Wôpanâak Language in Caleb’s Crossing

I spent the last four days entranced in turn-of-the-century Chicago slums and stockyards while reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It was heavy, bloody, gruesome, rat-infested, and exhausting, but a fantastic read, even if it did turn out in part to be socialist propaganda. I know it was written over 100 years ago, but I’m still taking a meat hiatus until I can get some of those images out of my mind. I know, I know, those close to me know I’ve always been a die-hard carnivore, but I’m honestly fully perturbed after reading this book.

Which is one reason why I’m thrilled to have started Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks today, and to have thus been transposed to the berry-abundant, green-forested scenery of 1660s New England where Puritans and Wôpanâak Native Americans found themselves occupying the small island of Great Harbor (now Martha’s Vineyard). I’ve always loved New England, and especially loved reading books and learning about Native Americans in the time before my English ancestors landed on these teeming shores.

We often are told the legend of white settlers buying the island of Manhattan for the equivalent of 25 bucks, and this epic rip-off is oft attributed to the fact that most Native Americans didn’t have the same concept of ownership as Europeans did. Whether or not this story is true, the way that Native Americans traditionally view the world, relationships, and animate and inanimate objects is vastly different from the way the European settlers saw things, and these contrasts stand out most interestingly in the structure of each language.

I’m only 50 pages into Caleb’s Crossing, and already there have been some compelling insights on Wôpanâak, the Algonquin language spoken by the Wôpanâak (or Wampanoag) people of New England, and how language fueled misunderstanding and tensions that rendered the communities less than compatible.

FYI: The Algonquin language family spans a huge landmass, from New England down to the Chesapeake, out to the Midwest, and Canada from the east coast out to Manitoba. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Ottowa, Miluakee…these are all Algonquin names. Manit, I discovered while reading Caleb’s Crossing, translates to ‘God’ or ‘spirit’, and Manitoba means something along the lines of ‘strait of the spirits’ in Ojibwe or Cree.

The book’s protagonist, Bethia, is a young Puritan teenager whose father is head missionary in the settlement. He had befriended and converted a Wôpanâak Indian, Iacoomis, who helped him learn the language to better communicate with his convertees. Bethia, a bright and curious girl, was young enough to pick up some of the language during her father’s sessions. “I learned it, I suppose, as I was learning English, my mind supple then and ready to receive new words. As father and Iacoomis sat, repeating a phrase over and over, often it fell into my own mouth long before father had mastery of it” (11).

Bethia supposed right – it’s been proven that children can learn to speak any language natively before the age of six, when their ability to pick up grammar and pronunciation begins diminishing at a rapid rate. Basically, I would have killed to interview Bethia for my Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals section of this blog!

 “Poor father. He was very proud of his efforts with these difficult words; words so long one might think the roots had set and grown since the fall of the Babel tower. And yet father never mastered the pronunciation, which is the chief grace of their tongue. Nor did he grasp the way the words built themselves, sound by sound, into particular meanings” (12).

It’s no wonder that Bethia’s father finds himself at a loss with Wôpanâak grammar – Algonquin languages are agglutinating and polysynthetic languages, meaning that words are formed by joining together morphemes, which are the smallest units of meaning in a language. Word parts with independent meaning may not stand on their own in such a language, and are synthesized into a larger word or concept – This produces one long word composed of nouns, verbs, tense, negation, and / or other markers (I’m summarizing this by the way, it’s been a while since I took morphology)!

If you’re still struggling with what a morpheme is, let’s talk about what these are in English, which I assume you do understand –  In English, we often string morphemes together to alter the meaning of a root word: take the English unthinkable. -un (a bound morpheme signifying ‘not’), think- (the root, free morpheme), and –able (a morpheme that signifies ‘can be done’).

In an agglutinating and polysynthetic languages like Wôpanâak, morphemes are strung together to create complex words. Let’s take the word Wampanoag, which describes the people. When she was younger, Bethia would refer to the tribe as the “salvages”, (as in being saved from destruction) but was chided by her father who told her, “‘Do not call them salvages. Use the name they give themselves, Wampanoag. It means Easterners'” (12).

