Massachusett language

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Massachusett unnontꝏwaonk
/masatʃuːsət aːãtuːaãk/[1]

Native to United States
Region Eastern Massachusetts , south-eastern New Hampshire , and northern and south-eastern Rhode Island .[3][4]
Ethnicity Massachusett, Wômpanâak (Wampanoag), Pawtucket (Naumkeag, Agawam), Nauset, and Coweset. Neighboring Algonquian peoples as a second language.[5]
Extinct Extinct late 19th century.[6][7]
Revival Revitalization from 1993. As of 2014, 5 children are native speakers, 15 are proficient second-language speakers and 500 are adult second-language learners.[8][9]
Latin script
Language codes
ISO 639-3 wam
Glottolog wamp1249[10]
Tribal Territories Southern New England.png
The location of the Massachusett/Wampanoag tribe and their neighbors, c. 1600
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

The Massachusett language is an Algonquian language of the Algic language family, formerly spoken by several peoples of eastern coastal and south-eastern Massachusetts and currently, in its revived form, in four communities of Wampanoag people. The language is also known as Natick or Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) and historically as Pokanoket, Indian or Nonantum.[11]

The language is most notable for creating a community of literate Indians and for the number of translations of religious texts into the language. John Eliot's translation of the Christian Bible in 1663 using the Natick dialect, known as Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, was the first printed in the Americas, the first Bible translated by a non-native speaker and one of the earliest example of a Bible translation into a previously unwritten language. Literacy spread quickly as Indian ministers and teachers, who were literate, spread literacy to the elites and other members of their communities. This is attested in the numerous court petitions, church records, Praying town administrative records, notes on book margins, personal letters and widespread distribution of other translations of religious tracts throughout the colonial period.[12]

The dialects of the language were formerly spoken by several peoples of southern New England, including all the coastal and insular areas of eastern Massachusetts, as well as south-eastern New Hampshire, the southernmost tip of Maine and eastern Rhode Island, but was also a common second or third language across most of New England and portions of Long Island.[7] The use of the language in the mixed-band communities of Christian converts—Praying towns— also spread the language to some groups of Nipmuc and Pennacook.[13][14]

The revitalization of the language began in 1993 when Jessie Little Doe Baird began the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP), which has successfully re-introduced the revived Wampanoag dialect to the Aquinnah, Mashpee, Assonet and Herring Pond tribes of the Wampanoag of Cape Cod and the Islands, with a handful of children who are growing up as the first native speakers in more than a century.[15][16] The Massachusett people continue to inhabit the area around Boston and other Wampanoag tribes are found throughout Cape Cod and Rhode Island. Other descendants of Massachusett-language speakers include many of the current Abenaki people and the locals of Saint David's Island, Bermuda, both of whom absorbed large numbers of Indians of southern New England in the aftermath of King Philip's War.[16][17]


Algic Languages 

Yurok (Puliklah) language

Wiyot (Wishosk) language (†)


Plains Algonquian

Central Algonquian

Eastern Algonquian



 Southern New England Algonquian 

Massachusett language (revived)

Narragansett language (†)

Nipmuc language (†)[18]

Quripi-Naugatuck language (†)

Mohegan-Pequot-Montauk language (†)

Massachusett is a member of the Algic language family, which includes the Wiyot (Wishosk) and Yurok (Puliklah) languages, two distantly related relic languages of the Pacific Northwest, and the Algonquian languages spoken from the Rocky Mountains eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. Proto-Eastern Algonquian (PEA) diverged and spread from the Canadian Maritimes to the Carolinas, forming a genetic grouping, the Eastern Algonquian languages. This is in contrast with Central and Plains Algonquian, which although both descended from Proto-Algonquian (PA), are geographic groupings based on shared areal features. Within the Eastern branch, Massachusett is most closely related to other Southern New England Algonquian (SNEA) languages found over most of central and southern New England and eastern Long Island.[7] The closest linguistic relatives include the Narragansett spoken in central and southern Rhode Island and the Nipmuc language spoken in central Massachusetts, but it is also related to Mohegan-Pequot-Montauk, Unquachoag Metoac), Quiripi (Wampano) and possibly Etchemin. All of these languages were mutually intelligible to some extant and formed a dialect continuum, leaving Massachusett as a dialect grouping within a broader SNEA language or a separate language therein.[19] Neighboring languages to Massachusett were the Abenakian languages to the north, Nipmuc to the immediate west and the Delawaran languages further beyond, and the other SNEA languages to the south and south-west.[19]

Unique features[edit]

A few features help help differentiate Massachusett from other SNEA languages.[20]

PEA *r becomes Massachusett /n/
PEA *r, itself a merger of PA *θ and PA *r, becomes /n/ in Massachusett, /l/ in Nipmuc and /n/ or /j/ in Narragansett. This makes Massachusett language an N-dialect of SNEA.

  • PA *aθemwa, 'dog,' becomes annúm/(anum) /anəm/ in Massachusett, alùm in Nipmuc and ayimp in Narragansett.
  • PA *aθankwa, 'star,' becomes anogqs (anôqees) /anãkwees/ in Massachusett, anóckqus in Narragansett and arráksak (plural) in Quripi.

Lack of 'Abenaki Syncope'
The deletion of /a/ and /ə/ in word-final syllables and before certain consonant clusters is rare in Massachusett and Narragansett, but very common in western SNEA languages of Connecticut and Nipmuc (Loup). Rare instances in Massachusett documents are either influences of dialects that adopted this feature or altered for metrical reasons. It was a feature that spread from the Abenakian languages.[21]

  • PA *keʔtahanwi, 'sea' or 'sea water,' becomes kehtahhan (kuhtahan) /kəhtahan/ in Massaachusett, kuthún in Naugatuck, kitthan in Narragansett.
  • Massachusett paskehheg (paskuheek) /paskəhiːk/, 'gun,' appears as poskheege in Pequot, boshkeag in Montauk and Nipmuc paskig.

Preference of the Locative Suffix /-ət/ over /-ək/
Massachusett, as well as Narragansett, favor the locative suffix -et/-ut/-it (-ut) /-ət/ 3:1 over -uck/-uk/-ock (-uk) /-ək/ found in most other SNEA languages, but the feature is rare on Nantucket and the Outer Cape, and may have been a novel feature spreading from Massachusett to other SNEA speakers.[22]

  • Massachusett-language region place names: Acushnet, Pawtucket, Nantucket, Shawmut, Swampscott, but also Pauketucke.[23]
  • Nipmuc-language region place names: Hassunek, Pascommuck, Quassuck, but also Quinnepoxet.[24]
  • Pocomtuc-language region place names: Norwotuck, Pachasock, Pocumtuck, but also Peskeompscut.[23]

Palatization of Proto-Algonquian *k to /tʲ/
PA *k became a palatal stop ty /tʲ/ before PEA *ē and some instances of PA *i in Massachusett (and sometimes Narragansett) but is simply *č /tʃ/ in the other SNEA languages; however, Massachusett sk became /htʃ/ in similar environments in line with other SNEA languages. This palatization may also have occurred in other SNEA languages, but not clearly from how they were recorded.[22]

  • PA *weri-kiwa, 'it is good,' becomes wunnetu (wuneetyuw) /wəniːtʲəw/ in Massachusett but 8lig8 in Nipmuc and weyegoh in Pequot.
  • PA *sa-kimi-wa, 'chief,' becomes sontim (sôtyum) /sãtʲəm/ in Massachusett but sancheman in Nipmuc, saúchem in Quiripi and súnjum in Pequot.


The English colonists of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay made their first coastal settlements of the early 1620s and 1630s near different peoples speaking dialects of the Massachusett language, which eventually became known as the Indian language because of its general use throughout New England. Because of its pluricentric usage, it also came to be known as Massachusett, Nonantum, Natick, Pokanoket, Wampanoag or Aberginian.[25][26]

In more scholarly and linguistic domains, the language has assumed a host of names referring to the peoples that spoke it, such as Massachusett, Wampanoag, Massachusett-Wampanoag and, in Goddard, Massachusett-Coweset.[27] If all the Southern New England Algonquian languages were considered dialects of a single language, Massachusett is known as an SNEA N-dialect. Other designations, such as Massachusett-Narragansett and Massachusett-Wampanoag-Narragansett are rarer as Narragansett is generally accepted as its own language despite the close relationship. Massachusett, Natick and Wampanoag (or revived form Wôpanâak) are most common today.[25][26][28]


Because the SNEA languages existed in a dialect continuum and crossed several political boundaries between tribes, Indians made distinctions in speech by degrees of mutual intelligibility. Similar dialects were simply Hettꝏonk[29]/(Hut8ôk),[30] 'language (spoken to others),' or as Unnontꝏwaog/(Âôtꝏâôk), 'language (of the people).' By contrast, languages further away on the dialect chain or other Eastern Algonquian languages were siogontoowaonk[31]/(sayakôt8âôk),[32] 'difficult language,' and very distant or unrelated languages were penoowantoowanok/(peen8wâôt8âôk),[33] 'strange' or 'foreign language.' Unnontꝏwaog/(Âôt8âôk) could also be suffixed to the name of a people, region or tribe to mean 'the language of the ....'[31]

Massachusett (Mâsach8sut)[34] /maːsatʃuːsət/

  • Refers to the Great Blue Hill, in Canton and Milton, Massachusetts, as well as the people and language in its vicinity.
  • Derives from missi[35]/('muhs- or mâs-),[34][36] 'great,' [w]adchu[37]/([w]ach8),[38] 'mountain,' [e]s/(-[ee]s), diminutive suffix, and -ett (-ut), locative suffix."
  • 'Place of the Big Hill'
  • May be partially influenced by Moswetuset/(Môswach8sut), from moswe-/(*môsw-), 'to pierce' or 'arrow' in reference to Moswetuset Hummock in the City of Quincy, Massachusetts. 'Place of the Arrow Hill.'

(Wôpanâôt8âôk) /wãpanaːãtuːaːãk/

  • Refers to the language of the Wampanoag people.
  • Derives from wampan-[39]/(wôpan-),[40] 'dawn' or 'east', 'People of the Dawn' or 'Easterners.'
  • 'Language of the People of the Dawn' or 'Language of the Easterners.'
  • Also called Wampanoag/(Wôpanâak), which technically refers to the people, but used as a shorter name for the language.


  • Refers to the former Praying Town and current town of Natick, Massachusetts as well as the Indians and their language as spoken there.
  • Said to mean 'Place Between Hills' according to Deacon Joseph Ephraim, a partial speaker from the Natick who lived in the second half of the 18th century. May come from nash-, 'between' or 'corner,' and contracted forms of [w]adchu]]/([w]ach8) and the older locative suffix -uk/(*-uk).
  • Possibly also derived from the missionary-influenced nutohk/(nutahk[eem]) /*nət ahk[iːm]/, 'My Land.[41][42]


  • Refers to a confederacy that included most of the Wampanoag tribes, based near a village in what is now Rhode Island.
  • Derives from pohki-,[43] 'to clear,' ohke[44]/(ahkee)[42] and locative suffix.
  • 'Place of the Cleared Land.'


  • Name of the place where Eliot converted Sachem Waban and members of his tribe and also its people and language, now a village of Newton, Massachusetts. Also used for the Massachsett people of Natick and their language, as many were originally from the vicinity of Nonantum.
  • Said to derive from roots meaning 'We Rejoice' or 'We are Well' due to it being a site of conversion to Christianity.


  • Refers to the people and their language who inhabited northern Rhode Island and to Cowesett, a village of Warwick, Rhode Island.
  • Derives from kꝏwa,[45] 'pine' and possibly diminutive suffix -e[s]/(-[ee]s) and locative suffix
  • 'Place of Small Pine Trees.'

Dialects, Distribution and Populations[edit]

Little is known about the dialects of the language prior to its dormancy, although the old Wôpanâak dialect of Martha's Vineyard was said to be quite divergent from Wôpanâak speakers of the Mainland and Nantucket. The adoption of Eliot's Indian Bible in the Massachusett dialect as spoken in Natick, the spread of Indian ministers, preachers and teachers from Natick, the widespread adoption of literacy and the upheaval of King Philip's War, where many Indians fled to neighboring Indian settlements regardless of tribal affiliation all led to rapid dialect leveling.[46] By 1722, fifty-nine years after Eliot's Bible, Experience Mayhew, describing the leveling effects on Martha's Vineyard, remarked that '... most of the little differences betwixt them have been happily Lost, and our Indians Speak, but especially write much as the Natick do.[47]

Small examples of dialectal differences, despite leveling, persisted in the documents written by the Indians themselves. Examples from documents written by speakers of the old Wôpanâak dialect of Martha's Vineyard include ohkuh, which is used instead of ohke (ahkee)[48] 'earth' or 'land,' and ummenaweankanut, 'in his posterity,' instead of uppommetuwonkkanit/(upumeetyuwôkanut)[49][50] Dialects may have also differed by influences from neighboring speech varieties. Syncope, an areal feature that spread from the Abenakian languages, was rare in Massachusett, but appears occasionally, e.g., kuts, 'cormorant,' and wusqueheonk, 'his blood,' are rare, syncopated variants of non-syncopated kuttis and ꝏsqheonk, respectively, that appeared in the Bible.[21] Gookin noted that the Massachusett, Pawtucket and Pokanoket (Wôpanâak) spoke dialects of the same language. Ives Goddard proposed Natick, North Shore, Wampanoag, Nauset and Coweset, as shown below:[5]

Natick Dialect (Massachusett)

  • Ethnic group: Spoken by the Massachusett people that inhabited most of what are now the regions of Greater Boston, MetroWest and South Shore of coastal Massachusetts. As of 2011, a little under a hundred Massachusett people remain in or around Boston, split between the state recognized tribes descended from the Praying Indians of Natick and the Praying Indians of Ponkapoag.[51][52]
  • The language as spoken in Natick was used in Eliot's translation of the Bible and several other translations and Indians from Natick often became preachers, ministers and teachers across the region, causing rapid dialect leveling. It also became the written language across the region, but the dialect survived as the written language of records at Natick till the 1720s and was used in numerous letters and petitions in the area.
  • The language in its original colonial orthography is still used by the Massachusett people for cultural and spiritual reasons, although no native speakers remain.[53]

Wampanoag Dialect (Wôpanâak or also, historically, Pokanoket)

  • Ethnic group: Spoken by the Wôpanâak people of Cape Cod and the Islands, South-Eastern, South Coast and southerly parts of the South Shore regions of eastern Massachusetts and Aquidneck Island and Newport County, Rhode Island. There are approximately 3,000 Wampanoag people today, split between the Federally recognized tribes of Mashpee and Aquinnah; the State recognized tribes of Seaconke, Chappaquiddick, Pocasset, Herring Pond and Assonet; and several other descendant groups in the region. The 15 second-language speakers and 500 students are split between the Mashpee, Aquinnah, Herring Pond and Assonet tribes that participate in the WLRP.[2]
  • The Wampanoag dialect of the mainland was similar to that of the Massachusett, but the insular areas were diverse, with mutual intelligibility of speakers of Martha's Vineyard was low with those of the mainland and even Nantucket.[47]
  • The Wampanoag dialect was used in works and translations of Experience Mayhew and had great influence in the newer Massachusett-language Bibles re-translated in part by John Cotton, Jr. The Wampanoag also became literate, and documents survive in the language up until the very end of the 18th century. Its modern, revived orthography is now used mainly in pedagogical materials such as a dictionary, teaching books and grammar information used and produced by various programs and projects within the WLRP.

North Shore (Pawtucket or Aberginian)

  • Ethnic group: Spoken by the Pawtucket people, a collection of Massachusett-speaking tribes ranging from the southernmost areas of Maine, coastal New Hampshire, and the lower Merrimack Valley and the North Shore regions of north-eastern Massachusetts.[54] The Pawtucket were greatly reduced by disease and wars with the English settlers and most assimilated or merged with the Pennacook and later the Abenaki, with likely descendants amongst the Abenaki people of northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Quebec Province, Canada, such as the Cowasuck Band of Pennacook-Abenaki of Alton, New Hampshire.[54][55]
  • Aside from topographical legacy, a three-hundred word vocabulary taken from the Abeginians who inhabited an area somewhere between Boston and Cape Ann, was recorded in William Wood's 1634 Nevv Englands Prospect.

Nauset Dialect

  • Ethnic group: Spoken by the Nauset people of the 'Outer Cape' (portions of Cape Cod east of the middle part of Barnstable, Massachusetts) with possible outposts on Nantucket, but it seems there was little difference in culture or language from the Wampanoag people, and they were sometimes part of the Pokanoket confederacy. The Nauset are extinct, but their descendants were the base of the Wampanoag people of Mashpee, before their numbers were swelled with Wampanoag and other Indians fleeing the ravages of King Philip's War. That Nauset is separate from the Wampanoag dialect may be unlikely.[56]
  • Only known for names of villages and topographical features in areas where the Nauset originally inhabited.

Coweset Dialect

  • Ethnic group: Spoken by the Coweset people of northern Rhode Island, often subject to the Narragansett to the south or the Nipmuc to the north. The Coweset are extinct, but descendants may be found amongst the Narragansett people or other remaining Indian peoples of the region.
  • Attested from dialectal variation in the vocabulary of Algonquian words in Roger William's 1643 A Key Into the Language of America, which included an SNEA N-dialect almost identical to Massachusett (Coweset), an SNEA N-dialect with grammar and vocabulary similarities to SNEA Y-dialects (northern Narragansett) and an SNEA Y-dialect (southern Narragansett/Narragansett influenced by Niantic).[57] Much of the vocabulary, given where Roger Williams' influence and time was spent, were most likely taken from the Coweset people.[58]

Other Dialects
Some of the Nipmuc that came to settle in the numerous Praying Towns set up by Eliot and his Indian missionaries set up in their region of Central Massachusetts and north-eastern Connecticut likely came to speak the Massachusett language or were greatly influenced by its use as the language of writing and religion. The same is probably likely the case for Pawtucket and the Abenakian-speaking Pennacook of the Praying Town of Wamesit, now Chelmsford and Lowell, Massachusetts, on the banks of the Merrimack River, who were under the same missionary influences.[59]

Dialect Comparison
English Natick[60] Wôpanâak (Revived)[61][62][63] Wôpanâak (Plymouth)[64] North Shore (Pawtucket)[65] Narragansett (Coweset?)[57][66][67]
'fox' wonksis wonkqǔssis peqwas, whauksis wonkis
'my mother' nꝏkas (n8kas) /nuːkas/ nookas, nutookasin, nútchēhwau nitka nókace, nitchwhaw
'one' nequt (nuqut) /nəkwət/ nequt aquit nquít
'duck' quasseps (seehseep), /siːhsiːp/ sesep, qunŭsseps seaseap quequécum
'boy' nonkomp nonkomp nonkompees núckquachucks
'deer' ahtuck (ahtuhq) /ahtəhk/ attŭk ottucke attuck
'to kill' nush (nuhsh) /nəhʃ/ nish cram niss
'shoe' mokis (mahkus) /mahkəs/ mohkis mawcus mockuss
'head' muhpuhkuk (mupuhkuk) /məpəhkək/ muppuhkuk boquoquo uppaquóntap
'bear' mosq (masq) /mask/ mashq mosq, paukúnawaw
'canoe' mishꝏn (mush8n) /məʃuːn/ muhshoon mishòon
'it is white' wompi (wôpay) /wãpaj/ wompi wompey wómpi
'man' wosketop (waskeetôp) /waskiːtãp/ wosketop wosketomp
'chief' sachem, sontim (sôtyum) /sãtʲəm/ sachem sachem sâchem

Derived languages[edit]

Massachusett Pidgin[edit]

Massachusett Pidgin was a local version of one of several Eastern Algonquian (EA) pidgin languages that developed on the eastern coast of North America. As the Massachusett were at one time a powerful people and their language used over a broad area, it became the basis of Massachusett Pidgin, retaining most of the lexicon of its parent language but having a much simpler grammar. Similar Pidgins include those based on Mahican, Unami and Powhatan.[68]

The majority of Massachusett Pidgin vocabulary is taken from Massachusett, but many phrases are simplified and there were borrowings from other Algonquian languages spoken in New England, English and even Massachusett Pidgin English. Although Massachusett was commonly used by peoples that bordered the Massachusett-language speaking region, its Pidgin variety was adopted by most of the inhabitants of New England and Long Island as a trade jargon and medium of long-distance communication. Massachusett Pidgin had the following characteristics:[68] Simplified phrases and expressions.

  • Massachusett sunksquaw or sonksq, 'female sachem' or 'wife of a sachem,' with Massachusett Pidgin squaw-sachem.[69]

Algonquian loan words.[70]

  • Abenakian-influenced Massachusett Pidgin sagamore', 'chief,' instead of Massachusett sachem/(sôtyum) /ˈsãˌtʲəm/.
  • Abenakian-influenced wigwam instead of Massachusett wetu/(weety8) /wiːtʲuː/.[70]

Simplification of verbs into reduced inanimate forms.

  • The last words of Massasoit to his friend Edward Winslow, 'Matta neen wonckanet namen Winsnow'. Literally, 'Not I again see Winslow,' where namen, 'see [it],' (lacking the first person marker prefix nu-/(nu-) is an inanimate form where Massachusett would use nunaum[71]/(nunâm)[72] for the inanimate form and (nunâw)[73] for the animate.[74][75]

Massachusett Pidgin English[edit]

A handful of Indians had rudimentary knowledge of English through occasional contacts with English seafarers, adventurers, fishermen and traders for a few decades before the first permanent English settlement of New England at Plymouth. When the Pilgrims established their outpost, they were greeted in English by Samoset, originally an Abenaki of coastal Maine, and Tisquantum ('Squanto'), a local Wôpanâak, but both of their home villages were also wiped out by an epidemic caused by infectious agents unknown in the New World. Tisquantum was abducted by an English vessel, sold into slavery in Spain, mysteriously found his way to London where gained employment on English explorations of the North American coast and later escaped and took up residence in a neighboring Wôpanâak village.[76]

As the Indians were already in a multi-dialectal, multi-lingual society, English was adopted quite quickly albeit with strong influences of Massachusett lexicon, grammar and likely pronunciation. As the number of English settlers grew and quickly outnumbered the local peoples, Natives grew to use English more often, and the English also used it to communicate with the Indians. The resulting pidgin was probably the vector of transmission of many of the so-called 'wigwam words,' i.e., local Algonquian loan words, that were once prevalent in the English of the Americas.

Massachusett Pidgin English was mostly English in vocabulary, but included numerous loan words, grammar features and calques of Massachusett Pidgin. Amongst the Indians, it co-existed with the use of the 'standard' Massachusett language, local speech and other dialects or languages, Massachusett Pidin and English. As the Indians began a quick process of language shift at the end of the eighteenth century, it is likely that Massachusett Pidgin English lost its native features and merged with the evolution of local speech, one of the varieties of Eastern New England English or even General American of the majority non-Indians of the region in a process similar to decreolization. Massachusett Pidgin English had the following characteristics:[77]

Massachusett loan words (shared Masachusett Pidgin vocabulary)

  • meechin from Massachusett metsuwonk[78]/(meech8ôk)[79] /miːˌtʃuːˈãk/, 'food' via Massachusett Pidgin meechum, 'food.'
  • sannap from Massachusett for 'young man.'
  • wunneekin, 'good,' from Massachusett wunnegin[80]/(wuneekun)[81] 'it is good.'

Generalized pronouns

  • Use of 'me' for both 'I' and 'me.'

SNEA N-dialect interference

  • English 'lobster' and English surname 'Winslow' with Massachusett Pidgin English nobstah and Winsnow, respectively, substitution of /n/ for /l/ of English.
  • English 'Frenchmen' adopted as panachmonog, substitution of /n/ for /r/ of English.


  • all one this, calque of Masachusett Pidgin tatapa you, 'like this.'
  • big, calque of muhsuh-/*muhsh
  • Reduplication
    E.g. by and by, 'soon.'

Use of Massachusett animate plural suffix for domesticated animals introduced by the English

  • cowsack/(*cowsak) 'cows' or 'cattle.'
  • horseog/(*horseak), 'horses.'
  • pigsack/(*pigsak), 'pigs.'

Examples of Massachusett Pidgin English[82][83]

  • English man all one speake, all one heart. 'What an Englishman says is what he thinks.')
  • Weaybee gon coates? (Away be gone coats?) 'Do you have any coats?'
  • What cheer, netop. 'Greetings, friend.' Netop, 'friend,' from Massachusett netomp/(neetôp).
  • Little way, fetch pigsack. '[He went] not too far [to] fetch the pigs.')


Pre-colonial history[edit]

Although human occupation in New England dates as far back as 10,000 BC, when Paleo-Indians entered the region after the retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier at the end of the Pleistocene, glottochronology and some corroborating archaeological evidence traces the history of the Massachusett language to the Pacific Northwest where the ancestral Algic language family emerged around 2000 BC with an Urheimat believed to correspond to the upper reaches of the Columbia River.[84] Migrations of Na-Dene speakers and competition with several other language families that developed in the region pushed some speakers southward, including the predecessors of the distantly related Wiyot and Yurok languages of northern California.[85]

One branch of the Algic languages eventually moved eastward over the Rocky Mountains, emerging as Proto-Algonquian, the ancestor of all Algonquian languages, sometime around 1000 BC. The exact location where Proto-Algonquian was spoken has not been determined, but the Plateau region shared between Oregon and Idaho, the transition region of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains in Montana or an area just west of the Great Lakes have all been suggested.[86] Algonquian languages splintered off as they moved eastward, probably facilitated by the spread of the mound-builder cultures that developed in the Adena (1000-200 BC) and Hopewell (200-500 AD) cultural periods.[87]

In 1000 AD, Proto-Eastern Algonquian emerged in what is now southern Ontario, and spread towards the coast, with Eastern Algonquian languages known from Atlantic Canada south to the Carolinas. During this time, small migrations into New England occurred, likely introducing the beginnings of maize-based agriculture and Iroquoian influences in pottery. Since there is little evidence of large population replacements or migrations since the Archaic Period (8000-2000 BC), it is likely that these new migrants triggered a language shift to their Algonquian tongue due to the great influence of their culture. [88]

A few centuries later, the Southern New England Algonquian (SNEA) languages diverged. This development might coincide with the final success of new strains of the tropical maize crop suitable to the northern climes and increased use of coastal resources around 1300 AD during the Late Woodland Period. The spread of the 'Three Sisters' method of agriculture supported larger populations centered around arable lands near the coast, estuaries and river valleys, with populations spreading northward and SNEA languages displacing other languages in Connecticut. Competition over these resources, and small migrations from the north and west, fueled territoriality. This might be seen, e.g., in the growth of local pottery styles with restricted production areas. Shortly after this time, the ethnic divisions, cultures and possibly even languages that had developed at that point would probably be recognizable to the European settlers arriving in the seventeenth century.[89]

Early colonial period[edit]

The first English settlements, the Plymouth Colony by the Pilgrims in 1620, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the Puritans in 1629, both were founded in Massachusett-language speaking territory.[90] The colonists depended on the Indians for survival, and some learned how to communicate with the Indians for trade.[91] As the population of the English increased with further Puritan migrations, and the Indians became outnumbered, moves to assimilate the Indians were enacted. With colonial backing and funding from the Society for the Propagation of the Bible, missionaries such as John Eliot, Thomas Mayhew and his descendants amongst the Wampanoag, and Roger Williams began to learn the local languages and convert the Indians.[92] Eliot began preaching at Nonantum (now Newton, Massachusetts), and starting 1651, established communities of converts, known as praying towns or Indian plantations, where the Indians were encouraged to adopt English customs and language, practice Christianity, and accept colonial jurisdiction.[93][94] Eliot printed a Bible in 1663, and the Indians at the praying towns began to adopt the orthography of the Natick dialect Bible.

Indian literacy[edit]

The Indian Bible in the Natick dialect helped to preserve the language and promoted literacy.

Education of the Indians was implemented to train Indians in Eliot's orthography and to return to preach in their local communities. The Indian College was active at Harvard University from 1655 to 1698.[95] Eliot trained many of the Indians, who often in turn trained others, including the teacher at Natick, Monesquassum. Thomas Mayhew began schools for the Wampanoag in 1651, and this was continued by his descendants, including Experience Mayhew.[96] Most of the students were being trained as Indian preachers for the Gospel, and had to be literate, but literacy also spread to the administrators of the praying towns and the descendants of the chiefly families. Many Indians became interpreters, clerks, and writers of deeds and sales for the Indian courts in the praying towns and the colonial government. Many of the Indians that assisted the missionaries also became literate. Eliot was greatly assisted in learning and translating the language by his Pequot servant Cockenoe, John Sassamon, his former student John Nesutan, and James Wawaus, a Nipmuc who also worked the printing machines. Experience Mayhew was assisted by Joel Hiacoomes, a graduate of Harvard University's Indian College, James Wowaus, and John Neesnummin.[97][98][99] By 1674, a request for literacy rates of the Indians in the Plymouth Colony by Daniel Gookin indicated that 29% of the converted Indians could read and 17% could write the Massachusett language. Conversely, only 2% could read English, and none could write it. The highest concentrations of those literate in the Massachusett language were found in the villages of Codtanmut, Ashimuit, and Weesquobs (all in modern-day Mashpee, Massachusetts), where the figures are 59% could read and 31% could write.[100]

Translation and literature[edit]

For more details on this topic, see Eliot Indian Bible.

Beginning with John Eliot's publication of a printed catechism in 1653 and ending with a reprint of Experience Mayhew's Indiane Primer asuh Negonneuyeuuk in 1747, English missionaries produced numerous translations of Christian works or composed original tracts and pedagogical materials intended to teach the Indians how to read and write and to become better Christians.[101] John Eliot began the idea of translating works into the Massachusett language as early as 1649. After Eliot had learned the language from Indian guides and translators, he created an orthography and taught it to some of the Indians. His first work in the language was a short catechism that was hand-copied and distributed to the Praying Indians of Natick in 1651, which introduced and spread literacy. This was followed by a translation of the Book of Psalms in 1652 that was never published but used in church services.[102]

Printing became available through funds established to support the New England colonies' Puritan missionary efforts. In 1649, the English Parliament allowed for the creation of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England which supported Calvinist and Congregationalist theologians, missionaries and literature that were banned in England and Wales, where the donations were collected, but flourishing in New England.[103] The Society's funds were used to support the missionaries amongst the Indians, but with the growth of literacy and Eliot's success, funds became available to publish these works. The Indian College of Harvard University was constructed and later housed a printing press, reams of paper, type and other supplies used to print and publish the works in the language.

Eliot produced works until his death in 1690, his most notable contribution being his translation of the complete Christian Bible, Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God in 1663. Other missionaries that produced works include Samuel Danforth, Eliot's former assistant; Grindal Rawson, minister to the Praying Indians of Wacentug (Mendon-Uxbridge, Massachusetts); John Cotton, Jr., minister to the Wôpanâak of Plymouth, Mashpee and Martha's Vineyard; Cotton Mather, influential Puritan theologian and grandson of John Cotton, Sr.; and Experience Mayhew.[101] Mayhew, in a direct line of missionaries amongst the Wôpanâak of Martha's Vineyard descended from Thomas Mayhew, grew up speaking the Wôpanâak dialect of the island fluently and was commissioned by the Society to produce primers, catechisms and retranslations of scripture. Mayhew's contributions are more consistent in spelling and uses a more natural grammar, resultant from his native speaking ability, but his monumental work is Massachusee Psalter, an independent translation of the Book of Psalms and the Gospel According to John.[104][105]

Although generally uncredited, several native speakers assisted the missionaries with their translations. Eliot was greatly assisted in learning and translating the language by his servant Cockenoe, a Mohegan-Pequot-Montauk speaker from Long Island; John Sassamon; his former student, John Nesutan; and James Wawâus, a Nipmuc who also assisted with the printing press. Experience Mayhew was assisted by Joel Hiacoomes, John Neesnummin and the same James Wawâus that assisted Eliot.[97][98][99]

The Indians, who traditionally had an orally transmitted culture, were not encouraged or given access to print literature for themselves but were able to pen their own letters, document land sales and agreements and petition the courts with documents in the language, and they did have access to the works created below:[106]

Massachusett-language publications[101]
Year Massachusett title English title Translator Original author Reprints
1653 Catechism Catechism John Eliot John Eliot 16621
1655 Genesis Book of Genesis John Eliot Unknown, attributed to Moses.
1655 Wunnaunchemookaonk ne ansukhogup Matthew Gospel According to Matthew John Eliot Unknown, attributed to Matthew the Apostle
1658 Wame Ketꝏhomáe uk-Ketꝏhomaongash David Psalms in Meeter John Eliot Unknown, attributed to King David. 1663
1661 Wusku Wuttestamentum nul-Lordumun Jesus Christ Nuppoquohwnssuaeneumun New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ John Eliot Unknown, various authors. 16812
16--? Christiane Ꝏnoowae Sampoowaonk A Christian Covenanting Confession John Eliot John Eliot
1663 Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God The-whole Holy his-Bible God John Eliot Unknown, various authors. 16852
1663 Psalter3 Psalter John Eliot John Eliot
*16644 Unknown The Sound Believer John Eliot Thomas Shephard (1645)
1665 Manitowompae Pomantawaonk The Practice of Piety (abridged) John Eliot Lewis Bayly (1613) 1685, 1687
1666 N/A Indian Grammar Begun5 N/A John Eliot
1667 Indiane Primer Indian Primer John Eliot John Eliot 1669, 1687
1671 Unknown Our Indians' A B C John Eliot John Eliot
1671 N/A6 Indian Dialogues N/A John Eliot
1672 N/A6 Logick Primer N/A John Eliot
1689 Sampwutteahae Quinnuppekompauenin The Sincere Convert John Eliot7 Thomas Shephard (1641)
1691 Nashauanittue Meninnunk wutch Mukkiesog Spiritual Milk for [Boston] Babes Grindal Rawson John Cotton (1656)
1698 Masukkenukéeg Matcheseaenuog Greatest Sinners Samuel Danforth Increase Mather
1699 Wunnamptamoe Sampooaonk A Confession of Faith Unknown Unknown
1700 Wussukwhonk En Christaneue asuh peantamwae Indianog Epistle to the Christian Indians Cotton Mather Cotton Mather 1706
1705 Togkunkash, tummethamunate Matchesongane mehtug The Hatchets, to hew down the Tree of Sin Unknown Unknown
1707 Ne Kesukod Jehovah kessuhtunkup The Day the Lord hath made Experience Mayhew Cotton Mather (1703)
1709 Massachusee Psalter8 Massachusett Psalter Experience Mayhew Experience Mayhew
1710 Oggusunash Kuttooonkash9 A few words to the condemned murderers Josiah and Joseph, in their own language Samuel Danforth Samuel Danforth
17--? Unknown The foundation of Christian religion : gathered into sixe principles Experience Mayhew William Perkins (1591)
1714 Teashshinninneongane Peantamooonk Wogkouunumun kah Anunumwontamun Family Religion Excited, and Assisted Experience Mayhew Cotton Mather
1714 Unknown A Monitor for Communicants Cotton Mather Cotton Mather
1720 Indiane Primer asuh Negonneuyeuuk The Indian Primer or First Book Experience Mayhew John Eliot10 1747
1721 Wame wunetooog Wusketompaog pasukqunnineaout ut yuennag peantamweseongash11 The Religion, which all Good Men are united in Cotton Mather Cotton Mather

^1 The 1662 edition was a revised and longer version.
^2 These revised editions were completed with the assistance of John Cotton, Jr.
^3 Consists of a reworked edition of the metrical Wame Ketꝏhomáe uk-Ketꝏhomaongash David with a short catechism. Printed both with Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God and separately.
^4 Half-completed, but was never finished or published.
^5 Although in English, it includes a wealth of information about the language, especially its grammatical structure. Some copies were bound with later versions of Psalter or Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God and likely distributed to other missionaries working amongst the Indians.
^6 Although in English, these works were distributed to Indian missionaries to help improve their ministry.
^7 Started in Eliot in 1664, but was completed by Grindal Rawson.
^8 Mayhew's Massachusee Psalter consisted of a retranslated Uk-kuttoohomaongash David, 'Songs of David' (Book of Psalms) and a retranslated Wunnaunchemookaonk ne Anukhogup John (Gospel According to John).
^9 The address to the Indians was appended to a copy of Danforth's sermon, The Woeful Effects of Drunkenness.
^10 Mayhew's Indiane Primer was a retranslation of Eliot's original primer, also bound to copies of Grindal Rawson's translation of Nashauanittue Meninnunk wutch Mukkiesog.
^11 Published in Mather's India Christiana.


The use of the written language declined over the course of the eighteenth century. In Natick, where Indian literacy began, the last town records in the language were written by Thomas Waban (Weegramomenit), son of Waban, in 1720. The last document to survive in the language are the records of the Congregational Church of Gay Head, recording the marriage of John Joel and Mary Tallmon by the minister Zachary Hossueit, in 1771. The last known epigraphic evidence of the written language is its use on the now damaged tombstone of Silas Paul, another Indian minister of Gay Head, in 1787.[107] Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Indians were literate up until the middle of the nineteenth century, although no documents from this period survive.[108]

The spoken language remained in vibrant use in the 1750s on the mainland and as late as the 1770s in the larger, more isolated Wampanoag communities of the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. By 1798, only one speaker of advanced age was found in Natick.[109] The language survived on Nantucket until the death of the widow Dorcas Honorable in 1855. On Martha's Vineyard, the language survived the longest. In 1808, a church official named Elisha Clap writing about the small congregation of the Baptist minister Zachariah Howwaswee (Hossueit) remarked, 'Only a few aged Indians, who do not understand English, attend his meeting, as he preaches in the native language ....' Howwaswee continued preaching until his death sometime in the 1830s.[110] It is not known when the last speakers perished, but Tamsen Weekes, who died in 1890 at the age of 90, was likely one of the last fluent speakers. Studies of the Wampanoag tribe in the 1920s did not find any native speakers, but only those who remembered small bits of the language.[111]

Metacomet, or 'King Philip,' united the Indians against the English, but his defeat by the English ended Indian autonomy and support for Indian culture and causes.

The reasons behind the decline of the language are varied. The population of speakers plummeted due to the effects of virgin soil epidemics of smallpox, measles, diphteria and scarlet fever that continued to claim indigenous lives well into the nineteenth century, but began with a particularly severe outbreak of leptospirosis in 1619 that claimed the lives of up to 90% of coastal populations where Massachusett-language speakers resided. This reduced their ability to resist neighboring tribes, such as the Mohawk and Tarratine, and the influx of English settlers.[112]

War also greatly reduced the population. The ravages of King Philip's War (1675–76) is believed to have reduced the population by 40%, due to executions, retaliatory attacks and displacement. Many of the Praying Indians that remained neutral were rounded up and left on islands in Boston Harbor where many perished from disease, starvation and exposure to the elements. Others were sold into slavery in the West Indies. Many of the indigenous people decided to leave, seeking safety with the Abenaki to the north or the Mahican to the west, where they would eventually assimilate into the host tribe.[113] Many men were called to fight alongside the English colonists against the French and their Indian allies during the French and Indian Wars, a series of conflicts between 1688 and 1763 as well as the American Revolutionary War (1775–83). The gender imbalance led to increased intermarriage between Indian women and Black or White men outside the speech community.[114]

Loss of land forced language shift in other ways. Only Mashpee and Aquinnah remained in Indian hands by the end of the nineteenth century. The Indians were no longer able to support themselves on agriculture and subsistence as their lands were lost due to encroachment and land sales. This forced men to seek employment as laborers, mariners or whalers in coastal cities whereas women and children found employment as domestics in White households or as peddlers of baskets. The shrinking communities were no longer able to support separate church congregations that traditionally used the language. The population also became a smaller and smaller minority with the growth in the population of descendants of English settlers and large-scale arrival of newcomers from Europe in the nineteenth century, exacerbating already existing assimilation pressures.[114]


Jessie little doe Baird is the linguist who re-introduced the Wôpanâak language.

The language remained in use the longest in speech and writing in the isolated, insular Wôpanâak communities, but as the language slowly faded, many believed that the language would return with the help of descendants of those who destroyed it. Massachusett-language documents in the form of land sales, leases and deeds are found in the oldest layer of city and town archives in Massachusetts. The petitions and complaints to the General Court of Massachusetts were often sent in English and in Massachusett. The records of the former Praying Town and now just town of Natick, Massachusetts are in Massachusett from 1651 until 1720. The Indians also maintained their libraries of religious manuscripts and personal records even as the language ceased to be spoken, many of which were later sold to private collectors and ultimately are now in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society. In addition, all the Indian translations and original works by the English missionaries have been preserved.[107]

The Natick Dictionary, published in 1903 and based on the work of Dr. James H. Trumbull, includes descriptions of vocabulary, mainly from Eliot's Bible but also that of the other missionaries and Roger William's A Key .... The documents of the Indians were extensively analyzed by Ives Goddard and Kathleen Bragdon, with the 1988 release of Native Writings in Massachusett. Reconstructions of gaps in grammar, syntax, vocabulary and pronunciation could be filled by comparison with other related Algonquian languages or by reconstructions based on likely sound changes, such as George F. Aubin's Proto-Algonquian Dictionary of 1975.[115]

As acceptance and appreciation of Native American culture grew in the early twentieth century, the local peoples of southern New England began to reconnect through Pan-Indian movements and gatherings, adopting aspects of Plains Indian culture and sharing aspects of traditional culture and language that remained. Many Indians attended the Aquidneck Indian Council meetings in Providence, Rhode Island or took part in the Indian Council of New England in 1923.[116]'

The anthropologist and Eastern Woodlands Culture expert Frank Speck visited the Wampanoag of Mashpee and tried to document the language, but was only able to list of twenty words with great difficulty from five of the oldest members in the community.[117] Similarly, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, visited the Wampanoag of Aquinnah and was able to extract one hundred words from those of most advanced age, her success likely from her attempts to preserve her own language which became extinct in 1908 with the death of her aunt, Dji'ts Bud dnaca.[118] Gordon Day recorded a reading of the Lord's Prayer from Chief Wild Horse, Clinton Mye Haynes (1894-1966) of Mashpee, in 1961. Wild Horse was likely one of the last language rememberers.[119]

In 1993, Jessie little doe Baird, of the Mashpee Wampanoag, began the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project as a co-founder. She began her studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), working with Dr. Kenneth Hale and later Norvin Richards, Baird was able to reconstruct the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of the Indian documents and English missionary translations. Baird later published her thesis, Introduction to Wampanoag Grammar in 2000, the year she completed her Master's in Algonquian Linguistics. The WLRP later spread to include participants in the Ahquinnah, Herring Pond and Assonet tribes of the Wôpanâak. Since Kenneth Hale was a direct descendant of the missionary Roger Williams and Baird a direct descendant of Nathan Pocknett, who resisted conversion attempts, fulfilled the Wôpanâak prophecy regarding the language's revival.[120]

Current Status[edit]

The "Old Indian Meeting House", built in 1684 at Mashpee, is the oldest Native American church in the United States. Christianity and the translation of the Bible have helped the Wampanoag language survive, even though it destroyed traditional religion and spiritual practices.

As of 2014, WLRP can now claim a handful of children who are growing up as native speakers—the first in over a century, 15 proficient speakers, two trained Algonquian linguists, 500 students at various stages, a dictionary of approximately 12,000 entries, a complete, non-English educational curriculum, numerous pedagogical materials and the return of the language in public and spiritual profession of Indian identity. The WLRP continues to offer the language-immersion summer camps and one-day events, but has expanded to include after-school immersion classes and educational programs with access to a growing repertoire of pedagogical materials.[8][9]

In 2010, Baird was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award for her work in reviving the language.[121] In 2011, PBS aired a portion of Âs Nutayanyean-We Still Live Here by Anne Makepeace of Makepeace Productions on its program, Independent Lens. The documentary featured Baird, members of the WLRP and members of the Wampanoag tribes sharing stories of the project's history, goals and experiences.[122]

The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project originally had plans for a language immersion Weetumuw Wôpanâak Charter School, which had original plans to open by August 2015.[123] The WLRP later abandoned this project, citing inability to meet the statutory requirement to serve students in the lowest tenth percentile of MCAS scores. According to Jennifer Weston, who serves as the Immersion School Developer and Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Language Department Director, stated, 'Since we didn't meet that statutory requirement, our application's fate rested on two other groups being approved first.' The decision was also influenced by Governor Charlie Baker's proposal to lift the cap on charter schools and a bill with popular support to issue a moratorium.[124] The WLRP is now working on a Wôpanâak-language immersion Montessori school, (Mukayuhsak Weekuw), 'The Children's House,' set to open Fall of 2016 with two trained teachers and a complete curriculum ready to go.[124][125] The WLRP is also expanding teaching classes and after-school programs and language immersion opportunities, especially in Mashpee, where in 2013, 6% of the students of the school district were estimated to be from the Mashpee Wôpanâak tribe.[125][126]

Phonology and spelling[edit]


Reconstructed Massachusett consonant phonology[127][128][edit]

