Five Lost Languages Rediscovered in Massachusetts

Smithsonian linguist Ives Goddard finds that the Native Americans of central Massachusetts spoke five languages instead of one

Fish Club, NMAI
A club from Massachusetts in the shape of a fish, probably Atlantic sturgeon, dates to about 1750. The area was previously thought to have only one language at the time of European contact, but new research reveals there were five Native American languages were spoken in the Connecticut Valley of central Massachusetts. National Museum of the American Indian, catalog 202196

American history has just been slightly rewritten. Previously, experts had believed that the Native Americans of central Massachusetts spoke a single language, Loup (pronounced “Lou,” literally meaning “wolf”). But new research shows that they spoke at least five different languages.

“It's like some European families where you can have three different languages at the dinner table,” says Ives Goddard, curator emeritus and senior linguist in the department of anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. “There was probably a lot of bilingualism. A question that is raised by there being so many languages is 'how did that work?' How did they manage to maintain five different languages in such a small area?”

The lost languages were re-discovered by taking another look at several manuscripts written by French missionaries who were also working as linguists in the mid 1700s. While working on her master's thesis at the University of Manitoba, Holly Gustafson compiled lists of verb forms found in one of the manuscripts. Goddard noticed some contradictions in the compilation.

“In the course of doing this [Gustafson] sometimes says there's this set of forms that is this way and another set of forms another way,” says Goddard. The fact that there were three different words recorded for beaver was also suspicious. “And I looked at this and thought there is too much difference. That made me think that there was more than one language involved,” he says.

In the wake of King Phillip's War in the 1670's, many groups of Native Americans were displaced. “The English basically weren't too good at differentiating between their friends and enemies in battle,” says Goddard. “The ones who were still farther away in the interior trying to live a more traditional life, they just left.”

People who had lived in central Massachusetts fled to upstate New York where they stayed in villages and the refugees encountered the French missionaries who also studied their languages. By then, the tribes had been badly reduced by war and disease. The survivors were too few to maintain unique cultural identities as they integrated with other tribes. Their languages quickly disappeared.

But how could five distinct languages have been maintained in such a small region?

“This gives us a picture of the aboriginal situation in New England being fragmented into different groups,” says Goddard. “This tells us something about the social and political situation.”

Goddard believes that the situation may have been similar to that of the Sui people of the Guizhou Province of China. Women from a particular band of villages would always marry into a different band of villages in which a different language was spoken. The woman would continue to speak her original dialect, her husband would speak another, while their children would grow up understanding both but primarily speaking the father's dialect outside of the home. Family and cultural ties are maintained between the different groups of villages while maintaining an independent sense of identity.

Goddard's research begs the question of how many other native American languages may have been missed. The cultural diversity of pre-colonial America may have been underestimated. Rediscovering those languages can help to explain where the lines were drawn between different cultures.

UPDATE 5/17/2016: A previous version of this article reported that the Massachusetts refugees remained in camps in upstate New York. They were living in villages.

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