The Algonquian Language Reborn: An Interview with Blair Rudes

Dr. Rudes coaching actors on the set of the Terrence Malick film, "The New World."

CCIC: How did you get into studying indigenous languages?

Dr. Rudes: When I first entered graduate school to study for my Master’s degree at the State University of New York at Buffalo, I was primarily interested in the Celtic languages, in particular Irish Gaelic, since my mother’s side of the family comes from Ireland. I happened to be living at the time in a house with a bunch of other graduate students, and the landlady, herself a graduate student in linguistics, was studying the Seneca language. I had the opportunity to sit in on some of the sessions in which she was being taught the language by a Seneca woman named Esther Blueye. After learning a bit about the Seneca language, I became interested in the Iroquoian languages in general. I was intrigued by how different they were in pronunciation and grammar not only from English, but from other languages I knew such as French, German, and Irish Gaelic. Of all the Iroquoian languages I looked at, I found the Tuscarora language the most interesting because it had the most unusual pronunciation. It turned out that Esther Blueye had a
friend, Dorothy Crouse, who was a speaker of the Tuscarora language.

Esther introduced me to Dorothy, and I spent the next year visiting Dorothy on the Tuscarora Reservation, which is located only about 20 minutes away for where I lived in Buffalo. Dorothy introduced me to the Tuscarora community and, at the end of the year, I was introduced to Amelia Williams, a fluent speaker of the language who was also a Clan Mother. Amelia agreed to teach me the language. I spent nearly every afternoon for the next three years at her house learning the Tuscarora language.

CCIC: What was the first language you started to learn? Did you find it particularly challenging?

Dr. Rudes: The first language that I learned after learning my mother tongue English was French. I then learned Irish Gaelic, Italian, Russian, and German. The first indigenous language that I learned was Tuscarora, and I found it very different from the other languages I knew. The language was so interesting, however, and the time I spent with Amelia was so enjoyable that I found that I learned the language rather easily.

CCIC: What would you say the greatest difference is between how the indigenous languages are constructed versus how, for example, the English language is constructed? Is it a more complicated language structure or is it simpler?

Dr. Rudes: It’s hard to generalize because indigenous languages can differ as much from one another as much as they do from English. A simple answer to the question would be that indigenous languages are neither simpler nor more complex than English, they are just different. Catawba, for example, is sort of like English as seen in a mirror; everything seems backwards. For example where you might say “The old man moved into that new house” in English, you would say in
Catawba the equivalent of “Man old the house new that into moved.”

The differences between the Algonquian and Iroquoian languages and English are much greater than they are for Catawba, whereas they have certain similarities to one another. Those languages behave somewhat like Latin and Greek in that words take a lot of prefixes and suffixes to indicate such things as what is the subject of the sentence, Dr. Rudes on set coaching the actors in The New World what is the object, and where, when, and how often the activity described by the sentence took place. Also, the Algonquian and Iroquoian languages favor compound verbs in which the object of the verb is made part of the verb, sort of like what happens in English when a noun is created from a sentence as in “He keeps the books” becoming “bookkeeper”. To give an example from Tuscarora, the equivalent of an English sentence such as “Once again, she bought a house over there” would be “Over-there-again-she-house-bought” where the hyphens indicate that everything is connected into a single word.

These and other differences in the way words and sentences are constructed in Catawba, Tuscarora, and other indigenous languages such as the Carolina Algonquian dialects mean that one must organize one’s thoughts in a different way in order to speak the languages. Put another way, they reflect a different way of thinking about the world around us and talking about it.

CCIC: How did you end up working on The New World?

Dr. Rudes: As preparations were getting underway in the fall of 2003 for the production of The New World, the director – Terrence Malick – decided that a faithful rendition of the events surrounding the founding of Jamestown required that Powhatan and his subjects speak the Virginia Algonquian language when they first encountered the English. At the time, he was unaware that the language had not been spoken for a couple hundred years. His assistant began calling around to find a native speaker of Virginia Algonquian who could teach the language to the actors in the film. When she found there were none, she started looking for speakers of other Algonquian languages on the East Coast who could teach their language. I guess the idea was that it would be better to use another, related Eastern Algonquian language in the film than to just use English.

She got in touch with an acquaintance of mine, Wayne Newell, who is a fluent speaker and teacher of the Passamaquoddy language, an Algonquian language spoken in Maine. He told her he was too busy to take on the job and referred her to Ives Goddard at the Smithsonian Institution. Ives is probably the foremost authority on the Algonquian languages currently and formerly spoken on the East Coast.

However, he also said he was too busy with other projects and told Malick’s assistant to get in contact with either David Costa, a friend of mine in California, or me. David and I were at the time working with the Mashatucket Pequot Tribal Nation in Connecticut to revive the Pequot language, another Eastern Algonquian language that had not been spoken since the early twentieth century. David and his wife had just adopted a baby girl, and he did not want to be away form her and his wife for the several months it would take to work on the film. Since the work was to be done during the summer when I do not normally teach, I had the time. So, the director was stuck with me.

CCIC: What was it like trying to essentially reconstruct a language (Virginia Algonquian) that hasn’t really been used for centuries?

Dr. Rudes: Put briefly, it was both challenging and humbling.

It was challenging because there was so little information to work with: the short word list published by John Smith; a much longer word list published by William Strachey, a secretary to the Jamestown Colony; and a handful of additional words recorded by other colonists – and because there was very little prior scholarly research on the language.

Smith and Strachey wrote the words of Virginia Algonquian the way they sounded to them using English spelling conventions. However since they were both Englishmen, they did not always hear correctly what was said. And because English spelling is designed for the English language, some sounds of Virginia Algonquian could not be spelled accurately. On top of that, Smith and Strachey sometimes got the meaning of a word wrong. Therefore, I had to spend a lot of time figuring out what Smith and Strachey had actually heard and tried to write down.

In addition given the limited number of words written down by colonists, I often found that the words needed to translate a particular piece of dialog had not been recorded. In such cases, I made the assumption that the words in Virginia Algonquian would have been similar to the words in other closely related Algonquian languages spoken on the East Coast and used published grammars and dictionaries of such languages as Abenaki, Delaware, Massachusett, and
Passamoquoddy to supplement the vocabulary, adapting the words to the grammar and pronunciation of Virginia Algonquian in the process.

The effort was humbling because I realized I was helping to revive the ancestral language and culture that rightly belonged to others, namely, the living members of the Algonquian tribes of Virginia: the Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunky, Potawomek, and Rappahannock. Although I do have a little Algonquian ancestry, it is from a different tribe; my great grandmother was Abenaki.

CCIC: How similar or different is what we call Virginia Algonquian in contrast to the Algonquian dialects spoken here by the Indians in eastern North Carolina?

Dr. Rudes: The Algonquian spoken in the towns around Albemarle and Pamlico sounds was quite similar to the  Algonquian spoken in Virginia. In fact, it is fair to say that they were dialects of the same language. I gave a paper on this subject to Algonquian scholars last October at the annual Algonquian Conference. The different ways in which English authors such as Hariot, Lawson, Smith, and Strachey wrote the same words tends to exaggerate the differences. Briefly,  the pronunciation of Carolina and Virginia Algonquian was essentially the same. In addition, there are quite a few words that Carolina and Virginia Algonquian share that are found in no other Algonquian language.

At the same time, there are a couple of words that are different in the two dialects. There are a couple of comments in the historical records that strongly suggest that speakers of Carolina Algonquian andVirginia Algonquian had no trouble talking to one another using their own dialects. They were at least as similar to one another as American and British English, and may have been no more different that are the dialect of English spoken by people born and raised in Wilmington, NC, and the dialect spoken by people born and raised in Boone, NC.

CCIC: What experience have you had in seeing any indigenous languages be “resurrected,” for lack of a better word? Do you see hope for the Algonquian language being brought back into use after so many years?

Dr. Rudes: I assume you are referring here to bringing back to life ancestral tribal languages that ceased to be spoken  generations ago as was the case for the Virginia Algonquian language. The terms I and other linguists prefer to use in this situation is language “revitalization” or language “revival,” that is, the act of bringing a language back to life. Some people also refer to languages that have ceased to be spoken as “dormant” languages and talk about “reawakening” the language.

It has only been within the past ten years or so that tribes have made serious efforts to revive their ancestral languages. Reviving a language requires hard work on the part of tribal members and takes sustained effort over a number of years. As a result, there are only a very few cases in which tribes have been successful. The best known case involves the Myaamia language, the ancestral Algonquian language of the Miami Tribe in Oklahoma. Several years ago, a tribal member – Daryl Baldwin – decided to revive the language, so he put himself though college to learn linguistic methods for language revival.

