14 March 2006

Reconstructing Virginia Algonquian

Language Hat notes a NY Times story about the efforts to reconstruct the dead Algonquian language spoken by Powhatan and Pocahontas in order to lend an air of authenticity to the dialogue in the movie The New World.
This family of Indian tongues, in one respect, reminded linguists of the Romance languages. Each was distinctive but as closely related as Spanish is to Italian or Italian to Romanian. Comparisons with related languages revealed the common elements of grammar and sentence structure and many similarities in vocabulary.

A translation of the Bible into the language once spoken by Massachusetts Indians offered more insights into the grammar. The Munsee Delaware version spoken by coastal Indians from Delaware to New York, including those who sold Manhattan, may be dead, but its grammar and vocabulary are fairly well known to scholars.

"We have a big fat dictionary of Munsee Delaware," said Dr. Rudes, who adapted some of those words when needed for Virginia Algonquian. Recordings of the last Munsee Delaware speakers, a century ago, were a valuable guide to pronunciations.

Another research tool was what is called Proto-Algonquian. It is the hypothetical ancestor common to all Algonquian speech, 4,000 words that scholars have compiled from the surviving tongues and documentation of the extinct ones.

The reconstruction involves educated guesses. Strachey set down words for walnut, shoes and two kinds of beast, "paukauns," "mawhcasuns," "aroughcoune" and "opposum." In Proto-Algonquian, similar words are paka-ni (meaning large nut), maxkesen (shoe), la-le-ckani (raccoon) and wa-pa'oemwi (white dog).

From this, Dr. Rudes reconstructed the Virginia Algonquian words pakán, mahkusun, árehkan and wápahshum," or pecan, moccasin, raccoon and opossum.

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