The language of the Penobscot Indian Nation has existed for many centuries, at a minimum. Now, the Maine tribe is on the cusp of a dramatic development regarding a dictionary for its Eastern Algonquian tongue.
Efforts to preserve the Penobscot language, a dialect of Eastern Abenaki, received a major boost this week when it was learned that a federal grant has been awarded to allow researchers to assist the tribe in devising a complete Penobscot language dictionary.
The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded a grant of nearly $340,000 to help the Penobscot Nation, the University of Maine and the American Philosophical Society preserve the language by creating a comprehensive version of the Penobscot Dictionary, complete with an English index and online database, according to the Bangor Daily News.
It would be the first published Penobscot dictionary.
The Penobscot Nation lives primarily on the Penobscot Indian Island Reservation, near Old Town, Maine, just north of Bangor.
Penobscot, like many Native American languages, has been in decline for well over a century.
Indian students attending schools taught by whites were often punished for speaking in their native tongues. Often, languages other than English began to be spoken only inside the home, with fluency diminishing as older generations died.
Penobscot parents began speaking primarily English to their children sometime around 1880-1900, according to researchers. It is believed the last native speaker of Penobscot died in the 1990s.
However, there are still a number of individuals who know bits and pieces of the language, and others who are studying it, according to the Daily News.
“It’s amazing how much of the language we still use in the community,” said James Francis, director of cultural and historic preservation for the tribe. “We talk about the fact that there’s a dwindling number of speakers, but we did a survey a few years ago and we found there were about 500 words that were still being used in the community in everyday language. That was very encouraging to us.”
The grant will build on the work done by late pathologist and linguist Frank T. Siebert, Jr., who from 1935 to 1993 worked with members of the Penobscot tribe to document the language, even developing a written form, according to the Daily News.
Siebert ended up with about 17,000 entries in a 494-page dictionary manuscript.
The Penobscot Nation plans to publish the dictionary after it’s complete, the publication added.