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. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

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 (at the time with the last name Fermino) 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-Unquachog language (†)

Mohegan-Pequot-Montauk language (†)

Massachusett is a member of the Algic language family, which connects the Algonquian languages that span from the Rocky Mountains eastward to the Atlantic Ocean with Yurok (Puliklah) and Wiyot (Wishosk)—two relict languages only distantly related to Algonquian or each other of the Pacific Northwest. Proto-Algonquian (PA) diverged and spread eastward as the Algonquian languages. Proto-Eastern Algonquian (PEA) emerged from PA and later developed into the Eastern Algonquian languages (EA) from the Canadian Maritimes southward to the Carolinas. The Eastern Algonquian languages were the only true genetic grouping, to emerge from PA, as Central and Plains Algonquian branches are groupings based more on areal linguistic features than common descent.[19]

PEA split into the three sub-divisions of EA with the Abenakian languages of Québec and The Maritimes of Canada and northern New England, the Southern New England Algonquian (SNEA) languages—which include Massachusett—of southern New England and most of Long Island and the Delawaran languages of extreme western New England, the Hudson River valley, hugging the coast as far south as the northern tip of South Carolina.[19] Massachusett was most closely related to the other SNEA languages in a dialect continuum, showing closest relations to Narragansett and Nipmuc and to a lesser extent, Nehântick (Niantic), Mohegan-Pequot-Montauk and Quiripi-Naugatuck-Unquachog.[7] Due to the great extinction of indigenous American languages since European contact, the closest extant languages with native speakers are the Abenakian Mi'kmaq, Wolastoqiyik-Peskotomuhkati (Malecite-Passamoquoddy) and Odanak (Western Abenaki, Abénaqui d'Odanak) languages and the Delawaran Wíixcheew (Munsee) language, although the latter two are nearing extinction with fewer than ten speakers in old age and the rest are in vulnerable situations as few young people are learning their respective languages.[19][20]

Unique features[edit]

Massachusett has evolved certain features that differentiate it from most other SNEA languages, although many of these traits are also shared with Nipmuc and Narragansett.[21]

PEA *r becomes Massachusett /n/
This is the most defining feature of Massachusett in relation to other SNEA languages. PEA *r, itself a merger of PA *r and *θ appears as /n/ in Massachusett and sometimes in Narragansett (Coweset?), /l/ in Nipmuc, /j/ in Narragansett and /r/ in westernmost and northernmost SNEA dialects.

  • PA *aθemwa, 'dog,' becomes annùm' (anum) /anəm/ in Massachusett, alùm in Nipmuc and ayimp in Narragansett.
  • PA *aθankwa, 'star,' becomes anogqs' (anôq[ee]s') /anãkwees/[22] in Massachusett, anóckqus in Narragansett (Coweset?) and arráksak (plural form) in Quripi.
  • PEA *ra-nk, 'young,' as in a 'young boy,' with the latter as Massachusett nunkomp (nôkôp) /nãkãp/, Nipmuc langbasis and Unquachog rúngcump.
  • PEA *rōtēw, 'fire' or 'it burns,' becomes nꝏhtau (*n8htâw) /nuːhtaːw/, lȣte in Nimpuc, and ruht in Unquachog.

Lack of 'Abenaki-influenced syncope
The deletion of /a/ and /ə/ in word-final syllables and before certain consonant clusters is rare in Massachusett and Narragansett, but was more common east-to-west, showing up as a fairly common feature in Nipmuc (Loup?) and almost obligatory in the western SNEA languages of Connecticut and the Long Island Sound. When it does appear in rare instances in Massachusett, it seems to be due to dialectal interference or metrical reasons, such as in the sung versions of the Psalms of David in the Massachusee Psalter. It seems to have been a feature that originated in the Abenakian languages before spreading to Mahican and the SNEA languages.[23]

  • 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 posk_heege in Pequot, boshk_eag in Montauk and pask_ig in Nipmuc.
  • PEA *manət, 'god,' becomes mannit (manut) /manət/ in Massachusett, manìt in Narragansett, mon_dtu in Pequot and man_do in Unquachog.

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 and the other EA languages. This feature, is rare in Nantucket and the Nauset areas and not universal in Nipmuc, indicating it was a novel feature of the Massachusett that was spreading.[24]

  • Massachusett/Wampanoag-language place names: Acushnet, Pawtucket, Nantucket, Shawmut, Neponset, Swampscott but also Pauketuck.[25][26]
  • Nipmuc-language place names: Hassunet (also Hassunek), Pascommuck, Quassuck and Quinnepoxet.[25][26]
  • Pocomtuc-language place names: Podatuck, Pocumtuck, Sunsicke, Norwotuck, Pachasock but also Pesceompscut.[25][26]
  • Mahican-language place names: Hoosic, Housatonic, Mahkeenak, Quassuck, Mananosick.[25][26]

Palatization of Proto-Algonquian *k to /tʲ/
PEA *k became the palatal stop *ty in PSNEA, especially when *k occurred before PEA *ē and some instances vowels that developed from PA *i and is a defining feature that separates the SNEA languages from the other sub-divisions of EA. Although this is universal, in some verbs, *k reverted to its original non-palatized form.

  • PA *weri-kiwa, 'it is good,' becomes wunnet (wuneetyuw) /wəniːtʲəw/ in Massachusett, but ȣligȣ in Nipmuc, woreeco in Unquachog and weyegoh in Pequot.

Differing word roots
Within SNEA, Massachusett, Narragansett and Nipmuc share words with the same linguistic roots not shared with the western SNEA languages.

  • Massachusett namohs (namâhs) /namaːhs/, 'fish,' appears as namens in Nipmuc, namohs in Narragansett but peremock in Montauk and pî'âmâ'g.
  • Massachusett kah (kah) /kah/, 'and,' appears as in Narragansett but quah in Pequot and Quiripi.
  • Massachusett peshai (puhshay) /pəʃaj/, 'it is blue' appears as peshaûi in Narragansett but seewamp-wayo in Unquachog and zî'wŏmbâ'ĭŏ in Mohegan.


