Rebuilt Language

Rebuilt Language By Christopher Chen via Wikimedia Commons

The budget for a big Hollywood movie usually includes sets, costumes, and special effects. But the recent movie The New World also spent serious money reconstructing a dead language.


Resurrecting a language. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

(Algonquian dialogue)

You’re listening to Virginia Algonquian, an extinct Native American tongue that was revived for the film “The New World.” University of North Carolina linguist Blair Rudes rebuilt the language from about 600 words jotted down by English settlers. He noticed that a few of these words were later absorbed into English.


So we can look at the modern pronunciation of words like moccasin, and opossum, and raccoon, and have some idea of how those words that come from Virginia Algonquian would have been pronounced.

Rudes also used similar, better-known native languages to create grammar and invent new words. The result of the work will be donated to the Algonquian people’s descendants. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

The New World is about the early settlement of the United States, and it focuses on the English explorers’ relationship to the Native Americans in Virginia. To create a feeling of realism, Terrence Malik wanted to use the authentic tongue that these Algonquian people would have spoken. The problem? No one has spoken Virginia Algonquian for at least 200 years. Obviously, there are no sound recordings of anyone speaking it either. Even worse, the Algonquian people had no written language. (By comparison, when Mel Gibson decided to include Aramaic dialogue in The Passion of the Christ, he had plenty of ancient writing and modern research to draw on.)

So what did Rudes and his team have to go on? Basically, they had two sources: a list of about 50 Algonquian vocabulary words, jotted down by the English explorer John Smith around 1612, and a similar list of about 600 words by William Strachey, secretary to the Jamestown colony. That’s it. Keep in mind that these words were written out phonetically (according to how they sounded), and that even English was spelled and pronounced differently in the early 1600’s than it is today—meaning that the colonists’ spellings of the Algonquian words were probably different from the way a 21st century American would spell the words.

To rebuild the language, Rudes started from these clues and worked his way out. Looking at the Algonquian words on Smith and Strachey’s lists, and knowing what he knew about the English language in the early 1600’s, he made educated guesses as to how those Algonquian words were pronounced. In some cases, the Algonquian word had no English equivalent at the time, because they were names for American plants, animals, and Native American items that Englishmen would never have encountered. These words tended to make their way into modern English: moccasin, opossum, raccoon. Comparing their modern pronunciations to the words written on the Jamestown lists helped Rudes figure out how other words on the list might have been pronounced. It’s a lot like solving for “x” in an algebra problem.

650 words isn’t enough to write a movie script, though. We use thousands of different words in conversation every day. When the word that Rudes needed wasn’t on the Jamestown list, he turned to closely related Algonquian languages that we know a little more about. Again, by comparing the known words in Virginia Algonquian to their equivalents in similar languages, he learned how to convert other words from these related languages to fill in the gaps in Virginia Algonquian. Since there is no record whatsoever of how Virginia Algonquian was spoken in sentences, he also borrowed grammar and sentence structure from these related languages.

Here’s an example of how this all fits together. Strachey recorded the Virginia Algonquian word “paukauns” and defined it as “a walnut.” In an earlier, reconstructed form of Algonquian, the word “paka-ni” means “large nut.” In modern English, we call these walnut-like but distinctively American nuts “pecans.” By looking at dozens of these word combinations, Rudes began to see patterns in the relationships between a Virginia Algonquian word (as written by the English), the known early Algonquian word, and a modern English word for the same item. Eventually, he could fill in the blanks even for words that weren’t on the Jamestown lists.

Of course, Virginia Algonquian isn’t the only extinct language out there. There are hundreds of known extinct languages, and the list may soon be growing. Of the more than 6,500 languages spoken today, more than half are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people, while over half the world’s population speaks one of the ten most common languages. Some linguists, anthropologists, and cultural activists are dedicated to saving endangered languages, but it’s a big job and money is scarce for this kind of research. That’s one reason why the results of all this effort will be donated to the Algonquian people’s descendants. It isn’t every day that Hollywood spends big bucks reviving a lost tongue.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. Why was it difficult to reconstruct Virginia Algonquian? Would it have been easier to film a movie with dialogue in Latin or ancient Greek? Why or why not?
  2. What are the Jamestown lists? How did they make this project possible? What are their limitations?
  3. Compare the words "paukauns," "mawcasuns," and "aroughcoune,” from the Jamestown lists, to the modern English words “pecans,” “moccasins” and “raccoon.” Now imagine that the following English words also came from Virginia Algonquian: “accident,” “cocoon,” “fricassee.” How would you expect them to be spelled on the Jamestown list?
  4. Do you think it’s important to preserve endangered languages, or reconstruct extinct ones? Why or why not?

You may want to check out the February 17, 2006, Science Update Podcast to hear this Science Update and the other programs for that week. This podcast's topics include: Cocoa's cardiovascular kick; the truth about pheromone perfumes; stopping toxic runoff; reconstructing a dead language; healing socially deprived children.

Going Further

For Educators

The New World and its language reconstruction project are featured in an episode of National Geographic’s Exploring the Chesapeake.

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