Labial Alveolar Palatal/
Velar Glottal
Stop [p] [t], [tʲ] [tʃ] [k]
Fricative [s] [ʃ] [h]
Nasal [m] [n]
Approximant [w] [j]
Sound Orthography Native example English example Notes
[b] B Bithnia /ˈbiθˌnia/, 'Bithynia' boy Only used as /b/ in loan words. Used to represent [p] in native words where it is usually replaced by P.
[tʃ] CH, J
medial/final: DJ, DCH, DTCH, HCH, JT, TCH
cheeku /ˈtʃiːˈkuː/, 'after a long time' chalk
[d] D Ed'en /ˈiːˌdən/ dog Only used as /d/ in loan words. Used to represent /t/ in native words, where it is often replaced with T.
[f] F figse /ˈfiːkˌsə/, 'figs' father Very rare as it is only occurs in loan words.
[ɡ] G God /ɡad/, 'God' gate Only used as /ɡ/ in loan words. Used to represent /k/ in native words, where it is often replaced with K.
[h] H
medial/final: HH
howan /ˈhaˌwan/, 'who?' hat H was used to lengthen the preceding vowel or to indicate a breathy pause.
[d͡ʒ] J, G Jabal /ˈdʒeɪˌbəl/, 'Jabal' juice Only used as /d͡ʒ/ in loan words. Used with other consonants or alone to represent /tʲ/ or /tʃ/ in native words. G before E or I was sometimes also /d͡ʒ/, cf. Gentilsog, 'Gentiles'. Soft G as /ʒ/ may occur in rare loan words.
[k] C, K, Q
medial/final: CC, CK, G, GG, GH, GK, HK, KH, KK, CQ
kussokhoi /ˈkuˌsaˈkoj/, 'crag' or 'mountain summit' skin
[kw] KW, Q, QU
medial: CKQ, GW, GQU, KQU
medial/final: GHK, KQ
final: G, GK, GQ, K
quonꝏasq /ˈkwaˌnəˈwaːsˌkəw/, 'gourd' quality In many instances, words ending with /kw/ (or /kəw/) are only represented by consonants that represent /k/.
[l] L Lord /lɔrd/, 'Lord' lime Very rare as it only occurs in loan words.
[m] M
medial/final: MM
micheme /ˌməˈchiːˌmə/, 'forever' mother M after a vowel and before a consonant can indicate that the preceding vowel is /ã/.
[n] N
medial/final: NN
nippe /ˈnəpˌpə/, 'water' night N after a vowel and before /t/, /tʲ/, /tʃ/, or /k/ can indicate that the preceding vowel is /ã/. When doubled at the beginning of the word, the first N represents /nə/. This is also represented by N.
[p] B, P
medial/final: BB, BP, PB, PP
pohnque /ˈpãˌkəw/ spin
[r] R cherubimsog /ˈtʃɛˌrəˈbɪmˌsak/, 'cherubim' run Very rare as it only occurs in loan words.
[s] S, SH
medial/final: SS, SH
seep /siːp/, 'river' silk SH only represents /s/ in consonant clusters, such as SHK (/sk/).
[ʃ] SH, HSH anshap /ˈãˈʃãp/, 'fish net' shoe SH before a consonant represents /s/.
[sk] SC, SK, SKC, SHK, SHQ oskosk /ˌaˈskask/, 'hay' skill
[skw] SKW, SQ, SQU, SKW
medial/final: SGHK, SKQ
final: SG, SGK, SGQ, SK
squont /skwãt/, 'door' squid In many instances, words ending with /skw/ (or /skəw/) are only represented by consonants that represent /sk/.
[t] initial: D, DT, T
medial/final: D, DD, DT, T, TD, TT
tummunk /ˌtaˈmãk/, 'beaver' still
[tʲ] initial: D, DT, T
medial/final: D, DT, T, TT; possibly also JT or DJ. These forms are generally followed by the vowels E or I and sometimes U.
wetu /ˈwiːˈtʲuː/, 'dwelling' tune (Received Pronunciation)
[v] V silver /ˈsilvər/, 'silver' vice Very rare as it only occurs in loan words. Elsewhere, also appears as vowel form of V (in variation with U).
[w] W
initial/medial: OO, Ꝏ
wompi /ˈwãˌpaj/, 'it is white' wit W and U (as a vowel after consonants) are also /w/. The double o digraph and ligature are only /w/ in vowel combinations or after certain consonants. Word-medial and word-final, it is often an unwritten consonant.
[ks] X ox'suog /ˈaksˌwak/, 'oxen' fix Very rare as it only occurs in loan words, although /ks/ can appear in syncopated forms of Massachusett.
[j] Y
medial: E
yehquog /ˈjaˌkwak/, 'lice' yes E represents /j/ before the short vowels that occur after /iː/ and a consonant. Y is also used to sometimes represent the diphthong /aj/.
[z] Z zamzummin /ˈzamˌzəmˈmiːn/, 'Zamzummites' zebra Only used as /z/ in loan words. Used to represent /s/ in native words, where it is often replaced with S.

Consonant clusters include /tʃw/, /ks/, /kw/, /ps/, /sk/, /skw/, /st/, and /ts/ can occur, especially after a short vowel or contraction of the diminutive suffix -ees, but syncopation, the deletion of short vowels between consonants, is a rare feature of the language and is only sparsely attested as a dialectal feature. For instance, ahtuk, 'deer,' in diminutive form is ahtukees, 'little deer,' but in syncopated varieties becomes ahtuks, such as the surname of Crispus Attucks, who was of African and Indian, possibly Massachusett or Wampanoag, descent.[128][129][130]


Reconstructed Massachusett vowel phonology[128][129][130][edit]

Front Central Back
Close [iː] [uː]
Mid [ə]
Open [aː] [ã]

Sound to spelling correspondence[128][129][130][edit]

Sound Representation in orthography Native example English example Notes
[a] A, AU, O, OU, OH, U ouwassu /ˌaˈwaˌsuː/, 'he warms himself' father Values for /a/ could have also included /ɑ/ and /ɔ/
[aː] A, Á, AA, AÁ, AH, AI, AIH, O, OH, OO, Ó, OH nagum /ˈnaːkˌem/, 'himself' aardvark Values for /a/ could have also included /ɑː/ and /ɔː/
[ã] Ã, AM, AN, ÁU, AÚ, Õ, OM, ON, Û nâmâg, /ˈnãˌmãk/, 'fish' French blanc A followed by N is /ã/ if the following sound is /t/, /tʲ/, /tʃ/, /k/. A followed by M if the following sound is /p/. OH can be nasal if it occurs after N.
[ə] A, À, E, I, O, OO, Ꝏ, OH, U, UH
final: AH
onkhup /ˈãˌkəp/, 'strong drink' about The double o digraph and the double o ligature at the beginning of words represents /ə/ or /əw/ in some vowel combinations. It can also appear unwritten between consonants and a corresponding W or U or vowel combination starting with /w/.
[uː] OO, Ꝏ, U, Ú msi /ˈmuːˌsaj/, 'bald' food OO, Ꝏ, and U can represent /w/ in vowel combinations and other situations. U can also represent /juː/.

The language was also rich in various vowel and vowel-semivowel combinations, some of which are /a/ a/, /aː a/, /aː ã ã/ /ã ə/, /aː iː/, /ãwa/, /əj/, /əw/, /əwa/, /əwaː/, /əwã/, /əwə/, /awa/, /aːw/, /aw/, /ja/, /jã/, /iːw/, and /iːə/. Due to the wide variance of spelling, the vowels have been hardest to reconstruct for the language. The exact value is unknown, and the vowels /a/, /ã/, and /aː/ could have had values of /ɑ/, /ɑ̃/, /ɑː/, or /ɔ/, /ɔ̃/, /ɔː/. The digraph AU could represent /a/, /a/, /aw/ or variants of /a/ previously listed.[128][129][130]


The Massachusett language shared several features in common with other Algonquian languages. Nouns have gender based on animacy, based on the world-view of the Indians on what has spirit versus what does not. A body would be animate, but the parts of the body are inanimate. Nouns are also marked for obviation, with nouns subject to the topic marked apart from nouns less relevant to the discourse. Personal pronouns distinguish three persons, two numbers (singular and plural), inclusive and exclusive first-person plural, and proximate/obviative third-persons. Nouns are also marked as absentative, especially when referring to lost items or deceased persons. Sentence structures are typically SVO or SOV, but deviation from strict word order does not alter the meaning due to the synthetic structure.[131] Verbs are quite complex, and can be broken into four classes of verbs: animate-intransitive (AI), inanimate-intransitive (II), animate-transitive (AT), and inanimate-transitive (IT). Verbs are also prefixed and suffixed with various inflections, particles, and conjugations, so complex things can easily be described just by a verb.[132][133]


Natick Bible orthography[edit]

John Eliot developed the first writing system of the Massachusett language, beginning with the 1651 translation of the New Testament. Since it was the Early Modern English of the 17th century, numerous archaisms from that period are present. Spelling was not standardized at the time, and numerous variations exist to spell the same word. Two diacritics are used, the circumflex (ˆ) and the acute accent (´). The circumflex over any vowel indicated the nasal vowel /ɑ̃/ whilst the acute accent indicated primary stress or a long vowel. Eliot's alphabet consists of 25 letters and one ligature followed by their names with modern orthography in parentheses:[134]

Aa a, Bb bee, Cc see, Chch chee, Dd dee, Ee e (ee), ef (af), Gg gee, Hh aitch (aych), Ii i, Jj ji (jay), Kk ka, Ll el (ul), Mm em (um), Nn en (un), Oo o, Ꝏꝏ , Pp pee, Qq keúh (keuh), Rr ar, Sſ/s es (us), Tt tee, Uu u, Vv vf or úph (uv), Ww wee, Xx ex (ux), Yy wy (way), Zz zad

  • Vowels with Á, Â, É, Ê, Í, Î, Ó, Ô, Ú, and Û.