As the Massachusett-speaking peoples spoke varieties existing along a dialect continuum, distinctions of language were based traditionally upon levels of mutual intelligibility. Dialects that were readily understood were simply hettꝏonk[27] (hut8ôk) /hətuːãk/, 'that which they [can] speak to each other.'[28] This constrasted with siogontoowaonk [29] (sayakôt8âôk) /sajakãtuːaːãk/,[30] 'difficult language,' for speech further away on the chain or related Algonquian languages that were understood only with difficulty, and penꝏwantꝏaog[29] (peen8wâôt8âôk) /piːnuːwaːãtuːaːãk/[31] When it was necessary to specify the language of a people, tribe, village or region, any of these were suffixed with unnontoowaog[29] (unôt8âôk) /ənãtuːaːãk/[32] to indicate 'its people's language' or 'its common language.'[29]

The Massachusett people, as well as most other peoples of New England who spoke its pidgin variety as a regional lingua franca, referred to the language as Massachusett/Massachusee unnontꝏwaonk (Mâsach8sut/Mâsach8see unôt8âôk) /mɑːsatʃuːsət/mmɑːsatʃuːsiː ənɔ̃tuːaːɔ̃k/[33] Especially in reference to either the Praying Indians of Natick or the written language, Natick unnontooaog may have possibly been used.[34] The name derives from local name for the sacred Great Blue Hill near Ponkapoag (Canton, Massachusetts), from missi-[35] (muhs-),[33][36] 'great,' [w]adchu[37] ([w]ach8),[38] 'mountain,' [e]s (-[ee]s), [diminutive suffix], and -ett (-ut), [locative suffix]. The name may also partially derive from, or was influenced by, Moswetuset Hummock, a small hill at the end of a barrier island near Squantum (Quincy, Massachusetts), that was the ceremonial meeting ground of Massachusett sachems. It derives from moswe- (*môsw-), 'to pierce' or 'arrow' and [w]achuset ([w]ach8sut), 'hill,' and signifies 'place of the arrow-shaped Hill' or 'arrow hill place.'[39]

The Wampanoag people use (Wôpanâôt8âôk) /wãpanaːãtuːaːãk/ to refer both to the local dialect of the Wampanoag as well as all other varieties of Massachusett as the 'Wampanoag language.' The name derives from wampan-[40] (wôpan-),[41] 'east' or 'dawn,' and thus signifies 'language of the easterners' or 'language of the people of the dawn.' Modern speakers of the revived dialect shorten this to Wôpanâak (Wampanoag), even though this technically refers only to the people.[2]


The English colonists of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies initially settled among various peoples that were all speakers of a common language. The first settlers referred to the language as the Indian language because of its general use across the region. They also adopted the local names of peoples and places to refer to the language, including the still common Massachusett, Natick and Wampanoag as well as historical names such as Nonantum, Pokanoket and Aberginian.[42][43]

In linguistic and scholarly domains, Massachusett or Natick are generally more common, although the use of Wampanoag as well as the WLRP revived form '(Wôpanâak),' are appearing more frequently in print and other media due to the publicity that surrounds Baird's reclamation project.[2] Other names refer to the various groups that linguists of various camps believe spoke a common language, such as Massachuset-Wampanoag, Wampanoag-Massachusett, Massachusett-Coweset, Massachusett-Wampanoag-Narragansett or Massachusett-Narragansett, although Narragansett is considered by most a separate albeit closely related language. When grouped with other mutually intelligible languages into a supraregional language, it is called Southern New England Algonquian, specifically an SNEA N-dialect.[42][43]


Just as the standardization of the German language initially centered around the language of Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, the Eliot Bible also elevated the Massachusett language, specifically its Natick variety, as the de facto standard and prestige variant, especially in writing. This led to rapid dialect leveling as speakers of various dialects adjusted their speech to this new standard. The Wampanoag dialect of Noepe (Martha's Vineyard), was divergent enough to have presented problems with other Wampanoag of the mainland and the other islands.[44] By 1722, only fifty-nine years after the publication Eliot's Bible translation, Experience Mayhew remarked on the leveling effects, '... most of the little differences betwixt them have been happily Lost, and our Indians Speak, but especially write much as the Natick do.[45]

Rare lexical differences persisted in writing despite the leveling effects, especially from the documents of Noepe islanders who often wrote ohkuh, which is used instead of ohke (ahkee) /ahkiː/[46] 'earth' or 'land,' and ummenaweankanut, 'in his posterity,' instead of uppommetuwonkkanit (upumeetyuwôkanut) /əpəmiːtʲəwãkanət/[47][48] Dialectal variation can also be detected in doublets found in the missionary translations, such as the Bible, comparison of word lists and place names compiled in different areas and, as in the previous example, small differences detected in the Indian documents. For example, vowel syncope, a rare feature in Massachusett, occurs in kuts, 'cormorant,' and ꝏsqheonk, 'his blood,' but more generally is found as non-syncopated kuttis and wusqueheonk (wusqeeheôk) /wəskʷiːhiːjᵊãk/, respectively, that appeared in the Bible.[23]

Daniel Gookin, who traveled with John Eliot on his missions, brought the Indians under the jurisdiction of the colonial government and was responsible for bringing the Indians under English laws and governance. He noted that the Pawtucket, Massachusett and Pokanoket (Wampanoag) all spoke the same language, and may have considered them to have had separate dialects. Ives Goddard proposed the dialects of Natick, North Shore (Pawtucket), Wampanoag, Nauset and Coweset, produced somewhat similarly below.[5]

Massachusett (Natick)[edit]

The Church of South Natick built over the original church in 1828. Services were conducted by Indian congregants in Massachusee unnontꝏwaonk well into the mid-18th century.[49]

The dialect as spoken by the Massachusett people was likely historically a prestigious dialect, as the tribe was one very powerful politically and numerically in the region with influence as far west as the tribes of the Connecticut River, the Nipmuc, and most of the other Massachusett-speaking peoples, and it served as the basis of Massachusett Pidgin.[50] The dialect was probably the best understood by other speakers, as it was located centrally to other peoples to the north and south that also spoke the language. The use of the dialect, specifically the spoken variety of the Praying Indians of Natick, was codified as the basis of the written language and thus became a de facto standard, causing rapid dialect leveling.

Little is known about what makes this dialect unique in comparison to other dialects, given its use as the written and probably formal spoken language of Indian communities, but the locative suffix -et (-ut) /-ət/ likely developed in this dialect and later spread, since it is most common on the mainland, rare in older versions of Indian place names of the 'Outer Cape' and Islands and interchangeable in related Nipmuc, where the older '-ek (-uk) /-ək/ was also used. The speech of the Massachusett was also less likely to use vowel syncope.[51]

The speech of Natick was used in Eliot's translation of the Bible and other translations, and was widely adopted by the other missionaries as well as Indians. Many of the literate Indians that became missionaries at other Indian towns and communities were often either from or trained in Natick, thus ensuring that the Natick variety would have influence as these literate Indians served as educated elite in their communities, and often came from chiefly families.[52] The dialect survives as the written language of Eliot and most of the other missionary translations, as well as the town and church records of Natick until 1721 when administrative control of the town and the church passed into the hands of the English settlers, and any vestiges of Indian culture and language in the church and town affairs stopped by the 1740s when Indians were stripped of their autonomy as wards of the colonial government under commissioners. By 1798, only one known speaker of the language was known who was quite old and the dialect likely went extinct at the dawning of the nineteenth century.[53] Although no speakers remain today, the two Massachusett tribes continue to use the language in its colonial orthography as a sacred, ceremonial language.[54][55][56] Both of these tribes have state recognition under the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs.[57]

Wampanoag dialect (Pokanoket)[edit]

Traditional Wôpanâak clothing on display at the Cape Cod Museum. The Wampanoag were able to preserve much of their native culture and identity, and as of 1993, have also reclaimed their language.

