New England Indians loaned many words and place names to the American English language. Now some of them are getting their own language back.
When colonists first arrived in what is now the United States, indigenous people spoke more than 300 languages. Some were so closely related that scholars consider them dialects of the same language. Narragansett, for example, resembled Massachusett, and speakers of one could understand speakers of another.
Sometimes it’s hard to say which loan words came from where. An early 17th century explorer named James Rosier identified the Abenaki word for moose as moosur. But there’s another Abenaki word for the giant animal, mos. Or did it come from the Natick word moos? Or was it Narragansett, moosu, from “he strips,” alluding to the animal’s habit of stripping bark from trees?
Today, there are only about 175 native languages left, according to the Indigenous Language Institute. But the descendants of those who spoke them are still here.
Here are cases of five native people – the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, the Mi’qmaq, the Mohegan and the Penobscot – trying to reclaim their language. Some have pored over antique texts, centuries-old deeds and old notes and diaries from the last speakers of the language. And in the hopes of inspiring fluency among younger generations, they’re using Facebook and websites and podcasts as teaching tools.
It isn’t a task for sissies. The languages, all Algonquian, were all oral and they changed over time. They’ve borrowed words from English, French and each other. It is also very, very hard to figure out how people spoke a language when no one speaks it fluently anymore.
Indians Loaned These Place Names
Along New England’s coast the Wampanoag people spoke the ancient Massachusett language. Other indigenous people also spoke Massachusett, from southern Maine to Rhode Island, though most Wampanoag lived in Massachusetts.
The Wampanoag presence manifests itself in place names like Scituate, towns in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It means “cold brook” or “cold stream.” Other Wampanoag names in Massachusetts include Cotuit, “long planting field”; Cuttyhunk, “thing that lies out in the sea”; Mashpee, “place near great cove”; and Tuckernuck Island, “round loaf of bread.”
The Narragansett were a leading tribe of southern New England when the colonists arrived in 1620. Their language is closely related to Massachusett and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. Nantucket, for example, could come from the Massachusett meaning “in the midst of waters” or the Narragansett meaning “far off among the waves,” linguists say. And the onomatapoeiac word honk for geese is attributed to both languages.
The Narragansett Indians loaned many place names, especially in Rhode Island. Aquidneck, “at the island”; Pawtucket, “at the falls in the river”; Sakonnet River, “home of the black goose.”
Not only did the Wampanoag speak Massachusett, but many native people throughout New England used it as a second or third language, according to Dr. Frank Waabu O’Brien, of the Aquidneck Indian Council.
But by the early 1800s, the Massachusett language had gone to sleep, though the people survive.
“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,” O’Brien wrote.
Disease, war, murder, slavery and blood mixing reduced the indigenous population in New England. Many indigenous languages disappeared because of government policy — and the practice of beating Indian schoolchildren who spoke their own language.
In 1636, Roger Williams and his party stepped onto the banks of the Seekonk River. A group of Narragansett people greeted them with a phrase every Rhode Island schoolchild knows: “What cheer, Netop?”
“Netop” derives from “netomp,” which means “my friend” in Narragansett. Most everyone in New England would have known it in 1636, according to Ives Goddard, in his essay The Use of Pidgins and Jargons on the East Coast of North America.
“Netop” was Massachusett Pidgin, a lingua franca that evolved throughout the region for trade and talks. The very first Plymouth Colony settlers used Massachusett Pidgin almost from the beginning.
Plymouth Colony Gov. Edward Winslow described how certain Wampanoag people “daily converse with us” in his 1624 book, Good Newes From New England. He also described how the Wampanoag then spoke among themselves in true Massachusett – a language Winslow couldn’t understand.
But as the colonists multiplied and began to dominate New England, they had less interest in learning Massachusett Pidgin. A new jargon emerged, one more heavily weighted toward English: Massachusett Pidgin English.
Indians loaned a number of words to these pidgin language,s which became common English words.
Massachusett Indians Loaned These Words
The Wampanoag sachem Massasoit would have spoken Massachusett, which gave the word sachem to the English language. Massachusett also contributed squaw, which evolved into such a slur that people are trying to get rid of it.
Loan words from Massachusetts and/or Narragansett that inspire more affection than squaw include quahog, squash, pumpkin and succotash. Lobster fishermen use menhaden, also called pogy, as bait. The Wampanoag also loaned English skunk and muskrat.
