Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Back to the New World of Algonquian languages in Virginia

Soon after I began blogging, I ran across a story about the John Smith/Pocahontas/Jamestown/Powhatan film The New World which focused on the fact that the director had the Algonquian language of the Virginia natives recreated so that his native characters could use it. A lot of effort was put into this part of the project and it definitely added to the movie for me.

Well, that was not the end of it. In today's Washington Post there is an article about how the work for the film has been picked up by members of Virginia's small but still lively Algonquian tribes, who are beginning to use it again. See the article for a photo feature and a list of words with pronunciations.

By the way, I did eventually see -- and acquire -- The New World and though I can see why it didn't make a big splash in the theatres, I am fascinated by it and will watch it again and again. The director, Terence Malick, forces us to see a lost world from the outside. If we don't understand everything that happens, or what people are thinking, how is this different even from daily life?

For those who find a contemplative movie of this sort attractive, let me remind you of the existence of Malick's other stunner, Days of Heaven, not to be confused with Heaven's Gate.


Blogger Phil Paine said...

I haven't seen the film, but I have head audiofiles of some of Rudes'reconstructions. They sound fairly close (as they should) to their nearest surviving relative, the Munsee dialect of the Lenape language which is still spoken by a few elders in Ontario [it once held a prominent place in Ontario]. All we have surviving of Powhatan [Virginia Algonkian]is a wordlist of about 600 recorded by English settlers. As you can imagine, their ears were not well attuned to the task, and the wordlist only vaguely resembles the language. Nevertheless, a number of Powhatan words entered the English language: racoon, tomahawk, opossum and pone (as in "corn pone").

Rubes reconstructions are about as good as could be hoped for. He worked from the existing reconstructions of a putative proto-Algonkian. Fortunately, several Algonkian languages are widely spoken in Canada (Cree and Ojibwe, for example), and there is some documentation of the extinct American ones. Reconstructions on this basis are tricky work, but Rubes' scholarship is on the highest level, and I believe he could make himself understood if he was delivered to 17th Century virginia by time machine.

The real miracle is that a movie-maker would take the trouble to have this work done. Anyone who has squirmed at the absurd representations of computers in films, or seen film characters supposed to be in the 1920's "high-fiving" each other, will be astonished by this unusual degree of care.

4:26 AM  

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