The Wampanoag dialect, because of its numerous insular areas, actually represents several divergent forms. The Wampanoag of the mainland, such as Mashpee, were said to be speak almost the same as the Massachusett to the north, but the insular areas had unique shared features, but the speech of Martha's Vineyard was said to be quite divergent from all other varieties. Although the effects of the Natick Bible would eventually suppress features of the Vineyard islanders, the isolation of the Indians preserved their unique dialect, leading John Cotton, Jr., told his son sometime before 1707, regarding an older time when leveling effects were not so noticeable, that the difference between the speech of the islanders and that of those near Patuxet (now Plymouth, Massachusetts), who spoke closer to the Massachusett, 'Mat woh nummissohhamꝏ͝un asuh matta newahĭteo webe yeu noowahteauun yeug Indiansog mat wahtanooog uag Indiansog ut nishnoh kuttooonganit., 'I cant [sic] tell or dont [sic] know, only this I know, that these Indians dont [sic] understand every word of them Indians.'[58] By the 1720s, the differences were mostly lost, with the standardizing effects of off-island Indian missionaries and the Natick Bible finally taking effect on the island.[45]

It was the main dialect of the Mayhews, many of who grew up bilingual as a long family line of missionaries to the Indians of Martha's Vineyard, and the Cottons, who mainly served the Indians of the islands as well as the area about Plymouth and contributed to the missionary tracts of Indian literature. John Cotton, Jr.'s assistance also gave some Wampanoag influence over the small portions that were edited for the 1685 republication of the Massachusett-language Bible. The Wampanoag also became literate, and most of the surviving Indian documents are from Wampanoag records.[59] With the current success of the language thanks to the work of the WLRP, there is a growing L2 community of 15 (Wôpanâôt8âôk) speakers and 500 and growing students from the participating Mashpee, Aquinnah, Herring Pond and Assonet tribes and new records in the revived orthography such as complete teaching materials for pre-school through high school, a dictionary, a grammar and numerous other didactic publications.[8]

The Wampanoag quickly became the most important tribe in the later colonial period. Tribal numbers swelled after King Philip's War as many of the remaining Indians sought shelter in the large Wampanoag communities, which remained neutral in the war and were allowed to remain on their lands, as well as close to the busy whaling and trading ports where Indian men could find work as crewmen. By the 1700s, 70 per cent of the Indians in the colony were Wampanoag. The language remained vibrant in most communities as a written language and predominate community language until the late 1770s, but anecdotal evidence suggests literacy continued into the first third of the nineteenth century. The language held on to native speakers the longest as well, with Nantucket losing almost its entire Indian population to somev epidemic of the late eighteenth century, but the last speakers on Nantucket were Abram Quarry, d. 1854 and Dorcus Honorable, d. 1855. Martha's Vineyard did not suffer the epidemic of Nantucket, and the last speakers likely died there, such as Tamsen Weekes of Aquinnah, d. 1890, who was likely the last speaker of the language. Frank Speck and Gladys Tantaquidgeon were able to extract a combined list of a hundred words from language rememberers. Gordon Day was even to record a reading of the Lord's Prayer in the Wampanoag dialect.

The Wampanoag dialect, known to the Wampanoag as (Wôpanâôt8âôk) but nowadays often shortened to (Wôpanâak),[2] 'Wampanoag language,' is the term used by the Wampanoag to refer to not only their specific dialect but the language of the Bible as well as the Massachusett language, a point which causes some contention with members of the two state-recognized Massachusett tribes and the objectives of the WLRP.[54][60] There are just under 3,000 Wampanoag people split between the federally recognized tribes of Mashpee and Aquinnah (Gay Head) as well as the state-recognized Assonet, Pocasset, Herring Pond, Chappaquiddick and Seaconke tribes, but a total of 6,427 claimed Wampanoag ancestry in the 2010 U.S. census.[55]

Pawtucket (North Shore)[edit]

The Merrimack River at sunset in Lowell, Massachusetts near Pawtucket Falls. This is close to the site of the former Praying Town of Wamesit, but the Pawtucket fled north to join the Pennacook and Abenaki after Metacomet's Rebellion.

The North Shore refers to the coastal areas of Massachusetts north of Boston that were home to the Pawtucket people, but the Pawtucket were also to be found along the lower Merrimack River from its major turn near the Praying Town of Wamesit (Lowell, Massachusetts) as well as nearby areas of south-eastern New Hampshire and southernmost Maine.[61] The name Pawtucket derives from pautucket[62] (*pâhtukut) from pun-[63] (pun-), 'to fall,' and -[u]tak (-uhtuq) /əhtək/ and -et (-ut), [locative suffix].[64] These tribes spoke a dialect of the Massachusett language and shared similar culture and kinship relations, but participated in a confederacy headed by the Abenakian Pennacook tribe of the upper Merrimac River valley, but were likely formerly part of the Massachuett confederacy.[50][65]

The dialect is only preserved in local place names, such as toponyms such as Naumkeag, Agawam, Annisquam, Quascancunquen and Pentucket as well as three hundred words and phrases recorded by William Wood's 1634 Nevv Englands Proſpect from a people he referred to as the Aberginians from either a local self-appellation or as a corrupted loan word borrowing of 'aborigine'. What is recorded shows the language was similar to the Massachusett dialect, but perhaps with Abenakian influences from Pennacook.[66] The Pawtucket, as well as some of the Pennacook, were brought under Eliot's missionary influence at the Praying Town of Wamesit (Lowell, Massachusetts), but the Pawtucket are extinct as a people since their lands were some of the first lost to the English settlers and the devastating effects of epidemics. After King Philip's War, the Pawtucket abandoned Wamesit and fled with the Pennacook to the Abenaki further north in the safety of French protection. There are likely descendants of the Pawtucket amongst the Abenaki of Québec and The Maritimes of Canada and the U.S. states of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, especially amongst the Cowasuck Band of Pennacook-Abenaki of Alton, New Hampshire.[67][68][69]

Nauset dialect[edit]

Illustration of Sachem Iyannough bringing the lost boy, John Billington, back to Plymouth.

The Nauset dialect was spoken by the Nauset people of the 'Outer Cape,' referring to lands east of the Bass River in Barnstable, Massachusetts as well as possibly outposts on Nantucket, but were particularly associated with a primary settlement also called Nauset (Chatham, Massachusetts). Also known as the 'Cape Cod Indians' from their restricted location, the indigenous name may refer to 'the place between,' from nash-, 'between' or 'middle.'[70] The Nauset are sometimes considered a sub-group of the Wampanoag people; however, historically, the Nauset people were often at odds with or subject to their more powerful Wampanoag neighbors but were, at other times, participants in the Pokanoket confederacy. The Nauset are extinct as a people today, but as they were the original settlers of Mashpee before absorbing large numbers of Wampanoag and other Algonquian peoples in the upheaval after Metacomet's Rebellion. As such, many of the self-identifying Wôpanâak of Mashpee likely have significant Nauset ancestry in their Native blood.[71]

Although the Nauset were also among the first Natives to encounter visiting Europeans, little is known about their language or history. The dialect is only known from local place names such as Nauset, Manomoy, Nobscusset and Hyannis, but topographical evidence suggests a close relationship to the Massachusett and Wampanoag dialects. Given that the Nauset were often subject to, part of or assimilated into the Wampanog, that the Nauset dialect is distinct from Wampanoag may be unlikely. If the Nauset were distinct in speech, Nauset features may appear in the small bits of vocabulary recorded from Mashpee elders by Speck in the 1920s.[6]

Coweset dialect (Narragansett?)[edit]

Engraving of Roger Williams meeting with members of the Narragansett. Statesman and theologian, Williams also recorded a vast vocabulary of Native vocabulary from the Indians of what is now Rhode Island, including the N-dialect Coweset.

