The truism is that if you want to know a culture, learn the language. But what if the language and the culture are both dead – long, long dead?
Historical linguists, social scientists who are the archaeologists of cultures' ephemeral linguistic artifacts, have developed techniques that allow them to realistically re-create lost languages. The process, known as "language revitalization," has at least partially restored numerous languages that were known to have existed but were never recorded (or fully documented), literally allowing us to hear what the dead spoke.
Generally, this has been done for academic reasons or because a culture's descendants want to try to re-establish their identity by recovering some of their lost past. Now it has been done in order to create a major motion picture.
Language can be like cultural DNA, the genetic blueprint of how a civilization communicated and thought, containing the essence of a people's perspective and character. This is what Terrence Malick, director and writer of New Line Cinema's recent release The New World, discovered when he hired University of North Carolina at Charlotte linguist Blair Rudes to lend historical realism to the movie by coaching the cast in Virginia Algonquian, the language spoken by Pocahontas and other Native Americans who John Smith encountered in the founding of Jamestown.
Malick had first tried to hire a native speaker, only to discover a problem – he found that the language had been extinct since around 1785, a common fate of many of the more than 800 languages spoken in North America at the time of the European encounter.
Hiring Rudes, an authority in historical and current Native American languages, he soon learned that the challenge was even greater: the only record of Virginia Algonquian was a scant list of about 500 words transcribed by Englishman William Strachey (a friend of William Shakespeare) in 1609, and a few more words recorded by Smith.
"The language and culture the English encountered really is a lost world," Rudes noted. "Virginia Algonquian is a member of the Algonquian family, a large group of languages which stretched across North America. On the East Coast there were perhaps 15 Algonquian languages and a lot of other languages. All the Eastern Algonquian languages except Passamaquoddy-Maliseet (a language still spoken by Native Americans in Maine and Canada) are extinct. They were among the first Native American languages to go extinct, because they were on the coast."
Malick was in luck because Rudes is also one of a handful of linguists who are authorities in the field of "language revitalization" – the science of re-building lost languages. Rudes' science in turn, gave Malick a window into the past that was more profound than any found in the historical record. Aiming for realism, the movie sponsored the scientific resurrection of a lost culture's language. It was a more difficult job than the director probably suspected.
"Originally they wanted the language revived for one scene and done by the end of the month, in keeping with the production schedule," said Rudes. "But the records of the Virginia Algonquian language are, shall we say, limited.
"John Smith himself recorded about 50 words of the language and a secretary to the Jamestown colony named William Strachey published a work in 1612 – The Histotrie of Travell into Virginia Britania -- which contains about a 600 word vocabulary of Virginia Algonquian. 600 words, of course, is not a great deal. Webster's Unabridged College Dictionary of English has about 12,000 words," he noted.
With the vast majority of the language's many-thousand word vocabulary missing along with its syntax and pronunciation, Rudes had to re-build the language wholesale using the sophisticated techniques of historical linguistics. In the process, Rudes interpreted Strachey's amateur record (transcriptions of an unknown language recorded as heard by a 17th Century English ear), compared it with better-surviving records of a few related Algonquian languages as well as with words that have been passed down into English, and applied theory and scholarship on the evolution of the language family.
The process, which involves interpolating the evolution of pronunciation, syntax and meaning is complicated.
For example, consider the reconstruction of the Virginia Algonquian words that Strachey records for "walnut," "shoes," and two different "kinds of beast" : "paukauns," "mawcasuns," "aroughcoune" and "opposum" have passed into American English usage as "pecans," "moccasins," "raccoon" and "opossum" and can be compared to "paka•ni" (meaning "large nut"), "maxkesen," (meaning "shoe"), "la•le•čkani" (meaning "raccoon") and "wa•pa’θemwi" (meaning "white dog") words in Proto-Algonquian, the re-constructed ancestral language of Virginia Algonquian. From this, Rudes reconstructs the Virginia Algonquian words "paka•n," "mahkəsən," "a•rehkan" and " wa•pahšəm."
Other recorded words were even more difficult to interpret. Strachey records the Virginia Algonquian word for "the skie" as "arrokoth," but this corresponds most closely to the Proto-Algonquian word "a•lahkwatwi" which means "it is cloudy," and Rudes derives from this the Virginia Algonquian word "a•rahkwat," with a somewhat ambiguous meaning referring to the sky.
While movies frequently fictionally re-create the lost past, The New World's attempts at realism crossed the line and began to historically re-vitalize the Virginia Algonquian language and culture and revive some of past reality.
For example, when Rudes translated "to the east" (a description of where England is), he had to first translate the concept to "the other side of the water," to make sense to 17th Century Native Americans.
"In this case, 'a land to the east' is a problem," noted Rudes, "because east of Jamestown is water – there is no land. At this point, all the Native Americans knew was there were these white-skinned people who lived on these islands in the Caribbean – they had no clue about Europe."
In Proto-Algonquian, the re-written phrase translates as "aka•menki," which, given interpolated language evolution becomes "aka•mənk" in Virginia Algonquian. The modified script phrase "We come from England – an island on the other side of the water" is translated as "Inkərentənk nəwəmamən – mənənaq aka•məunk yapa•m."
The product of Rudes' work was so convincing to the director and actors that Virginia Algonquian, originally intended to be spoken in only one scene, grew to become an integral part of the film's world and was used in about a third of the movie, with English subtitles. The translation, which had to be done on-location, was a massive and intense project for the linguist.
"They sent me the material here in Charlotte in June," said Rudes. "I worked on it and I went down to Williamsburg, Virginia, where they were shooting the film, and Terrence Malick heard what I had recorded -- the pronunciation of one scene. He heard it and he loved it – he thought it was the most wonderful language he had ever heard. I spent the next month holed up in my hotel room, translating like crazy.
"In the end, this became one of those rare times when a Native American language is used for the dialogue in a movie with subtitles," he said.
The revitalization of Virginia Algonquian is likely to have further value beyond the celebrity of being shown to the world in a major motion picture. The production company is turning over the scripts and language CD's to the descendants of the Powhatan Confederacy, five state-recognized tribes in Virginia. Rudes expects to be working with the tribes on language reclamation programs and is working on a dictionary of Virginia Algonquian with Helen Rountree, an authority on the history of the Powhatan people.
In addition to his work on Virginia Algonquian, Rudes is working on other language restoration projects with the Catawba tribe in North Carolina and the Pequot in Connecticut. Rudes does not expect the languages he works on to return to common usage, but he stresses that the project has real value for the cultures involved.
"From my experience of doing language revival with different communities, it doesn't matter how much of the language people ultimately learn," he said. "What turns out to be really important is just that they learn some piece of the language because it is reclaiming their heritage. Especially here in the South, where there was early assimilation and where the languages and cultures were the earliest decimated. So much was lost that reclaiming any of it is a major event."
Cite This Page: