts, linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts and co-founder of the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, is also working from old documents to restore a language that died out a century ago.

“We have the largest collection of Native-written documents in North America,” she said, explaining that 17th century missionaries worked with the tribe to create an alphabet and translate the Bible and other works.

“The Wampanoag people quickly took the convention of writing and used it as a tool to protect themselves where land transactions and other things were concerned,” Baird said. “We’ve been plugging away at this for about 25 years and now have a dictionary with roughly 12,000 entries, compiled just from those early documents.”

Today, the tribe boasts two credentialed linguists and a Wopanaak immersion school for preschool through first grades, which Baird hopes will expand in the future.

Read more: Voice of America

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