The Coweset dialect is attributed to the Coweset, a people central and northern Rhode Island who are often grouped a sub-division of the Nipmuc, but, given their political relationship and subjection to the Nanhigganeuck (Narragansett), are sometimes included in the latter.[72][73] The name seems to derive from 'small pine place' or 'place of the small pine trees,' cf. Massachusett kꝏwa-[74] (*'k8wa-) /kuːwa/, 'pine,' -[e]s (-[ee]s), [diminutive suffix], and -et (-ut') [locative suffix].[75] Although the Coweset people are extinct today, given the historical movements of peoples in the region, the Coweset likely have descendants among some of the current members of the federally recognized Narragansett of Rhode Island, the Mohegan and Pequot (with some groups having state or federal recognition) and other remnant tribal communities of Connecticut.[76][77][78]

The dialect is only known from dialectal variation within Roger Williams 1643 A Key Into the Language of America. By Williams' own accounts, he spent a lot of his mission work and encounters with the Coweset, who were SNEA N-dialect speakers, and the Narragansett, who were SNEA Y-dialect speakers. In the Algonquian vocabulary are also some L-dialect and R-dialect features, indicating interference from Nipmuc and western SNEA languages. Aside from L- and R-dialects, there are at least three discernible N/Y dialects in the Key, including an N-dialect that is identical to Massachusett in most regards, a Y-dialect and an N-dialect that has features more akin to neighboring Y-dialects. For example, the PSNEA form *ərāyəw, 'it is so,' appears in Massachusett as unnai (unay) /ənaj/,[79] as eîu in a Y-dialect (Southern Narragansett? Eastern Niantic?), nni in an N-dialect similar to Massachusett (Coweset?) and nnîu (Northern Narragansett?). Note that Massachusett and Coweset have dropped PSNEA -ew in PSNEA *ərāyəw, whilst the historical full form was preferred in what is known about the SNEA Y-dialects.[80]

Although most of the vocabulary in the Key is attributed to Narragansett, the clear dialectal variation makes this problematic, as the majority of Williams' vocabulary is of an N-dialect.[81] When compared against Narragansett a 45-word list recorded by Ezra Stiles in 1769 from an elderly Narragansett women near Aquidneck (Newport, Rhode Island) and a twenty words extracted by Alfred Gatschet from a Narragansett-language 'rememberer' in Pôcasset (Providence, Rhode Island), it is clear that the language spoken near the end was clearly a Y-dialect.[82] Although the Narragansett suffered heavy losses in King Philip's War, especially the Great Swamp Massacre at the hands of the English and their Pequot allies, the survivors fled and joined the Nehântick (Eastern Niantic), along with survivors of other peoples, such as the Coweset, where the amalgamation assumed the name of the Narragansett people.[83] It is likely that N-dialect features were lost as the modern-Narragansetts (Eastern Niantic-Narragansett) likely adopted the Y-dialect of Eastern Niantic. However, given Williams former influence and time in Massachusetts, the N-dialect could represent Massachusett, the N-dialect with Y-dialect features could represent Coweset and the Y-dialect words could be Narragansett, a view held by Costa and Goddard.[84]

Other dialects and dialect comparison[edit]

The Aquidneck Indian Council, a Rhode Island-recognized educational and cultural institution for Native Americans, re-translated the Algonquian content of Roger Williams' Key into the Language of America, in an effort to better document and revive the Narragansett language, using comparisons with the Massachusett-language corpus as well as reconstructions based on evolutionary patterns of linguistic change from PA to SNEA. This, however, would be considered by other specialists, such as Goddard and Costa, as conflation of the mixed dialects found in the Key. However, even if only using Y-dialect material to reconstruct Narragansett would still produce a language similar still similar to other SNEA languages, which were most likely as related to each other as the dialects of the Nordic languages whose speakers can communicate, using their respective languages, and still understand and be understood by other parties, with difficulties increasing with distance and certain aberrant dialects.

The Massachusett language also spread, with the majority of Eliot's Praying towns established in Nipmuc country as well as a few located near the confluence of Nipmuc, Pawtucket, Massachusett and Pennacook influence, such as Wamesit, but possibly also possibly Nashoba (Littleton, Massachusetts) as well as other missionary communities such as Washacum (Sterling, Massachusetts) and Nashaway (Lancaster, Massachusetts).[85] The Nipmuc also came to settle Natick, with James Printer said to be the most prolific translator as well as printer of Eliot's Indian Bible.[86] The Indians that chose to stay away likely preserved their languages. For instance, a French missionary priest near Montreal, Quebec recorded a language sometime in the mid-eighteenth century that was most similar to Massachusett, complete with numerous loan words from English but was clearly an L-dialect, so may represent the original Nipmuc language removed from the standardizing effects of the prestigious Massachusett used by the literate Indians.[18]

Dialect Comparison
English Natick[87] Wôpanâak (Revived)[88][89][90] Wôpanâak (Plymouth)[91] North Shore (Pawtucket)[92] Narragansett (Coweset?)[93][94][95] Loup (Nipmuc)[18]
'fox' wonksis wonkqǔssis peqwas, whauksis wonkis
'my mother' nꝏkas (n8kas) /nuːkas/ nookas, nutookasin, nútchēhwau nitka nókace, nitchwhaw nȣkass
'one' nequt (nuqut) /nəkwət/ nequt aquit nquít
'duck' quasseps (seehseep), /siːhsiːp/ sesep, qunŭsseps seaseap quequécum
'boy' nonkomp nonkomp nonkompees núckquachucks langanbasis
'deer' ahtuck (ahtuhq) /ahtəhk/ attŭk ottucke attuck
'to kill' nush (nuhsh) /nəhʃ/ nish cram niss nissen
'shoe' mokis (mahkus) /mahkəs/ mohkis mawcus mockuss makissin /mahkəsən/
'head' muhpuhkuk (mupuhkuk) /məpəhkək/ muppuhkuk boquoquo uppaquóntap metep
'bear' mosq (masq) /mask/ mashq mosq, paukúnawaw
'canoe' mishꝏn (mush8n) /məʃuːn/ muhshoon mishòon amizȣl /aməhsuːl/
'it is white' wompi (wôpay) */wãpaj/ wompi wompey wómpi ȣanbai /wãpaj/
'man' wosketop (waskeetôp) /waskiːtãp/ wosketop wosketomp
'chief' sachem, sontim (sôtyum) /sãtʲəm/ sachem sachem sâchem sancheman /sãtʲəmã/
'my father' nꝏshe (n8hsh) /nuːhʃ/ noosh noeshow nòsh nȣs */nuːhs/

Derived languages[edit]

Massachusett Pidgin[edit]

Several varieties of regional pidgin varieties of major Eastern Algonquian languages are attested in colonial records, including those based on Mahican, Munsee, Powhatan and in New England, Massachusett. These pidgin varieties all featured reduced vocabulary, grammar simplifications and usage as the medium of communication between speakers of dialects or languages, not always easily mutually intelligible with each other, over a broader region.[96]

Massachusett Pidgin was used as a common language over New England and Long Island, and was likely the version of Massachusett used with the foreign English settlers. For instance, Edward Winslow describes a situation in his 1624 Good News from New England where he and a few other Pilgrims were able to converse and understand the Indians well, but the Indians would speak to each other at times in a similar but baffling tongue, either as their natural language but also probably to restrict information exchange with the foreign English settlers. The pidgin variety varied from Massachusett in the following ways:[97]

Simplification of vocabulary

  • squaw-sachem (*sqâsôtyum) /skʷa sãtʲəm/[98] instead of proper Massachusett sonkisquaw or syncopated sunksquaw and sonkisq *(sôkusqâ) /sãkəskʷaː/[99]

Use of non-Massachusett vocabulary

  • Abenakian sagamore *(sôkumô) /sãkəmã/[100] instead of Massachusett sachem (sôtyum), although both forms are derived from Proto-Algonquain *sa·kima·wa.
  • Abenakian or Unami wigwam *(weekuwôm) /wiːkəwãm/ instead of Massachusett wetu (weety8) /wiːtʲuː/,[101] although both forms descend from Proto-Algoquian *wi·kiwa·ʔmi.

Reduction of verbs to the intransitive inanimate

  • namen (nâmun), literally 'to see it' instead of proper Masachusett nunaw (nunâw) /nə naːw/,[102] transitive animate 'I see (someone or something alive)'. This can be seen in the example of 'Matta neen wonckanet namen Winsnow', 'I shall never see Winslow again' but literally 'Never I again see it Winslow.'
  • 'I see (something or some object)' in Massachusett proper would be nunaum[103] (nunâm) /nə naːm/[104]

Although the use of Massachusett Pidgin declined in favor of Massachusett Pidgin English, especially since the English settlers after they established their foothold saw little use in the language of a people whose lands they were usurping and were dying off from disease. Interest in Massachusett Pidgin, and other Algonquian pidgin languages, comes from the fact that they were likely the main source of words from the Algonquian languages. For instance, the early Pilgrims and Puritans only make references to 'wigwams' and never 'wetus' and 'sagamore' was in common frequency as 'sachem' in the early English of New England.[97]

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.[105]

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:[106]

Massachusett loan words (shared Masachusett Pidgin vocabulary)

  • meechin from Massachusett metsuwonk[107]/(meech8ôk)[108] /miːˌtʃuːˈãk/, 'food' via Massachusett Pidgin meechum, 'food.'
  • sannap from Massachusett for 'young man.'
  • wunneekin, 'good,' from Massachusett wunnegin[109]/(wuneekun)[110] '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[111][112]

  • 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]

Distribution of the Algonquian languages of the Algic language family. The development of Eastern Algonquian was likely a consequence of its isolation, separated from other Algonquian languages by speakers of Iroquoian and Siouan-Catawban languages.

Although human history in New England probably dates back to 10000 BC, when Paleo-Indians entered the tundra exposed by the retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier at the end of the Pleistocene, glottochronology and some corroborating archaeological evidence traces the history of the language to the Northwest Plateau region, or the areas of the Pacific Northwest separated from the coastal plains by high mountains, around the middle and upper regions surrounding the Columbia River. This area is likely the Urheimat associated with Proto-Algic speakers.[113] Migrations, cultural influences and language shift led to the displacement by speaker of the Kalapuyan (†), Na-Dene, Palaihnihan, Plateau Penutian, Salishan, etc., as well as languages of the coast which may have had a broader distribution. The Algic languages were displaced from this area with coastal areas of northern California home of the distantly-related, only known non-Algonquian Algic languages, Wiyot and Yurok.[114]

A descendant of Proto-Algic, Proto-Algonquian, diverged and spread east, likely around 1000 BC, the ancestor of the Algonquian languages which form the bulk of known Algic languages, spoken in the northern and eastern parts of the United States and Canada east of the Rockies all the way to the coast. The exact location where Proto-Algonquian was spoken is likely in the Northwest Plateau region, possibly Idaho where the westernmost Algonquian languages are spoken, but any region between here an just west of the Great Lakes have all been posited.[115] 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.[116]

Circa 1000 AD, Proto-Eastern Algonquian emerged in what is now southern Ontario, and east, where the daughter Eastern Algonquian languages later spread from Atlantic Canada south to North Carolina. This period is marked by small-scale migrations into New England, likely introducing the beginnings of Three Sisters agriculture and influences of Iroquoian pottery. Since there is not evidence of large migrations, the spread of Eastern Algonquian seems to be more to the culturally advanced migrants triggering language shift since the last large movement of populations was during the Archaic Period (8000-2000 BC).[117]

A few centuries later, Proto-Southern New England Algonquian (PSNEA) diverged into the SNEA languages. This development might coincide with the success of new strains of the tropical maize plant better suited to northern climes and the increased use of coastal resources around 1300 AD, during the Late Woodland Period. The improvement to agriculture supported large populations in the arable lands near the coast or along the larger rivers. Population movements seem to indicate the spread of the language from south-eastern New England, spreading it into Connecticut and northward. Competition over resources, more sedentary and permanent habitations and an influx of small migrations from the north and south-west probably fueled territoriality which may be evidenced by newer pottery styles with restricted local production areas. Shortly after this time, the languages, peoples and technologies would have likely been recognizable to the Europeans that began visiting the coasts at the end of the sixteenth century.[118]

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.[119] The colonists depended on the Indians for survival, and some learned how to communicate with the Indians for trade.[120] 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.[121] 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.[122][123] Eliot printed a Bible in 1663, and the Indians at the praying towns began to adopt the orthography of the Natick dialect Bible.

Translation and literature[edit]

John Eliot, after beginning his mission to the Indians, quickly saw the need for literacy so that the new converts could experience Biblical inspiration on their own. With the help of local interpreters and Eliot's frequent contacts with the Indians, he became fluent in the language and began writing the sounds he heard in Natick in an ad hoc fashion, using the conventions of English spelling. By 1651, Eliot produced a hand-written catechism he used for teaching literacy and religion at Natick, followed by a translation of the Book of Psalms which was hand-copied. A small group of literate Indians began teaching it to others, and Eliot established a school to train Indian missionaries who were literate and able to read these materials.[124]

As the Indians gained literacy and Eliot's notoriety grew, funding was given from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England. The Society, which supported Calvinist and Congregationalist missions banned under the influence of Anglo-Catholic monarchs and leaders of the Church of England. In 1655, the Indian College of Harvard University, its first brick building, was constructed and a printing press and materials were sent.[125] Eliot began right away, printing copies of the Book of Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew that same year. In 1663, Eliot printed the completed translation of the Bible, his monumental achievement. Eliot continued to print translations, until his death in 1690.[126]

After his death, the Society commissioned other missionaries, most notably Experience Mayhew, who, as a child in long line of missionaries to the Wampanoag of Martha's Vineyard, was fluent in the language and his works were popular with the Indians for its consistent spelling and adherence to more natural spoken style of the Indians themselves.[127] Other missionaries commissioned include Samuel Danforth, an assistant to John Eliot; Grindal Rawson, minister to the Praying Indians of Wacentug (Uxbridge, Massachusetts); John Cotton, Jr., preacher to Wôpanâak of Plymouth, Mashpee and Martha's Vineyard and his nephew, Cotton Mather, influential Puritan theologian.[126] As the colonies came under direct rule, and interest in the Indian mission waned, the Society last commissioned a reprint of Mayhew's Indiane Primer asuh Negonneuyeuuk in 1747. The end of the missionary translations impacted, but did not finish off, Native literacy, which continued until the close of the eighteenth century.[7] The following is a list of the Society's publications and their year of printing:

Massachusett-language publications[126]
Year Massachusett title English title Translator Original author Reprints
1653 Catechism Catechism John Eliot John Eliot 16621
1654 Indiane Primer Indian Primer John Eliot John Eliot 1667, 1669, 1687
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 VVame Ketꝏhomáe uk-Ketꝏhomaongash David Psalms in Meeter John Eliot Unknown, attributed to King David. 1663
1661 Wusku wuttestamentum nul-lordumun Jesus Christ nuppoquohwussuaeneumun New Testament of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ John Eliot Unknown, various authors. 16812
1663 Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God: Naneeswe nukkone testament kah wonk wusku testament quoshkinnumuk Wuttinneumoh Christ noh asꝏwesit John Eliot
The whole holy his-Bible God. Including Old Testament and also New Testament. This turned by the Servant of Christ who is called John Eliot 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 pomantamoonk sainpwshanau Christianoh uttoh woh an pomautog wussikkitteahonat God
'Godly living directs a Christian how he may live to please God'
The Practice of Piety (abridged) John Eliot Lewis Bayly (1613) 1685, 1687
1666 N/A Indian Grammar Begun5 N/A John Eliot
166- (?) Christiane Ꝏnoowae Sampoowaonk A Christian Covenanting Confession John Eliot John Eliot 167- (?)
1671 Unknown Our Indians' A B C John Eliot John Eliot
1671 N/A6 Indian Dialogues N/A John Eliot
1672 Anomayag or Logick Primer Logick Primer N/A John Eliot
1685 Noowomꝏ Wuttinnoowaonk God, Gen. 4.22. En--- weeche- pomushau God nishwudte pasukꝏs ko-iumwaeu. Wonk- noowomꝏ, Prov. 23.17, qush Jehovah neteag-- newa- k-natꝏtomoush (?) [Title illegible] Leaf of Rules
1688 Wehkomaonganoo asquam Peantogig kah asquam Quinnuppegig tokonogque mahche woskeche Peantamwog ... Kah Yeuyeu qushkinnumun en Indiane Wuttinnontꝏwaonganit
'Call to the Unconverted translated into the Indian language'
Call to the Unconverted John Eliot Thomas Baxter
1689 Sampwutteaháe quinnuppckompauaenin mache wussukhúmun ut Englishmane unnontoowaonk nashpe Thomas Shephard quinnuppenúmun en Indiane unnontoowaonganit nashpe John Eliot. Kah nawhutcheut aiyeuongashoggussemese ontcheteauun nashpe Grindal Rawson
'The sincere convert written in English by Thomas Shepard translated into Indian by John Eliot And in some places a little amended by Grindal Rawson'
The Sincere Convert John Eliot7 Thomas Shephard (1641)
1691 Nashauanittue meninnunk wutch mukkiesog wussesèmumun wutch sogkodtunganash naneeswe testamentsash Negonáe wussukhùmun ut Englishmánne unnontmwaonganit nashpe John Cotton Kah yeuyeu qushkinnúmun en Indiane unnontoowaonganit nashpe Grindal Rawson
'Spiritual milk for babes drawn from the breasts of both testaments written in English ... by John Cotton and Indian ... by Grindal Rawson'
Spiritual Milk for [Boston] Babes Grindal Rawson John Cotton (1656) 1720, 174711
1698 Masukkenukéeg matcheseaenvog wequetoog kah wuttꝏanatoog uppeyaonont Christoh kah ne yeuyeu teanuk, etc.
'Greatest sinners called encouraged to come to Christ and that now quickly, etc.'
The Greatest Sinners Exhorted and Encouraged to Come to Christ Samuel Danforth Increase Mather
1699 Wunnamptamoe sampooaonk wussampoowontamun nashpe moeuwehkomunganash ut New England, etc. Boston A confession of faith owned and consented unto by the elders and messengers of the churches assembled at Boston Grindal Rawson Unknown
1700 Wussukwhonk en Christianeue asuh peantamwae, lndianog, etc.
'Epistle to the Christian, or Praying, Indians, etc.'
Epistle to the Christian Indians, etc. Cotton Mather Cotton Mather 1706
1705 Togkunkash tummethamunate Matcheseongane mehtug, ne meechumuoo Nuppooonk. Asuh, Wunnaumatuongash, nish nashpe Nananuacheeg kusnunt sasamtahamwog matcheseongash ut kenugke Indiansog netatuppe onk ut kenugke Englishmansog asuh chohkquog The Hatchets to hew down the Tree of Sin which bears the Fruit of Death. Or, The laws by which the Magistrates are to punish Offences among the Indians, as well as among the English Unknown Cotton Mather (?)
1707 Ne kesukod Jehovah kessehtunkup. Kekuttoohkaonk papaume kuhquttumooonk kali nanawehtoonk ukkesukodum Lord, etc. The day which the Lord hath made. A discourse concerning the institution and observation of the Lords day, etc. Experience Mayhew Cotton Mather (1703)
1709 Massachusee psalter asuh Ukkuttꝏhomaongash David weche wunnaunchemookaonk ne ansukhogup John ut Indiane kah Englishe nepatuhquonkash8 The Massachuset psalter or Psalms of David with the Gospel according to John in columns of Indian and English Experience Mayhew Experience Mayhew
1710 Oggusunash Kuttooonkash
'A few of his words'9
The Woful Effects of Drunkenness a sermon Preached at Bristol ... When Two Indians Josias and Joseph Were Executed for Occasioned By the Drunkenness both of the Murther & Murthering Parties By Samuel Danforth Samuel Danforth Samuel Danforth
ca. 168-?10 Unknown The foundation of Christian religion : gathered into sixe principles Experience Mayhew William Perkins (1591)
1714 Teashshinninneongane peantamooonk wogkouunuinun kah anunumwontamun Family religion excited and assisted Experience Mayhew Cotton Mather
1720 lndiane primer asuh negonneyeuuk, ne nashpe mukkiesog woh tauog wunnamuhkuttee ogketamunnate Indiane unnontoowaonk. Kah Meninnunk wutch mukkiesog The Indian primer; or The first book. By which children may know truely to read the Indian language Experience Mayhew John Eliot11 1747
1721 Wame wunetooog Wusketompaog pasukqunnineaout ut yuennag peantamweseongash
'The religion in which all Good Men are united in'12
Monitor for Communicants. An Essay to Excite and Assist Religious Approaches to the Table of the Lord Offered by an Assembly the New English Pastors unto their own Flocks and unto all the Churches in these American Colonies (ca. 1714) 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. and include the 'Leaf of Rules,' a series of rules to be followed by Indians in accordance to English law and custom and Christian tradition.
^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 This was likely never published and no copies survive, but it was said to be popular in use as a catechism by the Indians who took to the English version when no Indian copies could be found. ^11 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.
^12 Published in Mather's India Christiana.

