MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences soundings
Fall 2004 [ Previous issues ]

Jessie Little Doe Fermino displays pedagogical materials for the Wpanak language.

The Wôpanâak language—common tongue of the Wampanoag Nation, a group of native American tribes that farmed and fished along the coastline of eastern Massachusetts in centuries gone by—was once a familiar sound on the banks of the Charles River.

The language gradually died out, however, and there have been no native speakers of Wôpanâak for more than a century. Today, the language is experiencing a rebirth, thanks to the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and the work of MIT graduate Jessie Little Doe Fermino and MIT linguistics professor Norvin Richards.

Weeyaqutumuwôk (wee-yah-kwuh-tuh-moo-wonk)
n. A discussion; speech about some particular topic.

Sun kun8tam weeyaqutumuwôk?
Do you hear the discussion?

The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project was founded in 1993 by the Wampanoag Nation, and takes advantage of an unusually large number of extant manuscripts in Wôpanâak (which translates as "People of the Dawn") to reconstruct the grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary of the language. The texts include a 1663 translation of the Bible by John Eliot—the first complete Bible in any language published in the Western hemisphere—and a number of legal documents written by native speakers. The project also studies similarities with better known languages in the Algonquian family. For example, Wôpanâak (like other Algonquian languages) is based on words constructed from lots of smaller parts: wÔk, the ending of the word above, is a common suffix that forms nouns from verbs.

MIT's involvement in the project began in 1996, when Fermino, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, began working with the late Ken Hale, a renowned MIT scholar of linguistics. Fermino now teaches classes in Wôpanâak in Mashpee and on Aquinnah (Martha's Vineyard), including an immersion course in which only Wôpanâak is spoken. Richards, who began working on the project in 1999, is collaborating with Fermino on pedagogical materials for the language, including a dictionary and a textbook. In addition, several of Fermino's students are currently working on the first translations of children's books into Wôpanâak.

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