by Sheila Connolly
I’m one of those dinosaurs who still reads a daily newspaper—yes, one of those paper ones. I know it’s possible to read it on line, but the process of skimming on-screen is entirely different. I like to pick and choose what I skip and what I read in detail.
I find such interesting articles (which now and then actually lead to story ideas). I’m still mulling this one over: an article that appeared a week ago in the Boston Globe about a MacArthur Foundation grant made to a local Massachusetts woman. You’ve probably all heard of the MacArthur grants—they’re the so-called “genius” grants of $500,000 each. How nice it is that somewhere a committee thinks that someone who has a good idea should be rewarded.
This grant was made by the Foundation to preserve a dying language. I have a soft spot for languages: I’ve been studying Irish for the past five years, and while I’m still terrible at speaking it, at least I understand more than I used to. My father’s parents were both born in Ireland, but for various reasons I never knew them, and I have always hoped that by learning the language I could understand them and their culture a bit better. And as a writer, I think it never hurts to listen to how a language is spoken—the inflections, the sentence patterns, the vocabulary choices. Plus the Irish have traditionally been a race of bards and poets, and I’d like to hope that a little of that has come down to me.
The newspaper article was about a language even more obscure than Irish: Wampanoag. It’s a language used by the Indians who were living in my neighborhood (literally) when the first colonists arrived, who fought those settlers in King Phillip’s War, and who can still be found in parts of Massachusetts (in fact, they toyed with opening a casino in my town, and still hold an option on over 500 acres of land). The director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, Jessie Little Doe Baird, is the grant recipient.
Even though the language is not in current use, and hasn’t been since late in the nineteenth century, it lives on in a lot of New England place names. The Wampanoag tribe, now much reduced in numbers, does make consistent efforts to sustain and pass on their cultural traditions. Baird will use the grant to record surviving records in Wampanoag, and will try to establish a school where children can learn the language. She has been teaching her own daughter to speak Wampanoag since birth—possibly the only child to do so for more than a century.