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WAMAPANOAG CULTURE

A vanished language returns

September 30, 2010

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OF THE thousands of languages now spoken in the world, about two dozen die out in any given year, linguists believe. But Mashpee resident Jessie Little Doe Baird is showing that, in the right circumstances, vanished tongues may yet be spoken again. Baird, the 46-year old director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, won a so-called “genius’’ grant this week for her initiative to revive the language of her Wampanoag ancestors. The honor is richly deserved.

The Wampanoags’ legacy is still evident in place names throughout southeastern New England. Yet as they were squeezed out over time, their language waned, and by the late 19th century it probably wasn’t spoken anymore.

In recent years, as Wampanoag leaders figured prominently in controversies over casino licenses and offshore wind turbines, tribe members’ efforts to sustain and pass on their cultural traditions drew far less outside attention.

Baird’s efforts seem both heroic and savvy. Formerly in the human-services field, she obtained a linguistics degree from MIT in 2000 in part to gain credibility among potential funders, and she’s drawn heavily on documents such as a 1663 translation of the Bible into Wampanoag.

The MacArthur foundation always selects an eclectic variety of “geniuses’’; another local recipient is Cambridge type designer Matthew Carter (if you’re reading this in print, you’re looking at his handiwork now). And the awards are generous: the winners receive $500,000. Baird’s will go to good use — toward a historical record based on surviving writings in Wampanoag, and toward a school where children can be taught in the language. Her daughter, she has said, is the first child in well more than a century to be raised from birth to speak Wampanoag.

People often study languages for career reasons, or for simple pleasure. Baird’s project suggests a different, and more urgent, motive: the need to breathe new life into endangered cultural traditions. This is valuable not just for the Wampanoags, but also for a region that bears their deep imprint.

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