Ch was considered by Eliot a separate letter, based on its prevalence, similar to its status in the Spanish language. It is also used for /tj/ in place of modern Ty.

  • Consonants are doubled in word-medial and word-final positions before E. Final /k/ often written as CK as in English.
  • Voicing distinctions are not made, so allographic pairs such as C or K/G, P/B, S/Z and T/D exist, although G, B, Z and D were also used with their phonetic English values in English loan words.
  • C and G 'soften' before E or I.
  • F, L, R, V, and X are rare as they exist only in loanwords. Voicing distinctions are not made, so allographic pairs such as C or K/G, P/B, S/Z and T/D exist, although G, B, Z and D were also used with their phonetic English values in English loan words but not in native lexical terms.
  • Nasal vowels could also be indicated by N after a vowel or M after a vowel but before P, but also as Â, Ô, Û.
  • Acute accent vowels include Á, É, Í, Ó, and Ú.

Eliot's alphabet and spelling contain many orthographical archaisms used in the Early Modern English period:

  • E is often a silent letter at the end of words, and consonants are generally doubled before them. Cf. Archaic 'shoppe' and Modern 'shop.'
  • J was not yet distinguished from I, but was considered the consonantal variant of vocalic I. Cf. Archaic 'Ivlius' or 'Jvlius' and Modern 'Julius.'
  • O could indicate the short vowel [ʊ]. Cf. 'son' and 'sun.'
  • S had a lower-case long form ſ used in the middle of words, although when doubled, ſſ and ſs were both acceptable, but only s could appear at the end of a word. It was easily confused with the lower-case F (ƒ) as it was printed at the time. Cf. Archaic 'vnsaƒe' and 'Maſſachvsetts' or 'Maſsachuſetts' with Modern 'unsafe' and 'Massachusetts.'
  • U was still considered a variant of V. Eliot used V as a consonant, but note he still spelled the letter as vf /əf/. Other writers used V at the beginning and U in the middle of words. Archaic 'vp' and 'houer' with Modern 'up' and 'hover.'
  • Y was also used to represent /θ/ and /ð/ as a variant of the letter thorn, but these sounds do not exist in Massachusett.

Modern orthography[edit]

In 2000, Baird introduced a new orthography based on her reconstructions of its phonology. It is a more phonetic, consistent spelling system compared to colonial writing. It includes the digraphs Ch, Ee, Sh and TY, as well as the ligature . For collation, the digraphs and the double o ligature are treated as paired letters. The only diacritic is the circumflex, which is used over A to indicate the long vowel /ɑː/, and over O to indicate the nasal vowel /ɔ̃/. The alphabet consists of the following 26 letters, five digraphs, one ligature and two accented vowels followed by their names:[135]

Letters: A a, B bee, C see, D dee, E ee, F af, G gee, H haych, I ay, J jay, K ka, L ul, M um, N un, O o, P pee, Q keuh, R ar, S us, T tee, U u, V uv, W wee, X ux, Y way. Digraphs: Ay ay, Ch chee, Ee ee ee, Sh shee, Ty tyee. Ligature: . Accented vowels: Â â, Ô ô.

  • The letters B, C, D, F, G, I, J, L, O (without circumflex), R, V, X and Z are not used in the revived language as they represent sounds that exist in English but are not found in Massachusett except for loan words. They have the same value as the loan word source language.
  • E alone is used to represent /j/ during cases of vowel affection.
  • Q is not followed by U in indigenous lexical terms. It represents /kʷ/ at the beginning of a syllable and /k/ at the end.
  • The double o digraph is sometimes rendered with an infinity symbol () or the numeral eight (8).

Writing samples[edit]

Many of the translations in the Massachusett language were of a religious nature, as the missionaries were hoping to win over converts by using the 'Indian language.' The following is an example of the Lord's Prayer as found in Eliot's 1661 publishing of the New Testament in Matthew 6:9:[136]

Nꝏshum keskqut quttianatamanack hꝏwesaouk.
'Our Father, who art in Heaven,'
Peyaumꝏutch kukkenau-toomoouk ne a nack okkeet neam keskqut.
'Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Nem-meet-sougash asekesuhokesu assnauean yedyee kesu-kod.
'Give us this day our daily bread,'
Kah ahquotaneas inneaen nummateheouqasu, neem machenekukequig nutahquoretawmomouag.
'and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,'
Ahque sag hompagunaianeem enqutchuasouqauit webe pohquohwaossueau wutch matchitut.
'and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.'
Nuwatche huhahteem ketassootamouk hah nuumkessouk, kah sosamꝏuk michene. Amen
'For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.'

An excerpt from Josiah Cotton's Vocabulary of the Massachusetts (or Natick) Indian Language, where the English is his own writings, and the Massachusett that of his father, John Cotton, a prominent preacher to the Wampanoag:[137]

Q: Uttuh woh nittinne nehtuhtauan Indianne unnontꝏwaonk?
'How shall I learn Indian?'
A: Nashpe keketookauaonk Indianeog kah kuhkinasineat ukittooonkannꝏ kah wuttinnohquatumꝏonkanꝏ.
'By talking with the Indians, and minding their words, and manner of pronouncing.'

Q: Kah uttuh unnupponꝏnat wutinnontꝏwaonk ne munohonk neit kohtohkomukcouk?
'And what is the difference between the language of the Island [Martha's Vineyard], and the main?'
A: Mat woh nummissohhamꝏunasuh matta aꝏwahiteo webe yeu nꝏwahteauum yeug Indiansog mat wahtanooog usg Indiansog ut nishnow kuttooonganit.
'I can't tell or don't know, only this I know, that these Indians don't understand every word of them Indians.'

An example of records from the Praying Town of Natick, written in 1700 by Thomas Waban, a descendant of Waban:[138]

Eight noh July wehquttum Thomas . Waban seniar wutch neh
'July 8. Thomas Waban Senior requested on behalf of his'
wunneechonnoh ' nneh Thomas waban Junior ' onk noh
'son, Thomas Waban Junior, and he'
wachonnum ' 2 ' arcers medow -
'has two acres of meadow.'
Ne nan kesukokot wehquttum Jon wamsquon - wutch
'The same day John Wamsquon requested on behalf of'
Tomas wamsquon onk woh wachonum meddow kah
'Thomas Wamsquon, and he may have a meadow, and'
owachannumun ' n4e nan ut - noh wehquttum - Isaak
'he has it. On the same Isaak'
wuttasukꝏpauin ne keesukot onk noh woh wachonnum
'Wuttasukoopauin requested, that day, and he may have'
two arcours ut wohquomppagok.
'two acres at Wohquomppagok.'

Conveyance of land from Soosooahquo to Noshcampaet, from Nantucket, in 1686[139]

Neen Soosahquo mache noonammattammen noshcampaet
'I Soosoahquo have bargained well with Noshcampaet,'
ta matahketa ahto ahkuh nukquepaskooe akerssoe wana
'At Mattahketa he has land, one hundred and'
nees akannu ta weessoonkiahkuh kattahtam meth wana
'two acres. At land by name Kattahtammeth and'
kabeaqut kashkututkquaonk neahmute kushinemahchak
'kabeaqut kashkuhtukqusonk neahmute that swamp is wide'
ne sechak wuttah naskompeat wessoonck ahkuh mussnata-
'the length of Naskompeat's land, (and) land by name Mussantaessuit,'
-essuit ne anneh kishkoh wessoonk ahkuh massooskaassak
'(and) the width of land by name Massooskaassak,'
wana wessooonk sakahchah nuppessunahqunmeth na-
'and by name Sakashchah nuppessunnahquemmeth as far as'
pache kuttahkanneth ahquampi 1686 month 10th day 3d.
'Kuttahkemmeth. The time was 1686, 10th month, 3d day.'