Then he worked with other linguists to learn everything about the Myaamia language that had been written down centuries ago by French missionaries who worked with his tribe. Using that information, he taught himself to speak the language and then began teaching it to his wife and children. After a while, the family spoke only the Myaamia language in their home. He then got other members of the Miami Tribe interested in learning to speak the language and started language classes. Today, his family continues to use the Myamia language in their home, the language classes are well attended, and other tribal members are learning to speak the language.

A similar effort involving an Eastern Algonquian language has been underway within the Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts led by a tribal member – Jessie Little Doe Ferimino – who studied linguistics at Harvard University.
However, there are also many cases in which tribes have tried to bring back their ancestral language without success. In most such cases, the tribes have underestimated the time and effort required, and tribal members have lost interest in the project before they succeeded in learning to speak the language. Unfortunately, the number of cases of failure to revive such language far outnumber the number of successful cases. For that reason, I hesitate to guess at the odds for reviving Carolina Algonquian. It will depend in large part on the amount of effort people are willing to put in on learning and using it.

CCIC: You’ve done extensive work with the Tuscarora language – you’ve even written the dictionary — literally. What is the current status of the Tuscarora language? Is it on the verge of dying out, or are you seeing effective teaching/learning take place to preserve the language?

Dr. Rudes: Among the Tuscarora people on the reservation in New York State, there are a few elders who learned the language as children, but have spoken it very, very little since that time. One man in particular, Howard Hill, has been serving as a resource for the language teachers and learners in the community. The language is being taught in the elementary school on the reservation by a woman who learned the language from one of the last fluent speakers, and there is a program for adult learners that is taught by another woman who learned the language from a fluent native speaker and who studied linguistics. Nearly everyone on the reservation has some knowledge of the language, but
few people can carry on a lengthy conversation. I cannot predict the future survival of the language; that will be up to the Tuscarora people.

In large part, it will depend upon how much they value the use of the language, and how hard they are willing to work to keep it alive.

CCIC: Did you learn anything new about the coastal North Carolina Indians that surprised you in your research for reconstructing the Algonquian language?

Dr. Rudes: I guess the most surprising thing was when I discovered, after looking carefully as the information available on the Carolina Algonquian dialects in the works of Hariot, Lawson, and others, that there were a significant number of words of Algonquian origin in the Catawba language. The only way I can explain this observation is by assuming that a fair number of coastal Carolina Algonquian speakers moved to settle in the Catawba-Wateree valley near the Catawba people – probably shortly after the Tuscarora Wars of 1711-1713. An old map of the area from around 1720 shows a village named Wyape not far from the Catawba villages. Wyape may be shortened from Weapemeoc, the name of a coastal Carolina tribal area on the 1590 map of the the area around Albemarle and Pamlico sounds by Theodore De Bry.

CCIC: After having worked on “The New World” and seeing the final product (I’m assuming you’ve seen the complete
film), are you pleased with the linguistic results?

Dr. Rudes: My honest answer would have to be a qualified “yes.” The Virginia Algonquian dialog that one hears in the film is very well spoken by the actors. They worked very hard at learning the language and did an excellent job. My only regret is that there was a great deal more dialog spoken by the actors and filmed on site that did not make the final cut for the film. As a result, audiences will hear only a small fraction of the Virginia Algonquian dialog that I created and that the actors learned and spoke.

CCIC: What projects, if any, do you have in the pipeline now in regards to indigenous languages.

Dr. Rudes: For the past year or so, I have been working with two historians, Helen Rountree and Martha McCarthy, to complete a historical dictionary of the Virginia Algonquian language. It will probably be a couple more years before that project is completed.

I have just about completed a descriptive grammar of the Catawba language and am looking for a publisher. I am also  about halfway finished with a dictionary of the Catawba language. I am helping to train a young Cherokee man from North Carolina who is a graduate student in linguistics at Indiana University and who is interested in studying his people’s language. I hope to work with him and other Cherokee young people in their efforts to study and promote the use of North Carolina Cherokee.

In addition, I have two projects in Iroquoian linguistics that I plan to work on: a description of the dialect of Tuscarora that was spoken on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario and a historical study of vocabulary in the Iroquoian languages.