If only it were that easy, Bethia thinks to herself: “‘Easterners’, indeed. As if they speak of east or west as we do. Nothing is so plain and ordinary in that tongue. Wop, related to their word for white, carries a sense of the first milky light that brightens the horizon before the sun appears. The ending sound refers to animate beings. So the name for themselves, properly rendered in English, is People of the First Light” (12).

How beautiful is that? And difficult to learn for a speaker of English, where grammatical categories are determined by word order and we use lots of smaller words to build together a complete thought. This is evidenced in more Wôpanâak words – here are a few that have infiltrated English to the point that most people are ignorant to the fact that we actually took them (and their land, pride, and culture, sigh, but that’s for another blog post).

Pumpkin: Pôhpukun (ponh-pu-kun) = “Grows forth round”

Moccasin: Mahkus (mah-kus) = “Covers the whole foot”

Skun: Sukôk (su-konk) – “Ejects body fluid”

Powwow: Pawâw (pa-waaw) = “He/She is healing/heals (someone)”

Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project

In English, no one even bothers to differentiate between masculine and feminine objects (thankfully, half the time it’s a complete shot in the dark whether it’s le or la in French, and the gender of the word isn’t the same across Romance languages!!), let alone animate and inanimate objects.

Which brings us to another interesting aspect of Wôpanâak. In another scene, Bethia’s father is delivering a sermon to a group of Wôpanâak. As she listens, she winces at his mangled deliverance of the language as it completely changed what he was trying to say. Bethia remarks, “Over time, I had come to grasp that the chief principle of their grammar is whether a thing to them is possessed of an animating soul. How they determine this is outlandish to our way of thinking, so profligate are they in giving out souls to all manner of things. A canoe paddle is animate, because it causes something else to move. Even a humble onion, has, in their view, a soul, since it causes action – pulling tears from the eyes” (45).

In English, we are much more concentrated on who is doing what, but in languages such as Wôpanâak, the process of what is being done and what natural characteristics are at work is what is stressed. I remember one of my linguistics professors trying to explain that to say something like “The waters cascaded down the waterfall” in a language like Wôpanâak, if translated and then translated back into English, would have less to do with the subject (waters) but on the verb that would describe a light, transparent liquid substance falling. A word-for-word translation simply isn’t possible. Prefixes and suffixes are used to infuse nouns into the verb, some that are central to the discourse and others that are less important.

Language truly does influence thought – Literal translations from languages like Wôpanâak highlight the feelings, attitudes, values, and physical objects that are important in that culture and human experience, and how those are either lacking altogether or conceptualized on an entirely different level in another language. I’m interested to see in what ways Cheeshahteaumauk, or Caleb, as Bethia dubs him, will change as he starts speaking more and more English. If you know the premise of the book, it’s obviously going to be a defining part of his life.

I’m eager to keep reading and learning more about the Wôpanâak, and see where this story goes. If you have made it to the end of this blog, check out the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, dedicated to reviving and keeping alive the beautiful, descriptive language of Wôpanâak.

Preview for next blog entry: Navajo Code Talkers. Navajo language structure is similar to Algonquin structures, and was used (and exploited per usual) by the US government during World War II. Since Navajo has four tones, the syntax and semantics as described above, and little international research had been done on the language by the 1940s, the US Army was able to put together a team of military-aged bilingual Navajo-English speakers who created an incredible code to blow the minds Japanese and German code breakers who just could not break it. Stay tuned!

[Update]: Look who followed through: https://languageandothermusings.com/2013/05/17/navajo-code-talkers/

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in America., Books, Language, Native Americans, Portfolio, Research Articles, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Wôpanâak Language in Caleb’s Crossing

  1. Jim Egan says:

    Narragansett means “People of the Little Island” in Algonquin. Roger Williams, one of the Founders of RI wrote “A Key Into the Language of America (1643). Printed by John Milton’s publisher the book was an instant “best-seller”, and gave Williams a large and favorable reputation. It was the first dictionary of any Indian tongue in the English language and fed the great hunger of the English about the Native Americans.

  2. alicestockwellegan says:

    Thanks Uncle Jim! I’m going to look further into that. I’ve always had a fascination with the different languages of Native Americans. So so so different from English!

  3. Pingback: Navajo Code Talkers | Language and other musings

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