Massachusett shares most of its vocabulary with other Algonquian languages. The following table, mostly taken from D. J. Costa's description of the SNEA languages, demonstrates the relationship of Massachusett with other languages, such as closely related Eastern Algonquian languages such as the Loup and Narragansett—both also SNEA languages—Penobscot, a representative of the Eastern branch of Abenakian languages, Munsee, a Lenape language, and more distant relatives, such as Arapaho, a Plains Algonquian language and Ojibwe, a Central Algonquian language.[140]

English Massachusett[141] Loup (Nipmuc?) Narragansett Penobscot[140][142] Munsee[143][144] Arapaho[145] Ojibwe[146]
'deer' ahtuhq attekeȣe nóonatch nòlke atóh hé3owoonéihii adik1
'my father' noohsh nȣs nòsh n'mitangwes noxwe neisónoo noose
'canoe' muhshoon amisȣl mishoon ámasol amaxol 3iiw jiimaan
'hawk' owóshaog ('hawks') awéhle ('broadwinged hawk') 'awéhleew cecnóhuu gekek
'three' nushwe chȣi nìsh nahs nxáh nehi niswi
'thirty' swinnichak chȣinchak swínchek nsinska nxináxke nisimidama
'broken' poohkshau pȣkȣ'sau pokésha poskwenômuk ('to break') paxkhílew ('it breaks') tówo'oni ('to break') bookoshkaa
'dog' annum alum ayim adia mwáakaneew he3 anim(osh)2
'flint' môshipsq mansibsqȣe masipskw mahləs wóosóó3 biiwaanag(oonh)

1 As "deer", "caribou", or "cattle" in Algonquin language but "caribou" in Ojibwe language proper.
2 As anim for "dog" in Algonquin language and in Oji-Cree language, but animosh (anim with a pejorative suffix) in Ojibwe language proper.

English influences in the Massachusett language[edit]

Through Eliot's translation of the Bible, numerous persons, toponyms, religious terms and Christian concepts were introduced, probably taken from the King James Version, and many of which were ultimately of Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic derivation. Examples from the Massachusett-language Bible include up-Biblum ('His [God] Bible'), Testament, cherubimsog (cherubim), God, Jehovah manitt ('Holy Spirit'), Paradise, Adam, Canaane ('Canaan'), ark, golde ('gold'), horseumoh Pharoah ('Pharaoh's horsemen'), and shepsoh ('shepherd').[147]

The language also began to absorb English terms for the new plants, animals, tools, technologies, culture and materials that were introduced by the English colonists. Loanwords found in the Indian documents include day, month, judge, wheat, barley as well as the names of days and months, such as January and Thursday.[148] These words were often affixed with native suffixes and prefixes. For instance, plurals for the names of the domesticated animals of the English were suffixed with /-ek/ (-ak), the animate plural ending, to form words such as cowsuck, horseog, pigsack and sheepsog.[67]

The language was also probably peppered with words and phrases from the Massachusett Pidgin English which was used in dealings with the English colonists. As the language declined, it is likely that more Indians became conversant in Massachusett Pidgin English, which eventually disappeared as standard English was adopted through the decreolization process.[149]

Massachusett influences in the English language[edit]

The first English settlers on the North American mainland adopted numerous terms for flora, fauna, foods and aspects of Indian culture, technology and society from speakers of related Eastern Algonquian languages. Many of these came from Massachusett or have obvious cognates. Some of these words may have been adopted independently of each other, given the close relation these languages. Some of these words were probably also used in the Massachusett Pidgin English.[150]

Plants, Animals and Foods[150][151]

  • moose, 'Eurasian Elk/American Moose' (Alces alces), mꝏs[152]/(m8s).[34]
  • skunk, 'skunk' (Mephitis mephitis), squnck[153]/(sukôk).[34]
  • muskrat, 'muskrat' (Ondatra zibithecus), musquash, 'reddish animal.'[154]
  • tautog, 'blackfish' (Tautoga onitis), from Narragansett tautauog (pl.).
  • menhaden, 'fishes used for fertilizer' (Brevoortia or Ethmidium species), a blend of pauhagan, used in northern New England, and Narragansett munnawhatteaûg from a base that means 'he fertilizes.'
  • scup, 'a bream fish' (Stenotomus chrysops). Narragansett mishcup. Also appears as 'scuppaug.'[155]
  • porgy, name for fishes of the Sparidae family, including scup, sheepshead and breams. Because of local Eastern New England English dialectal pronunciation, it also appears as 'paugee'.[155]
  • neshaw, 'silver stage' of American eel (Anguilla americana), used by locals of Martha's Vineyard.[156] From (neesw-), 'double' or 'pair',[157] cf. neeshauog, 'they go in pairs.'[158]
  • pishaug, 'young female Surf scoter,' (Melanitta perspicillata).[156]
  • samp, 'porridge of ground maize kernels,' from Natick nausampe or Narragansett nasaump.
  • nocake, 'Johnnycake,' from nꝏhkik[159]/(n8hkuk)[160]
  • squash, originally a short form of 'askoquash,' askutasqash,' or 'squantersqash.' Refers to domesticated varieties of Cucurbita commonly known as pumpkins, squash and gourds in North America, and as marrows in other parts of the English-speaking world.
  • pumpkin, refers to the large, orange cultivars of Cucurbita pepo var. pepo and similar looking winter squashes. Originally referred to as 'pompions.' From pôhpukun, 'grows forth round.'[34]
  • quahog, 'hard clam' (Mercenaria mercenaria). Cf. Narragansett poquauhok. From the Wampanoag dialect, the fishermen of Nantucket used the term 'pooquaw'.
  • succotash, a 'dish of beans and corn.' Cf. Narrangansett 'msickquatash', 'shelled boiled corn kernels,' and Massachusett sohquttaham, 'he or she shells (the corn).'[161]

Indian Tools, Technology, Society and Culture[150][151]

  • matchit, 'bad.' From matchit[162] and verb base (mat-), 'bad'.[163]
  • papoose, from 'child.' Cf. Natick papaseit and Naragansett papoos.[164]
  • moccasin, 'shoe.' From mokus[165]/(mahkus).[34]
  • netop, 'my friend.' From netomp/(neetôp).
  • peag, 'money,' short for wampumpeag, referring to the shell beads confused for money by the English settlers. Also 'wampum'.
  • sachem, 'chief.' From sontim or sachem[166]/(sôtyum).[34]
  • pogamoggan, 'club' or 'rod.' From pogkomunk.[167]
  • manitou, 'spirit' or 'deity.' Cognate with manitt[168]/(manut)[169]
  • pow wow, 'Indian gathering' or 'gatherings' in general. Originally referred to a 'shaman.' From powwow/(pawâw),[34] 'he heals.'
  • kinnikinnick, 'herbal smoking mixture.' Delawaran, but cognate with kenugkiyeuonk from (keenuk-), 'to mix.'[170]
  • nunkom, 'young man.' From nunkomp.[156][159]
  • totem, 'spiritual, symbolic or sacred emblem of a tribe.' Cognate with wutohkit, 'belonging to this place.'[171]
  • caucus, 'meeting for political supporters'. Possibly derives from a form similar to kogkateamau,[172] 'he/she advises,' and (kakâhkutyum-), 'to advise others.'[173]
  • hominy, 'nixtamlized corn' often eaten as grits. Cognate with (taqaham-), 'to grind.'.[174]
  • mugwump, formerly used to mean 'kingpin' or 'kingmaker'; later to describe Republican bolters during that supported Grover Cleveland and now to politically neutral, independent people or bolters. Originally referred to a 'war leader.' From magunquomp.[175]
  • toshence, 'last of anything' although once used in south-eastern Massachusetts to mean 'last child.' From mattasons, 'youngest child.'[156][176]
  • muskeg, 'swamp.' From Cree, but cognate with Narragansett metchaug, 'thick woods.'[177]
  • wickakee, 'hawkweed' also known in New England as 'Indian paintbrush.' Refers to several species of Hieracium.[156]
  • pung, shortened form of tom pung, 'one-horse sleigh.'[156]
  • tomahawk, 'ax' ('axe') or 'hatchet.' From Powhatan, but cognate with tongkong.[178]

Topographical legacy[edit]

Numerous streets, ponds, lakes, hills, and villages across eastern Massachusetts have Massachusett-language origins. The name of the state itself may mean 'near the big hill' or 'hill shaped like an arrowhead'. Very few cities and towns have Indian names, most ultimately linked to towns and villages in England, but the ones that probably have a Massachusett origin include Acushnet ('calm water resting place'), Aquinnah ('under the hills'). Cohasset (quonnihasset, 'long fishing point'), Mashpee (massanippe, 'great water'), Nantucket, 'in the midst of the waters', Natick, 'place of hills', Saugus ('the outlet, the extension'), Scituate, 'cold brook', Seekonk, and Swampscott, 'at the red rock' or 'broken waters'.[179] Other notable Indian placenames include 'Shawmut' (mashauwomuk, former name for Boston, 'canoe landing place'), 'Neponset' (a river that flows through the Dorchester section of Boston and a village of Dorchester, meaning unknown), Cuttyhunk Island (poocuohhunkkunnah, 'a point of departure'), Nantasket (a beach in Hull, 'a low-ebb tide place'), and Mystic River ('great river').[180]


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  • Little Doe Fermino, Jessie. (2000). An Introduction to Wampanoag Grammar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), MS thesis.
  • Goddard, Ives. (1978). "Eastern Algonquian Languages" in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15 (Trigger, Bruce G., ed.). Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution.
  • Goddard, Ives and Bragdon, Kathleen J. (eds.) (1989) Native Writings in Massachusett, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society. ISBN 0-87169-185-X
  • Moondancer and Strong Woman. (2007). A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England: Voices from Past and Present, Boulder, CO: Bauu Press. ISBN 0-9721349-3-X
  • Walker, Willard B. (1997). "Native Writing Systems" in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 17 (Ives Goddard, ed.). Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution.

External links[edit]

Dictionaries and grammar[edit]