How to revive Massachusetts’ first language

In a classroom on the main floor of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal resources center, a dozen or so toddlers are speaking a language that until a few decades ago had no living speakers.

This is the language of the Wampanoag Nation, the first language of Massachusetts. The fact that these children are learning it is due to a movement that began with one woman, Jessie Little Doe Baird, whose office is down the hall. Baird’s success at creating a layperson’s handbook of grammar and compiling a working dictionary was unprecedented. “It’s about fixing what happened,” Baird said of her life’s work. “It’s about making whole what was broken.”

In articles about Baird, and there have been many, her feat is usually portrayed as a completed triumph. The stories usually talk about how Baird won a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2010. They describe the Wampanoag language — called Wôpanâak or Wôpanâôt8âôk in its own modified alphabet — as “resurrected.” In the global movement to preserve and restore endangered languages, the tribe’s Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project is a “poster child,” said linguist Lenore Grenoble.

Read more: The Boston Globe

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