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A Dead Indian Language Is Brought Back to Life
The same thing happened across the continent. Of perhaps 400 Indian languages spoken in North America in 1500, about 45 are in common use today, one expert estimated.
The Virginia language left behind those mangled place names (somehow " Nukotatunuk," the tribe living in the modern-day District, became "Anacostia"), as well as a few words absorbed into English, like " raccoon," "pecan," and " tomahawk."
A few traces survived among Virginia Indians: Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock tribe said her family didn't use the word "bread."
"My grandparents and my parents would say, 'I'm making up apone,' " she said. The old Algonquian word had been "apon." Corn pone shares the same linguistic link.
For the first half of the 20th century, the loss of their language was a minor concern for Virginia Indians. They were often lumped into the "colored" side of a segregated society, barred from jobs and schools, and many moved away.
By the 1970s, though, discrimination had eased, and interest grew in the old Algonquian language.
Researching it was not an easy task. The best source was a list of Indian words and their meanings compiled by a Jamestown colonist in the 1600s. But it had been recopied by some of the 17th century's most incompetent scribes. Their N's looked like A's, which looked like U's, and they had a serious problem with spelling. The Algonquian word for "ants" had been mislabeled as "aunts," and the word for "herring" had become "hearing."
Then Hollywood entered the picture. In 2003, director Terrence Malick was preparing to film a movie about Jamestown, "The New World," which ran in theaters in late 2005 and early this year. Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was hired to translate dialogue for Pocahontas's people.
Rudes started with the Colonial-era word lists and scholarly work and filled in the linguistic blanks using better-known Algonquian languages from all over the Eastern Seaboard. His task was a bit like trying to rebuild modern Spanish using only a few pages from a tourist phrasebook, plus Italian. One scene with three pages of dialogue took him a month.
But the director loved it. He wanted 50 scenes. Rudes translated in his hotel room for two weeks solid. At the end, people were speaking entire sentences in Virginia Algonquian -- or at least a linguist's best guess at it-- for the first time in 200 years.
"In order to do it, you don't think about that," Rudes said. "Then, when it's all over, you look back and say, 'Wow, I just re-created a language.' "
Among other things, his work has helped to dispel one of the area's most widely held beliefs: that "Chesapeake" means something like "Great Shellfish Bay." It doesn't, Rudes said. The name might actually mean something like "Great Water," or it might have been just a village at the bay's mouth.