INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — The Penobscot Nation’s effort to save its traditional language for future generations received a boost this week through a federal grant that will allow University of Maine researchers to assist the tribe in dramatically expanding the Penobscot language dictionary.
The National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded a nearly $340,000 grant to help the Penobscot Nation, UMaine and the American Philosophical Society preserve the language by creating a comprehensive version of the Penobscot Dictionary, complete with an English index and online database. It would be the first Penobscot dictionary to be published.
The Penobscot language, like many other tribal languages, was subdued for generations in U.S. schools. Teachers of Penobscot children would hit students on the wrists with rulers or punish them in some other way for speaking their tribal language. Children across the nation faced similar hazards when speaking their tribe’s language or practicing their customs. Penobscot parents began speaking primarily English to their children sometime around 1880-1900, according to researchers.
James Francis, director of cultural and historic preservation for the tribe, is a second-generation nonspeaker, meaning his grandmother didn’t teach his parents the language because of the stigma that came along with it. He had to pick up the language later in life and is still learning.
“In addition to this apprehension about learning the language, there’s a lot of healing that has to go along [with this] because there’s a lot of guilt among those first-generation nonspeakers [for not passing down the language],” Francis said Thursday.
While there are only a handful of people on Indian Island who can still have a conversation in the language, many more know and use some words and phrases regularly.
“It’s amazing how much of the language we still use in the community,” said Francis. “We talk about the fact that there’s a dwindling number of speakers, but we did a survey a few years ago and we found there were about 500 words that were still being used in the community in everyday language. That was very encouraging to us.”
Terms of endearment such as Muhmum, which is the Penobscot equivalent of “grampy” in English, are commonplace. Animals also are often referred to in the Penobscot language on the island, according to Francis. For example, a salmon is skamek, a deer is nolke and a moose is mos.
The language is still taught in schools and adult education classes, and the tribe hopes to continue building the number of speakers.
From 1935 to 1993, the late pathologist and linguist Frank T. Siebert, Jr., worked with members of the Penobscot tribe to document the language, even developing a written form. He ended up with about 17,000 entries in a 494-page dictionary manuscript, derived from a collection of index cards gathered during decades of work. He converted that information into digital text in the mid-1980s.
This funding will take that manuscript to the next level, according to Pauleena MacDougall, director of the Maine Folklife Center, who used to work with Siebert. Researchers expect to add another 30,000-45,000 words, phrases, usage examples and more to Siebert’s original manuscript, building an updated version that will include user guides to introduce readers to the language. Siebert’s original work will be preserved, MacDougall said, and field notes from Siebert and other researchers and linguists will be used to build on the original dictionary.
Conor Quinn, a UMaine linguist who earned a doctorate in 2006 from Harvard University, will oversee the creation of the dictionary, which is scheduled to begin in September and run through August 2016. Quinn, who wrote his dissertation about the Penobscots, also worked closely with the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes when they created their own dictionary about five years ago.
For the past year, the Penobscot Nation has been working on a separate, federally funded project to use multimedia to bring that written language to the eyes and ears of tribal members. As part of that effort, the tribe has been recording some of the remaining speakers of the language saying words while the written word is displayed on an iPod or computer screen. The tribe also is digitizing parts of the language, as well as traditional Penobscot stories. That effort, which has two years remaining, will continue in tandem with the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project with the university.
The Penobscot Nation plans to publish the dictionary after it’s complete
“The primary motivation for this project is that the Penobscot Dictionary manuscript is extremely valuable, already substantial and has languished in a nearly complete form for more than 20 years,” MacDougall said Thursday.
In 2008, the University of Maine Press published “Peskotomuhkati Wolastoqewi Latuwewakon: A Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary.” The University of Maine Press could also serve as publisher of the Penobscot Dictionary update, according to MacDougall and Francis.
Both Passamaquoddy-Maliseet and Penobscot are Eastern Algonquian languages, but they’re different languages, rather than dialects, because grammar and sentence structure is different, MacDougall said.
“When it really comes down to it, culture and language are so intertwined,” Francis said. “To truly understand a culture, you need to understand the language.”
For more information about the Penobscot language or to hear it being spoken, visit www.penobscotculture.org.
An earlier version of this story requires correction. The National Endowment for the Humanities grant did not come from the National Science Foundation.