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‘Genius grant’ for linguist

A linguist studying a long-dead Native American language has been rewarded with a ‘genius grant’.

Jessie Little Doe Baird was awarded the $500,000 MacArthur Fellows grant for her work in resurrecting the Wampanoag language, an Algonquian language of New England. The language was spoken until the mid-1800s, when it disappeared, and appears to have an interesting history:

According to Baird, her ancestors were “the first American Indian people to use an alphabetic writing system,’’ and the first Bible published on this continent — a key document in her research — was printed in 1663 in Wampanoag.

After English missionaries arrived on this continent, the Wampanoag people were quick to realize the power of the written word, Baird said, especially to resolve land disputes with the Europeans. “And so Wampanoag people started to record land transfers, wills, personal letters,’’ she said. The result is what she called “the largest collection of native written documents on the continent.’’

But there are no documents from the second half of the 19th century, which to Baird suggests that Wampanoag disappeared then. Much of her task in reconstructing it as a written and spoken language is a kind of detective work.

“There was no standardized spelling for English, and there was no such thing as a dictionary,’’ she said. “So the rule of the day was spell a word any way you like. And Wampanoag people started the same tradition.’’ (Source:

Baird is the director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and one of the principal authors of a Wampnoag-English dictionary. She has also written children’s books in the language and certifies volunteers to teach it. Baird has a long list of possible uses for the grant – all of which will hopefully reinvigorate the language.