Thursday, February 05, 2009

NAT: Passamaquoody Dictionary

Massive Passamaquoddy-Maliseet dictionary holds Algonquin culture
By Gale Courey Toensing, Story Published: Feb 4, 2009

INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine – After three decades of work, a group of native speakers, educators and linguists have produced an Algonquian language dictionary unequalled in size, scope and depth.

Published by the University of Maine Press, the “Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary/Peskotomuhkati Wolastoqewi Latuwewakon” made its debut in early December. The volume is more than 1,200 pages long and includes 18,000 entries.

David A. Francis, a Passamaquoddy elder, and Robert M. Leavitt, professor emeritus of education at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick where he was director of the Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Institute for 14 years, are listed as authors with Margaret Apt, Passamaquoddy community research coordinator and Passamaquoddy language teacher at a high school in Eastport.

For Passamaquoddy educator Wayne Mitchell, the publication of the dictionary culminates more than three decades of effort to restore and preserve the Passamaquoddy language he learned and spoke as a child growing up at Sipayik, one of the two Passamaquoddy communities in coastal Maine.

“For more than half a century many individuals, including myself, have been committed to making sure that the next generation has the tools and methodology essential to their own creativity in future endeavors. This dictionary stands as the centerpiece of our commitment,” said Wayne Newell, director of Native Language and Cultural Services and Indian Township School, in the dictionary’s introduction.

Until the 1950’s, everyone in the Passamaquoddy communities at Sipayik and Indian Township spoke Passamaquoddy. The communities were isolated and people had little contact with non-Indians.

“The older folks knew how to communicate in English because they had to go to Eastport and places to shop. But Passamaquoddy was their primary language,” Newell said. “Even in my grandmother’s house, she didn’t want English spoken there – she thought it was silly.”

With the advent of electricity, television and new roads running through the tribe’s land in the late 1950s, the tribal communities opened up to the larger world, and Passamaquoddy, like indigenous languages elsewhere, started to fade into oblivion under social and economic pressures, assimilationist educational policies, and the irresistible pull of mass media.

At Indian Township where Newell taught, he began efforts to retain, restore and preserve the language his coastal ancestors had developed and spoken over thousands of years – the vehicle that expresses and holds a people’s culture.

“This dictionary project actually started here,” Newell said. “I had a little bit of money from a grant and one of the things I wanted to do was someday have a dictionary published so one thing led to another.”

Newell and Leavitt were students together at Harvard University, graduating in 1971. Soon after, Newell hired Leavitt to work at Indian Township to help develop teaching materials using federal grant funds.

A Harvard linguist had set up a writing system for the language project. Newell asked for and received permission to modify it “because one of my dreams was to teach a writing system because I really believe that the only way a language is going to survive is if we have a writing system of some sort.”

Other linguists and scholars got involved – the late Dr. Kenneth Hale of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Newell also studied and met Phil LeSourd, who published the first Passamaquoddy dictionary of 3,000 entries.

Newell also hired Francis, a tribal elder who is now 91 years old, to work at the Indian Township school.

“Robert and David took in all of what had already happened and kind of took off with it and they kept working over the years. Margaret Apt came in somewhere in the early 90s and they kept getting little grants,” Newell said.

A language editorial committee was formed to oversee the work.

“So everybody has been working together over the years, and last summer we knew we were done, and we actually got a publisher and it’s really neat because the University of Maine Press is the publisher and I think that’s appropriate,” Newell said.

The most challenging part of the work was deciding what to include.

Passamaquoddy is an inflected verb-based-language that has nouns, pronouns, particles and other parts of speech added as prefixes to the verb to denote time, place, person, plurals, action and other elements. Entire sentences or thoughts, therefore, can be contained in a single word, making an infinite number of options for dictionary-makers to choose from.

The language has a past, present and future tense and an absentative tense that is expressed through tone to indicate if something is absent or if someone has died.

“And also we have words that can move objects around whether they’re here or over there or out of the room. Just by the way we use those words you know where the object or person is that you’re talking about. That’s why the Algonquin language is so very fascinating to linguists – it’s because of the structure – and they come here all the time to study it,” Newell said.

Leavitt, who is traveling in Mexico, could not be reached for comment, but other tribal members lent their voices to the production.

Imelda Perley, a Maliseet speaker and educator in New Brunswick across the St. Croix River from Passamaquoddy, and her husband David wrote in a preface, “In our view, the dictionary represents a Sacred bundle containing ancestral teachings, values, beliefs, and worldviews. The dictionary also symbolizes a ‘language bank’ complete with savings, investments, and assets for present and future generations.”

The Perleys thank Francis and Leavitt for “their labor of love for the language.”

“Their masterpiece has just saved another language from extinction. All we need now are the carriers of the language!” they wrote.

That’s the real challenge, Newell said. The tribe has between 100-150 native speakers, but a new generation of speakers is needed. Passamaquoddy is taught in the school, but students are not really fluently bilingual.

“It’s one of my biggest frustrations. I say in the introduction that this dictionary is not going to save the language, but a commitment by the community will.”

The key is using it in public places and common everyday conversation. That’s why the dictionary is so important, Newell said.

“If you read the introduction you’ll see that it’s actually much more than a dictionary; it’s actually a teaching tool for the language itself. We tried to design it that way,” he said.

Even big tribes with thousands of native speakers share the problem of rapid language extinction.

“The government system actually tried to take our languages away and unless we turn this tide pretty quickly, they will have succeeded,” Newell said.

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