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Dead Indian language brought back to life

A university linguist and a Hollywood director bring Virginia Algonquian back from the dead.
Ken Custalow, a member of Virginia's Mattaponi Indian Tribe, offered a prayer in the Virginia Algonquian language at a ceremony this summer in England. His list of translations is seen here in West Point, Virginia, on Friday.
Ken Custalow, a member of Virginia's Mattaponi Indian Tribe, offered a prayer in the Virginia Algonquian language at a ceremony this summer in England. His list of translations is seen here in West Point, Virginia, on Friday.Carol Guzy / Washington Post
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"Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe. Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak."

In his house overlooking the silvery Mattaponi River, Ken Custalow said the words over and over until it drove his wife crazy. Until she yelled from the next room: Have you memorized that thing yet?

Custalow, 70, a member of the Mattaponi tribe, was preparing to give a blessing at a powwow for Virginia Indians in England, part of the events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Colony. He was nervous. He would be speaking — and some of the audience would be hearing — his native language for the first time.

Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe, he began the salutation. "Great Spirit . . ." Then: Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak. "All nations . . ."

The words came from a language that once dominated coastal Virginia, including part of what is now suburban Washington. Pocahontas spoke it. Tongue-tied colonists littered our maps with mispronunciations of it: Potomac, Anacostia, Chesapeake. Then, sometime around 1800, it died out.

But now, in a story with starring roles for a university linguist, sloppy 17th-century scribes and a perfectionist Hollywood director making a movie about Jamestown, the language that scholars call Virginia Algonquian has come back from the dead.

The result, for Virginia Indians such as Custalow, has been a stunning opportunity — to speak in words that their grandparents never knew.

"It was absolutely awesome," Custalow said. "To think, 'Golly, here was the language that my people spoke.' "

One of many casualties
The language they spoke was just one of several in Virginia before colonization. Its home territory probably included the lower Eastern Shore and the coastal plain between Hampton Roads and the Potomac River, experts say.

The Virginia it described is hard to superimpose on today's. It was a place where bears and elk roamed, where life alternated between stints at farming villages and seasonal migrations for hunting and gathering.

Then Europe landed on its doorstep. Language was one of many casualties.

"It is a natural process that happens to small communities," said Helen Rountree, a professor emerita at Old Dominion University who has studied Virginia tribes. "They had to go out and speak English to do all sorts of ordinary things." Without everyday use, Virginia Algonquian withered.

The same thing happened across the continent. Of perhaps 400 Indian languages spoken in North America in 1500, about 45 are in common use today, one expert estimated.

The Virginia language left behind those mangled place names (somehow " Nukotatunuk," the tribe living in the modern-day District, became "Anacostia"), as well as a few words absorbed into English, like " raccoon," "pecan," and " tomahawk."

A few traces survived among Virginia Indians: Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock tribe said her family didn't use the word "bread."

"My grandparents and my parents would say, 'I'm making up apone,' " she said. The old Algonquian word had been "apon." Corn pone shares the same linguistic link.

For the first half of the 20th century, the loss of their language was a minor concern for Virginia Indians. They were often lumped into the "colored" side of a segregated society, barred from jobs and schools, and many moved away.

By the 1970s, though, discrimination had eased, and interest grew in the old Algonquian language.

Researching it was not an easy task. The best source was a list of Indian words and their meanings compiled by a Jamestown colonist in the 1600s. But it had been recopied by some of the 17th century's most incompetent scribes. Their N's looked like A's, which looked like U's, and they had a serious problem with spelling. The Algonquian word for "ants" had been mislabeled as "aunts," and the word for "herring" had become "hearing."

Re-creating a language
Then Hollywood entered the picture. In 2003, director Terrence Malick was preparing to film a movie about Jamestown, "The New World," which ran in theaters in late 2005 and early this year. Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was hired to translate dialogue for Pocahontas's people.

Rudes started with the Colonial-era word lists and scholarly work and filled in the linguistic blanks using better-known Algonquian languages from all over the Eastern Seaboard. His task was a bit like trying to rebuild modern Spanish using only a few pages from a tourist phrasebook, plus Italian. One scene with three pages of dialogue took him a month.

But the director loved it. He wanted 50 scenes. Rudes translated in his hotel room for two weeks solid. At the end, people were speaking entire sentences in Virginia Algonquian — or at least a linguist's best guess at it — for the first time in 200 years.

"In order to do it, you don't think about that," Rudes said. "Then, when it's all over, you look back and say, 'Wow, I just re-created a language.' "

Among other things, his work has helped to dispel one of the area's most widely held beliefs: that "Chesapeake" means something like "Great Shellfish Bay." It doesn't, Rudes said. The name might actually mean something like "Great Water," or it might have been just a village at the bay's mouth.

Linguists are interested in the language's tendency, much like modern German, to mash together so many prefixes and suffixes that an entire phrase or sentence is summed up in a single word. " Rappahannock," for instance, contains elements that mean "back," "current of water" and "place." "Place where the water comes back" — it means a river moved by the tides.

"What are the possibilities for how humans can organize their thoughts and present them?" said Ives Goddard, an Indian language expert at the Smithsonian Institution. "Here's another blueprint, another bag of tricks."

Awakening history
For the descendants of Algonquian speakers, who account for seven of Virginia's eight state-recognized Indian tribes, the interest is more than academic. At Rudes's request, the movie studio made his work from the movie available to them.

"Win-KAW-poe nee-TAWP," Chief Robert "Two Eagles" Green of the Patawomeck tribe — a group in Stafford County without state recognition— can now say in his talks to school groups. Hello, my friend."It kind of awakens them a little bit to the fact that everybody in America didn't always speak English," he said.

Some tribes have started teaching children pieces of the language; others say they want adult classes.

"I would like to see it as a restored language . . . to be spoken in its fullness," said Richardson, the chief of the Rappahannock tribe. "I don't want it partially restored. I want it fully restored."

A glimpse of the future might have come this summer in Great Britain, at a powwow the tribes held in the town where Pocahontas is buried. This was what Custalow had been preparing for: In the end, he didn't trust himself to memorize the strange syllables, so he brought along a cheat sheet.

Custalow said he did it flawlessly, ending the prayer with the Algonquian word "NAH-daych." The crowd responded with the same word in English: Amen.

Visitors to can click on some of the words in this story and hear Prof. Blair Rudes pronounce the modern word, then its Virginia Algonquian equivalent.