Robert Leavitt

Saving a Native Language
By Robert M. Leavitt

Editor’s Note: Mr. Leavitt, professor at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, where he is director of the Mi’kmaq-Maliseet Institute, presented a paper on this topic at the MPMRC in February at the “Revitalizing Algonquian Languages Conference: Sharing Effective Language Renewal Practices II.” The conference was sponsored by Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council Secretary Charlene Jones and the Tribal Nation’s Historical and Cultural Preservation Committee.

Now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, the remaining fully fluent speakers of Passamaquoddy-Maliseet remember what it was like when everyone spoke their Native language in the Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, tribal communities. Before the Second World War, their own language embodied people’s sense of humour, their knowledge of the natural world and human society, their prayers and quarrels and passionate speeches. A few of these men and women, with a talent for capturing words in their human settings, their linguistic contexts, are devotedly preserving the language as a gift to their children and grandchildren, and to anyone interested in language preservation.

Their work takes the form of a dictionary of Passamaquoddy-Maliseet, their record of the imaginative and ingenious ways they speak in their first language. The co-editors are David A. Francis, a Passamaquoddy elder and fluent speaker, and me, Robert M. Leavitt, of the University of New Brunswick. Francis and I began work on the dictionary in the 1970s, when the bilingual education program at Motahkomikuk (Indian Township, Maine) under the direction of Wayne A. Newell first took on the project. Linguist Philip S. LeSourd, working with a broad range of speakers, gained an understanding of the language that helped him develop practical and accessible dictionary entries and a first edition, which contained about 3,000 words. Francis and I have now expanded the original database to more than 20,000 entries.

In the 1970s, even though few children in the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet communities used the language, most understood it. Indoors and out, the air hummed and echoed with it, as people joked and shouted, scolded and mourned, recounted and planned, prayed and sang, reflected and aspired. In sharp contrast, today the language thrives only among elders, mainly in private settings. Those in their thirties, forties, and fifties use it mainly in brief conversations, naturally interspersed with English. Yet more remote from the pre-war era is the sound of the isolated words and sentences rehearsed by classes of Native language students. These changes have occurred throughout North America, and have given rise to countless efforts, in most cases locally initiated, to revitalize Native languages. Language advocates believe that speaking the language will restore and reassert the deep feeling of cultural unity that once pervaded First Nations communities — even, surprisingly, among people who have never heard their Native language spoken.

Some might ask: Why compile a bilingual dictionary of a language with a limited and shrinking population of speakers? Its words, of course, are the building blocks of the language. But in this case the dictionary must go beyond listing individual words with their English translations, because speakers of Passamaquoddy-Maliseet have to invent words, to compose and improvise, to fine-tune meanings, using verb and noun roots in precise and appropriate combinations. The writing of a dictionary presents both the writers and the users with a number of challenges. Since speakers combine verb and noun roots to create any desired meaning (within limits), both the creator and the user must be prepared to learn and apply the patterns of word production — that is, to learn to create their own words — for it is impossible, and perhaps undesirable, ever to list all the possible verbs and nouns in the language. A few examples will show the challenges involved.

Users must be able to create their own words from the examples the dictionary presents. If the dictionary includes the word kossiqensu s/he washes (own) face, which contains the root -iqe- face, then users can learn to substitute other roots to create their own verbs for washing hands, feet, ears, hair etc. It is important to note here that Native speakers of the language do precisely this – create a new word – the first time they say, “Wash your elbows!” or “The bird is washing its wings,” by using roots they have heard and used in other verbs. The speaker can change, add, or subtract roots in other parts of words as well, to talk about wiping, wetting, or smoothing, as in kahsiqensu s/he wipes (own) face. They can make the verb transitive by removing the stem-final s — ’kahsiqenal wasisol s/he wipes the child’s face. The lexicographer will have to limit the number of entries devoted to such verbs, and find a way to indicate the pattern to the user and the rules for applying it. The fact that a dictionary can be electronically searchable makes this possible, but users must be proactive in figuring out how the language works.

Once a verb is selected for inclusion in the dictionary, determination of the entry form is complicated because no “plain” verb forms (such as “wash”) occur. In addition, certain nouns occur only in “possessed” form (body parts and relatives, for example, are always someone’s). Inflection often changes the sounds and spelling of both verbs and nouns, further complicating the selection of words and the search for the dictionary entry that corresponds to a word the user hears in conversation or sees in reading. Consider, for example, how the verb ’tome s/he smokes (pronounced somewhat like TUH-meh) also has the forms ’tomahtuwok they smoke, nutomapon we smoke, wetomay when I smoke, and mace-wtome s/he starts smoking.

Most significant for the user who wants to speak fluently, a dictionary must be sensitive to the subtleties of expression in Passamaquoddy-Maliseet, and particularly to distinctive ways of expressing ideas that are not found in English. The dictionary must reflect carefully considered standards of “good Passamaquoddy-Maliseet” for speakers and learners, in the midst of rapid language change, including loss of vocabulary, increasing use of English words, and sentence structure becoming more like that of English. In other words, a dictionary must help people speak and understand Passamaquoddy-Maliseet as native speakers do, and must reflect a clear idea of what “well” means. For this reason the dictionary compilers have relied on an editorial committee of fluent elders from various locations in Passamaquoddy and Maliseet territory. In addition, coined words and locally used expressions are often credited to their creators and/or communities.

Once a dictionary is written, its entries reviewed and accepted by speakers, how is it to be used? What role will it play in language stabilization and revitalization? Of course, the answers to these questions are up to the teachers, students, and researchers, the poets, singers, and storytellers who will search it for vocabulary and grammar. The dictionary will help them on the path to appropriate, eloquent, and humorous expression in the style of fluent Native speakers. It becomes, in some respects, a substitute for the natural language soundscape that once gave Passamaquoddy and Maliseet children countless examples from which they unconsciously deduced well-formed words and sentences, appropriate styles of speech, and ways to achieve desired effects in conveying a thought or message.

A dictionary cannot be the only resource for learning the language, but it is an essential one, and the one that is available to the broadest range of users. Obviously students must also have access to fluent speakers, whether in classroom or community, who are able and willing to evaluate the language they produce. Such people are not only able to judge the quality of a novice’s attempts, but also can speak the language with a learner. Anyone who has ever used an English dictionary to improve his or her vocabulary will appreciate the value of a native-language dictionary in keeping the language alive and kicking.

The Passamaquoddy-Maliseet dictionary may be searched or browsed at Passamaquoddy Dictionary/ – a site which is updated frequently as new entries are completed.