Have you heard of Wôpanâôt8âôk? Probably not, since it hasn’t been a ‘living’ language for over 150 years. But that’s about to change…
What is Wôpanâôt8âôk?
Wôpanâôt8âôk is the native language of the Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) tribe of Native Americans who live in the area of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It was once a very important language:
- It was the first Native American language to develop and use an alphabetic writing system.
- The first complete bible printed in the ‘New World’ was published in the Wampanoag language in 1663
- The language enjoys the largest corpus of Native written documents in North America
Why did it ‘die’?
Wôpanâôt8âôk ceased to be spoken around the mid-19th century. As with so many indigenous languages, this happened through the processes of religious conversion, laws against the use of the language, mainstream education, and commerce.
How is it being ‘re-born’?
Although there haven’t been any fluent speakers of the Wôpanâôt8âôk language for over 150 years, the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project is aiming to return fluency in Wôpanâôt8âôk to the Wampanoag Nation as a principal means of expression, bringing back to life their ancestral language after over six generations of dormancy. This includes developing a Wôpanâôt8âôk dictionary (that currently holds over 11,000 words), a curriculum for second language acquisition for adult learners, and the first Wôpanâôt8ây Pâhshaneekamuq (Wôpanâôt8âôk-medium School) opening in 2015.
Their efforts are already showing great signs of success and promise. In addition to a number of adults now using the language, a few very young children are being raised with Wampanoag as their first language – the first native speakers of the language since the mid-19th century!
Why is the re-birth of the Wôpanâôt8âôk language important for the rest of the language world?
It is estimated that by 2100, more than 3,500 of the world’s languages will have disappeared – which also means the loss of thousands of cultural identities. Although there are instances of native languages being saved before ‘dying’, this is one of the few cultures to reclaim a spoken language with no living speakers. Others include:
- Barngarla , an Australian Aboriginal language, which is currently being revived using 170-year-old documents.
- The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of California has revitalized the Chochenyo language, which was last spoken in the 1930s.
- Cornish has recently been reclassified by UNESCO from “extinct” to “critically endangered” and the language is now taught in some schools.
- Manx – at one point, no native speakers of the language were alive, but as of 2006 there were forty-six pupils undergoing their education through the medium of Manx.
And so the WLRP gives us hope that other languages that have long ago been lost may also be revived, and that it is important for all of us to cherish and preserve what is perhaps the most significant link to our cultural heritage – our language.