The Wampanoag are still here, living around Boston, Bermuda, Rhode Island and Cape Cod and the islands.
Around 1994, a 30-something social worker named Jessie Lee Baird began having disturbing dreams. In them, familiar looking people in antique clothing spoke to her in an incomprehensible language. Baird, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe realized her ancestors were telling her to reclaim her long-silent language.
Using a modern spelling for Wampanoag, Wôpanâak, she started the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project with the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag tribes.
She later said if she knew how hard it was she wouldn’t have done it. But she did get help from a couple of Puritan ministers.
Eliot and Williams
John Eliot came to New England to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Job Nesutan, his servant, taught Eliot the Massachusett language. With the help of John Sassamon, Cochenoe and James Printer, he translated the English Bible into the Natick dialect of Massachusett. Harvard College published the Indian Bible in 1663. Eliot, by the way, founded the first community of praying Indians in Natick, Mass.
Roger Williams recorded the very similar Narragansett language. He did a better job of getting the way Indians really spoke than the Indian Bible, according to Frank Waabu O’Brien. In 1643, Williams wrote A Key into the Language of America, a phrase book to help newcomers speak with native people.
In addition to those resources, many legal documents, mostly deeds and wills, written in Massachusett still existed. So Jessie Little Doe Baird and[others began poring over those documents. In 1996, MIT got involved when she went to work with the university’s linguists and graduate students. They compiled a dictionary of more than 9,100 words. She returned to Mashpee to teach the language.
Now, Wampanoag people on Cape Cod and the Islands—the Aquinnah, Mashpee, Assonet, and Herring Pond tribes—speak a revived form of the language.
In Rhode Island, the Aquidneck Indian Council worked simultaneously on revitalizing Narragansett, which means “people of the small point of land.” Some member of the tribe live on or near the Narragansett Reservation in Charlestown, R.I.
Frank Waabu O’Brien, a volunteer with the Aquidneck Indian Council, worked ardently for decades to bring back Narragansett. The council had the help of Roger Williams’ phrase book, as well as The Narragansett Dawn, a newsletter published by the Narragansett Tribe in 1935 and 1936. Written by Princess Red Wing and Ernest Hazard, it includes lessons in the Narragansett language.
In 1996, the council published Understanding Algonquian Indian Words, which covers basic grammar and words for the beginner. The council followed it up with classroom teaching materials on pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Then in 2010 O’Brien published Understanding Indian Place Names in Southern New England, which corrects and explains the origins of words the Indians loaned to the region. He showed, for example, how Musquompskut became Swampscott.
There’s even have a Facebook page, Speaking Our Narragansett Language. A typical post explains “NU NA HONCK-OCK” means “I see geese” under a video of geese swimming.
The border between New Hampshire and Maine is the Piscataqua River, an Abenaki name meaning “river branch.” Abenaki is a language subgroup of Algonquian, the group to which all New England languages belong.
The Abenaki people call Maine “Dawnland,” and they call themselves the “People of the Dawn.” The eastern Abenaki people belong to the Wabanaki confederacy, formed sometime around 1680 or earlier. Today the confederacy includes the Maliseet, the Passamaquoddy, the Mi’qmaq, the Penobscot and the Abenaki.
Wabanaki Indians loaned many words that appear on Maine maps, including Ogunquit, Androscoggin, Kennebunk, Machias and the Penobscot River.
The Mi’qmaq named many places in Canada and Maine – Quebec and Aroostook County – for example. They still live there, and they still speak the language.
About 7,000 people speak Mi’qmaq, about four percent of the the nation’s population in Canada, according to the 2016 Canadian census. The Mi’qmaq live in Canada’s Atlantic Provinces and the Gaspe Peninsula of Quebec.
They also live in Maine, where they’re known as the Mi’qmaq Aroostook Band. Many live in Presque Isle. By the 21st century, their language had pretty much disappeared in the United States. Then the Aroostook Band, which numbers about 1,500, decided to revive it.
In 2009, they chose John Dennis, a fluent Mi’qmaq speaker from Cape Breton, to teach their language.
Dennis and others went to Canada to decide which dialect to teach. With 26 different Mi’qmaq reserves, they chose the easiest to read and write. Dennis now teaches basic conversational words and skills to children in Head Start, after school and in adult classes.
Mi’qmaq Indians Loaned These Words
Mi’qmaq Indians loaned some some very common words to the English language.