Indian translators, missionaries and the spread of literacy[edit]

Painting of John Eliot preaching to the Indians in the Massachusetts State Capitol. Eliot's converts often became literate missionaries, who in turn brought Christianity and literacy to others so that within twenty years after Eliot's first printed translations, literacy went from none to one in three Natives of the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies.

A team of Native translators and interpreters assisted Eliot and the other missionaries with their translations, even though most of their work was uncredited. Eliot himself relied on Cockenoe, his servant from Long Island who spoke a related SNEA language and was able to interpret for Eliot; Job Nesutan, who was very proficient in writing and reading; John Sassomon, an orphan raised in English households and later became an important interpreter between the English and Indians, and James Wawâus Printer, who learned the printing presses and was said by Eliot to have been the most prolific.[128] When Mayhew was commissioned to provide missionary translations, he was assisted by Printer, Neesnumin and Hiacoomes, the first convert to Christianity on Martha's Vineyard.

At least a handful of Indians attended classes to prepare them for assuming the Indian mission at Harvard University prior to the construction of the Indian College, such as James Printer and John Sassamon that would later assist Eliot with his translations, and Jethro, a Nashaway (northern Nipmuc) who later was preacher at Wamesit.[129] Students would later include Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Hiacoomes, son of Hiacoomes, two Wampanoag from Martha's Vineyard; Eleazar, a Wampanoag; and John Wampas, a Nipmuc who was later appointed by his people to protect their rights and land with his bilingual talent, but who betrayed his people to curry favor from the English. The last student, attending after the building was razed, was Brian Larnell, a Nipmuc. Except for the pre-Indian College students and John Wampas, the others contracted illnesses and perished, possibly from close proximity to the English in an urban setting exposing them to the infections against which they lacked immunity.[125]

Natick served as a seminary, with a school where Eliot, and later his Indian disciples, would instruct literacy in Massachusett, Christian religion and English culture before serving as official interpreters, administrators of the Praying towns or elders of the Indian churches, often recruited from the tribal ėlite. Armed with literacy and copies of the missionary translations, these Indians began instructing others.[129] At Natick, Eliot passed on his role as teacher to Monesquassin, who in turn taught it to others. Records from the seventeenth and eighteenth century indicate that quite a few Indians were involved, mainly those from or with kinship connections to Natick, which combined with that dialect's use in Eliot's translations, leveled dialectal differences.[130] Many of these Indians are named in the records, such as the Ahatons of Ponkapoag and the Speens of Natick, Joseph Tuckawillipin of Hassanamessit, Simon Beckom of Wamesit, Samuel Church at Watuppa and Isaac Jeffrey at Manomet and Herring Pond.[129]

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. With its own church, the highest rates for literacy were found in the villages of Codtanmut, Ashmuit and Weesquobs—all within Mashpee—where 59% of the population could read and 31% could write. The general rate was likely the same or higher in the Praying towns of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These Indians, due to their important status as members of prominent tribal families and proficiency, not only took over the mission and served as deacons, elders, ministers and preachers but also as teachers, councilmen, jurors, constables and other administrative functions in the Praying towns. Literacy continued to be an important part of the Indian communities until the 1770s, however, its role diminished as younger generations of Indians switched to using English and fewer and fewer Indian churches remained under Indian control with Indian congregants and preachers, in part because of the upheavals of war, loss of land and lack of economic incentives to stay in the Praying town.[131]


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.[132] Anecdotal evidence suggests that some Indians were literate up until the middle of the nineteenth century, although no documents from this period survive.[133]

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.[53] 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.[134] 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.[6]

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.[135]

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.[136] 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.[137]

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.[137]


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.[132]

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.[138]

As acceptance and appreciation of Native American culture grew in the early twentieth century, and 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.[139]

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.[140] 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.[141] 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.[142]

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.[143]

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.

In 2010, Baird was presented the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award in recognition of her language revival efforts.[144] The following year, PBS aired portions of Anne Makepeace's documentary Âs Nutayanyean-We Still Live Here as a segment on the program Independent Lens. The film highlighted Baird's work, as well as interviews with members of the WLRP-participating tribes discussing the project's history, reception, goals and the experiences as the language came back to the community.[145]

In 2014, the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project was able to boast of a handful of children who were growing up as native speakers for the first time in over a century, 15 proficient speakers, two trained Algonquian linguists, a dictionary with approximately 12,000 entries at the time, pedagogical materials and a complete, non-English educational curriculum and hundreds of students at various stages. In addition, it has allowed the return of the language in cultural, spiritual and sacred expressions of Indian identity. The WLRP continues to host educational programs, language immersion summer camps and after-school sessions and special language days with the four communities that participate.[8][9]

Original plans for the (Weetumuw Wôpanâak) Charter School with plans to open in August 2015 were shelved 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 as the 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 the conflicting political climate, with Republican Governor Charlie Baker's proposal to lift the cap on charter schools and a bill popular with teacher's unions and public opinion hoping for a moratorium.[146]

Instead, the WLRP opened (Mukayuhsak Weekuw), 'Children's House,' a language immersion school at the Montessori Academy of North Falmouth, Massachusetts with a dozen students. Later in November 2016, the school was moved onto Mashpee Wampanoag tribal property, to be closer to Mashpee from where most of the WLRP staff, instructors and students come.[147][146][148] In 2013, it was estimated that 6% of the students of the Mashpee Public School district were estimated to be from the Mashpee Wôpanâak tribe.[148][149] The project also received a three-year grant which will allow the school to expand to 35 students and train four Montessori-style teachers, but it is likely that the slots may have to be awarded by lottery since given the interest in the project and its closer proximity to a tribal region.[150]

