Native Village
Youth and Education news
 Volume 1, February 2011

indian Tribes Go in Search of Their Lost Languages
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New York: No one has spoken Shinnecock or Unkechaug, languages of Long Island’s Indian tribes, for nearly 200 years. Now Stony Brook University and the Shinnecock and Unkechaug Indian nations hope to revive these extinct tongues by using old documents, such as a vocabulary list written by Thomas Jefferson in 1791.

Chief Harry Wallace from the Unkechaug Nation said that knowing their language is an integral part of how tribal members understand their history and culture.  Language is a glue that holds a community together, links the generations, and preserves their heritage and foundation.

“When our children study their own language and culture, they perform better academically,” he said. “They have a core foundation to rely on.”

One Unkechaug language student is Howard Treadwell, 24, who graduated from Stony Brook with a linguistics degree. He will join the Long Island effort while doing graduate work at the University of Arizona. UA offers a specialized program about researching American Indian languages.

Mr. Treadwell is one of 400 members of the Unkechaug tribe whose 52-acre reservation is in Mastic.

The Shinnecock tribe is also involved in the language project. They have about 1,300 enrolled members. The Shinnecock's reservation is adjacent to Southampton.

Robert D. Hoberman, the chairman of Stony Brook's linguistics department, is overseeing the academic side of the project. He says
reclaiming their language is a two-step process.

“First we have to figure out what the language looked like, using remembered prayers, greetings, sayings and word lists, like the one Jefferson created," he said. “Then we’ll look at languages that are much better documented, look at short word lists to see what the differences are and see what the equivalencies are, and we’ll use that to reconstruct what the Long Island languages probably were like.”

For the Long Island tribes, the task is especially difficult because few language records remain. Jefferson’s Unkechaug word list was collected on June 13, 1791, when he visited Brookhaven, Long Island. He wrote that even then, only three old women remained in the village who could still speak the language fluently.

A few other Unkechaug and Shinnecock language resources are also available, including documents, deeds and and legal papers. 

Luckily, Shinnecock and Unkechaug belong to the eastern Algonquian languages. Many Algonquian-speaking tribes already have their own dictionaries and speakers. These sources may help guide the team to missing words, phrases, and grammatical structure.

“When we have an idea of what the language should sound like, the vocabulary and the structure, we’ll then introduce it to people in the community,” Mr. Hoberman said.

While it may seem impossible to recreate the sound of a lost tongue, Mr. Hoberman said the process was not all that mysterious because the dictionaries were transliterated into English.

“Would someone from 200 years ago think we had a funny accent?” Mr. Hoberman asked. “Yes.  Would they understand it? I hope so."

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