The Mi’qmaq named the Maine city Caribou, which of course took its name from the reindeer. The word comes from the Mi’qmaq kaleboo, which means “pawer” or “scratcher.” That refers to how the animal kicks away snow to eat grass or moss. Marc Lescarbot, a French writer, heard the word on his 1606-07 expedition to Acadia in 1610 and included it in his book, Histoire de la Nouvelle France.
Another loan word, toboggan, comes from the Mi’qmaq topaghan. The indigenous people used them primarily to slide supplies or people across snow or tundra, and hunters carried big game home on them.
The Mi’qmaq, by the way, made the world’s best-selling hockey stick in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The word hockey, though, comes from the French word hoquet, or “shepherd’s stick,” according to one theory. Some credit the Mi’qmaq with inventing the game. They at least played a version of it.
Bringing Back Penobscot
The Penobscot language was fading in the 1960s when an eccentric self-taught linquist named Frank Siebert bought a house across the Penobscot River from Indian Island in Maine.
The mile-wide island is home to about 600 of the 2,400 Penobscot people in the world today. The reservation, about 90 miles south of Mount Katahdin (another Penobscot name) extends along the Penobscot River to include 15 towns and several unincorporated territories.
When Siebert arrived, only a handful, mostly elderly, Penobscot people spoke their native language. One of the last fluent Penobscot speakers, Madeline Shay, died in 1993.
So Siebert went to work trying to preserve the Penobscot language. In 1980, he won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a Penobscot dictionary. The purpose: “to provide scholars with a better understanding of the language and culture.”
For years, Siebert worked on a Penobscot dictionary. He completed a 1284-page draft (including 49 pages of introduction) in 1984. But he hadn’t made it user-friendly. He made up his own alphabet and didn’t write an English-to-Penobscot section.
Siebert died in 1998. Four years later, the Penobscot Nation designated Carol Dana, one of Siebert’s assistants, as language master. She continues his work, not for the benefit of scholars but so the Penobscot people will speak their language again.
Today, the Penobscot Nation and the University of Maine Folklife Center are working on publishing a Penobscot dictionary based in part on the work of Frank Siebert.
Dana has also published a collection of Penobscot stories, the Glubaska tales, that came to her through anthropologist Frank Speck. Speck, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist, transcribed the stories from a Penobscot storyteller, Newell Lyon. Speck had published the book in English in 1918, but Dana’s work includes a Penobscot version and a new English translation. The book, Still They Remember Me, 1: Penobscot Transformer Tales, Volume 1, was published by the University of Maine Press.
The University of Maine is located Orono, named after Joseph Orono, the 18th-century Penobscot leader who aided the American revolutionary cause. UMaine in 2019 put up bilingual building and road signs on campus – in English and Penobscot.
None of the 8,000 people who work at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn., speaks the Mohegan language fluently.
In 1908, the last fluent Mohegan speaker died. Her names were Fidelia Fielding and Dji’ts Bud dnaca, or Flying Bird. When most of New England’s native people spoke English, she insisted on speaking Mohegan. She kept four diaries in the language, which enabled the Mohegan people to reconstruct the language.
She mentored Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Mohegan woman who studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania with Frank Speck — the man who gave Frank Siebert the Glubaska tales.
Speck had met Fidelia Fielding on a camping trip to Connecticut, and he published several scholarly articles about the Mohegan language and traditions.
After Fidelia Fielding died, a relative gave her diaries to Frank Speck. Speck deposited them in an archive, but ultimately her papers returned to the Mohegan in 2020.
The Mohegan people now seek to reclaim their language through the Mohegan Language Project. The project recognizes that fluency isn’t likely for adults, but hopes the next generation will learn the language. The website features podcasts to hear the language.
With thanks to Alice Gregory, How Did a Self-Taught Linguist Come To Own and Indigenous Language?, The New Yorker magazine, April 12, 2021. Also to The Language Encounter in the Americas, 1492-1800, edited by Edward G. Gray and Norman Fiering.
Caribou By Peupleloup – Own work, FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19224934. Woman at Wampanoag Village By Yuri Long – road_trip-0041.jpg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80016166.
Enishkeetompauog Narragansett, By Sculptor: Peter Wolf Toth / Photo: Niranjan Arminius – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48193312. Gladys Tantaquidgeon By Department of Historic Preservation/The Mohegan Tribe, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37390510. Charles Shay By Romain Bréget – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=95721834.
This story updated in 2023.