When Jessie Little Doe Baird began the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, there was only one other example of reviving an extinct language: ancient Hebrew. But where Israel made restoring the language a national priority and had thousands of ancient texts to draw upon, Baird, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of eastern Massachusetts, had to rely on her own initiative, a seventeenth-century translation of the Bible, and a handful of legal documents. Starting in 1993, she began the slow process of relearning vocabulary and grammar from the translation. The Bible was originally translated from English into “the Indian language” in 1663 by John Eliot, a minister who wanted to convert the native tribes to Christianity. The irony of depending on such a source was not lost on Baird, whose seventeenth-century forebears had opposed missionary work. By 1996 Baird had compiled a dictionary of nearly 10,000 words with the help of Ken Hale, a linguistic scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and himself the descendant of an early settler. Ten years later, Baird was one of seven fluent Wôpanâak speakers and her daughter Mae Alice became the first native speaker of the language in seven generations.
Baird’s work marks an important success in tackling the global problem of lost languages. In the United States, 70 of the remaining 139 Native American languages will disappear in the next five years unless action is taken. Linguists believe that 90 percent of the approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world will become extinct by 2050 as a result of economic and cultural globalization and development. As the anthropologist Wade Davis points out, languages are lost because certain cultures are “driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to.” Wade argues that these forces, namely globalization and modernization, erode the “ethnosphere,” just as they erode the biosphere. It is a view shared by language revivalists like Baird, although she has a more local take on what it means to save a language. Teaching her people to speak and read Wôpanâak, she said, has been “like taking care of your family.” Last year, she received a MacArthur fellowship, or “genius grant,” in recognition of her work.