The WLRP also noticeably created a backlash against National Geographic's Saints & Strangers two-part Thanksgiving mini-series, providing the story of the Thanksgiving story and the history of the English settlers and Indians. Most importantly, the use of Western Abenaki, a closely related but moribund language, is inappropriate given that it was the Wampanoag who made first contact, and indeed quite a few Wampanoag still live in Plymouth today. Baird stated, 'To say that Abenaki is Wampanog is like saying Portuguese is Spanish ... Using the same language family like this is saying one Indian isn’t any different than another Indian. One language isn’t any different than another. It marginalizes an entire people.' In addition, her and Linda Coombs, who had initially helped National Geographic as language consultants were rebuffed when they called for the Native dialogue to be rewritten, claiming the dialogue and cultural misconceptions were prejudiced, 'stereotypical' and misguided.[151]



Massachusett consonants[152][153]
Labial Alveolar Palatal/
Velar Glottal
Stop [p] [t] [tʲ] [k]
Affricate [tʃ]
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.[153][154][155]


Massachusett vowel inventory[154][155]
Front Central Back
Close [iː] [uː]
Mid [ə]
Open [aː], [aj] [ã]

Sound to spelling correspondence[154][155][edit]

Sound Representation in orthography Native example English example Notes
[a] A, AU, O, OU, OH, U ouwassu /ˌaˈwaˌsuː/, 'he warms himself' Spanish


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/.
[iː] E, É, EA, EE, EI, I, IE neetôp /ˈniːˈtãp/, 'my friend' machine EI an IE are rarely used.
[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/. Some dialects use the sounds /ɔ̃/ and /ɑ/ to represent the letters, /ô/ and /â/.[33] The digraph AU could represent /a/, /a/, /aw/ or variants of /a/ previously listed.[153][154][155][156]


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.[157] 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.[158][159]


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:[160]

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:[161]

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:[162]

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:[163]

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:[164]

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[165]

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.[166]

English Massachusett[167] Loup (Nipmuc?) Narragansett Penobscot[166][168] Munsee[169][170] Arapaho[171] Ojibwe[172]
'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 a combination of official colonial laws, missionary sensibilities and constant assimilation pressures by the English that quickly grew to surround and outnumber the Indians led to the rapid adoption of numerous English customs, religion, laws, foods and practices that the English had brought with them.[173] For example, the English encroachment of hunting, foraging and fishing grounds forced the Indians, confined to the Praying towns, to adopt sedentary English farming and animal husbandry, indicated by English loans such as wheat, barley, appen 'apple' and domesticated animals, shown in their hybrid English and Algonquian plural, hogsack, horseog, oxsuog, goatsog, cowsog, sheepsop and maresog.[174][154] The Indians came under colonial control and adopted English-style government, especially to protect leases of Indian common lands between Indians, as seen by words such as jureeman 'jurymen,' consteppe 'constable,' judge, town act, clerk, county, king, court, seal, witness, entered by, tithingman 'tithe collector' and colony. Trade in valuables and adoption of English currency brought golde, silver, pound, shilling and pence.[175]

Neither Eliot, the Indian translators or other missionaries that could speak the language were able to translate all the numerous terms, peoples and places, mostly English or anglicized Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic religious and material concepts, so many were imported wholesale into the language, sometimes modified or coined by Eliot. Examples from Eliot's translation of the Bible include sabbath, God, Lord, paradise, ark, Genesis, testament, horsumoh pharoah 'Pharaoh's horsemen,' commandment, cherubimsog 'cherub' (pl. 'cherubim'), Exodus, Moab, Canaane, up-Biblum 'His (God's) Bible,' shepsoh 'shepherd,' Christ and Jerusalem.[176]

The importance of the English language to seek employment, communicate with English neighbors and participate in the affairs outside dwindling Indian communities and growing rates of intermarriage in the nineteenth century led speakers to switch to Massachusett Pidgin English, but through a process similar to decreolization, speakers eventually assimilated into the locally prominent speech of Eastern New England English dialects.[177][178]

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.[179]

Plants, Animals and Foods[179][180]

  • moose, 'Eurasian Elk/American Moose' (Alces alces), mꝏs[181]/(m8s).[33]
  • skunk, 'skunk' (Mephitis mephitis), squnck[182]/(sukôk).[33]
  • muskrat, 'muskrat' (Ondatra zibithecus), musquash, 'reddish animal.'[183]
  • 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.'[184]
  • 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'.[184]
  • neshaw, 'silver stage' of American eel (Anguilla americana), used by locals of Martha's Vineyard.[185] From (neesw-), 'double' or 'pair',[186] cf. neeshauog, 'they go in pairs.'[187]
  • pishaug, 'young female Surf scoter,' (Melanitta perspicillata).[185]
  • samp, 'porridge of ground maize kernels,' from Natick nausampe or Narragansett nasaump.
  • nocake, 'Johnnycake,' from nꝏhkik[188]/(n8hkuk)[189]
  • 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.'[33]
  • 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).'[190]

Indian Tools, Technology, Society and Culture[179][180]

  • matchit, 'bad.' From matchit[191] and verb base (mat-), 'bad'.[192]
  • papoose, from 'child.' Cf. Natick papaseit and Naragansett papoos.[193]
  • moccasin, 'shoe.' From mokus[194]/(mahkus).[33]
  • 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[195]/(sôtyum).[33]
  • pogamoggan, 'club' or 'rod.' From pogkomunk.[196]
  • manitou, 'spirit' or 'deity.' Cognate with manitt[197]/(manut)[198]
  • pow wow, 'Indian gathering' or 'gatherings' in general. Originally referred to a 'shaman.' From powwow/(pawâw),[33] 'he heals.'
  • kinnikinnick, 'herbal smoking mixture.' Delawaran, but cognate with kenugkiyeuonk from (keenuk-), 'to mix.'[199]
  • nunkom, 'young man.' From nunkomp.[185][188]
  • totem, 'spiritual, symbolic or sacred emblem of a tribe.' Cognate with wutohkit, 'belonging to this place.'[200]
  • caucus, 'meeting for political supporters'. Possibly derives from a form similar to kogkateamau,[201] 'he/she advises,' and (kakâhkutyum-), 'to advise others.'[202]
  • hominy, 'nixtamlized corn' often eaten as grits. Cognate with (taqaham-), 'to grind.'.[203]
  • 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.[204]
  • toshence, 'last of anything' although once used in south-eastern Massachusetts to mean 'last child.' From mattasons, 'youngest child.'[185][205]
  • muskeg, 'swamp.' From Cree, but cognate with Narragansett metchaug, 'thick woods.'[206]
  • wickakee, 'hawkweed' also known in New England as 'Indian paintbrush.' Refers to several species of Hieracium.[185]
  • pung, shortened form of tom pung, 'one-horse sleigh.'[185]
  • tomahawk, 'ax' ('axe') or 'hatchet.' From Powhatan, but cognate with tongkong.[207]

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'.[208] 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').[209]

Cities and towns[edit]

Cities known by previous names[edit]



Lakes and ponds[edit]



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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]