Giving Life To A Long-Dormant Language

By Will Roseliep


Jan. 17, 2012

BOSTON — Jessie Little Doe Baird was asleep when she had the first premonition of her future. On three successive nights, Baird said she received visitations from family members. 
"It really wasn't a dream, it was a vision I was having," she said. "The people that were in that vision asked me if I would agree to go and ask the rest of my community." Their reason for the visit, Baird said, was to bring the native Wampanoag language back to the community.
The Wampanoag language was once widely spoken in this area, and many words from the language – such as "Massachusetts" — have become embedded in our culture. But up until Baird, no one had taken it upon themselves to learn, speak and — most important — teach the language to others in six generations. It quickly became her passion.
"It felt as though a fire had been lit inside my soul. I felt drawn to the language the way you might feel… when you've found the love of your life," Baird said.
At the time she embarked on the project, in 1993, Baird was a social worker with no linguistic training. She threw herself headlong into her studies, starting with a research fellowship in linguistics at MIT. Using a 1663 Wampanoag version of the Bible, as well as old correspondence, wills and property deeds written in Wampanoag, she began resurrecting the language.

Some words in Wampanoag
Pumpkin: Pôhpukun (ponh-pu-kun) = "grows forth round"

Moccasin: Mahkus (mah-kus) = "covers the whole foot"

Mashpee: Mâseepee (maa-see-pee) = "big water" (refers to Mashpee Pond)

Mrs. Baird began what she called the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project. (Or, to give the word in its own language, Wôpanâak.) She compiled lists of vocabulary, studied grammatical relationships, used other Native American languages to determine pronunciation and compiled a 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary. Along the way she taught herself to speak the language.
MIT professor emeritus — and world-renowned linguist — Noam Chomsky said Baird's project at MIT was one-of-a-kind. "It's a near-miraculous achievement," Chomsky said. "How do you revive something where nobody knows how to speak it? It was quite brilliant."
Chomsky wasn't the only one who thought Baird's work was brilliant. In 2010, Baird received a MacArthur "Genius" Grant for her work in reviving the spoken language.
Now, Baird has developed teaching materials and gives lessons on the language to Wampanoags of all ages. Outside of the classroom, she gave lessons to her daughter, Mae, who is now the first native Wampanoag speaker in six generations. "Hopefully I'll see a day in my lifetime when my daughter's children can correct my Wampanoag and their fluency will far surpass mine," Baird said.
Baird wants to fulfill the vision she first had in 1993 by teaching the language to new generations. She hopes to open a full-immersion Wampanoag school where all subjects are taught in the native tongue. But ultimately, her biggest goal is a very personal one.
"There is something that really does touch my soul when I'm able to pray for somebody in my language," Baird said. "That is something that you really can't put a price on… in any language."

Hear the full conversation on "The Callie Crossley Show."

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