Logic from the voice of the earth itself

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On Friday, I gave a talk at the 46th Algonquian Conference. As the conference web page explains,

The 46th Algonquian Conference will be held in Uncasville, Connecticut, on the reservation of the Mohegan Tribal Nation.  This is the first time in 46 years that the conference will be held on sovereign Native territory.

The 46th Algonquian Conference coincides with the 20th Anniversary of the Mohegan Tribe winning its sovereignty through federal recognition.  The conference itself will be held in the Mohegan Sun Hotel and Convention Center at the Mohegan Sun Casino.

In our registration packet was a copy of Melissa Jayne Fawcett, The Lasting of the Mohegans, 1995.

For those (perhaps foreign) readers who don't get the allusion, this title is a variation on James Fenimore Cooper's  1826 novel The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757., about which Wikipedia observes that

The Last of the Mohicans has been James Fenimore Cooper's most popular work. It has continued as one of the most widely read novels throughout the world, and it has influenced popular opinion about American Indians and the frontier period of eastern American history. The romanticized images of the strong, fearless, and ever resourceful frontiersman (i.e., Natty Bumppo), as well as the stoic, wise, and noble "red man" (i.e., Chingachgook) were notions derived from Cooper's characterizations more than from anywhere else. The phrase, "the last of the Mohicans," has come to represent the sole survivor of a noble race or type.

Ms. Fawcett's book seems unfortunately to be out of print, and also not available anywhere on the internet.

I was especially interested in learning about the Mohegan language. As the Wikipedia article explains,

The last living native speaker of the Mohegan language, Fidelia "Flying Bird" A. Hoscott Fielding, died in 1908. The Mohegan language was recorded primarily in a Smithsonian Institution report made by the early anthropologist, Frank Speck, who lived with Fielding and recorded much of her testimony. Her niece, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, worked to preserve the language. Since 2012, the Mohegan Tribe has established a project to revive its language and establish new generations of native speakers.

The efforts to revive the Pequot language are also relevant, since according to The Lasting of the Mohegans, "Pequot" was originally an exonym (external ethnonym) for Mohegan:

As the Mohegans journeyed from New York to Connecticut, they disrupted the habitats of other tribes. They therefore came to be referred to as "Pequotaug," which connoted the term "invaders." That name was eventually shortened to "Pequot" and adopted by the Mohegans for regular use.

The division between Pequots and Mohegans occurred early in the colonial period. From The Lasting of the Mohegans:

Uncas' followers eventually left the main Pequot village on the east bank of the Pequot (Thames) River about 1635. They asserted their independence by reassuming the less commonly used old clan name of "Mohegan." Their group crossed the river and settled on its western bank at a place called Shantuck.

The idea that the Mohegans migrated relatively recently from upstate New York is apparently controversial. But in any case, I'm ashamed to say that it never occurred to me before that whaling ship in Moby Dick, the Pequod, was named after the Pequot people. Since the Pequots were almost entirely killed or dispersed in the aftermath of the Pequot War of 1634-1638, my first throught was that the name's main association in Melville's time would be with that war. Here's all that Melville has to say on the subject:

After much prolonged sauntering and many random inquiries, I learnt that there were three ships up for three-years' voyages—The Devil-dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod. Devil-Dam, I do not know the origin of; Tit-bit is obvious; Pequod, you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians; now extinct as the ancient Medes.

This leaves open the question of why Melville chose the name of a "now extinct" tribe for his fictional ship. Maybe the next paragraph is a clue:

You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;—square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull's complexion was darkened like a French grenadier's, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts—cut somewhere on the coast of Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale—her masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed. Old Captain Peleg, many years her chief-mate, before he commanded another vessel of his own, and now a retired seaman, and one of the principal owners of the Pequod,—this old Peleg, during the term of his chief-mateship, had built upon her original grotesqueness, and inlaid it, all over, with a quaintness both of material and device, unmatched by anything except it be Thorkill-Hake's carved buckler or bedstead. She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered by that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.

Turning back to what Melissa Jayne Fawcett has to say about the Mohegan-Pequot language:

Jeets Brodernasha (Flying Bird), also known as Fidelia A. Hoscott Fielding, was the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan-Pequot dialect of the Algonquian language. She was raised by her grandmother, Martha Uncas, who taught her Mohegan spiritual customs and the Native tongue.

Fidelia did not teach her protege, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, much of the Mohegan-Pequot dialect. Native language-speaking was prohibited during Fidelia's youth, and she feared that Gladys would suffer reprisal if she learned Mohegan-Pequot.

This dialect is not directly translatable into English, as it reflects a completely different worldview. It focuses on the land, animals, and rhythms of the Natural and Spirit Worlds. The language derives its logic from the voice of the earth itself. This is evident in the following discussion of the meaning behind colors in the Mohegan language.

I'm not sure what it would mean for a language to "derive its logic from the voice of the earth itself", but the subsequent discussion of colors is interesting. The longest discussion deals with red:

Red is the color of women and life. It is also sometimes worn by male leaders as red holds the power of the life force within it. The Mohegan word for woman is "shquaaw" and red is "squayoh". Blood is referred to as "(um) sque" which also has a related "squ" root. So is the name of Granny Squannit, leader of the Makiawisug (Little People of the Woodlands). The root of her name describes her very clearly. "Squa" mean woman, blood, red, or of the earth. The root "anit"  comes from "manit" or "Manitou", often spelled as "mundu" is Mohegan-Pequot, which means Spirit. Therefore, Granny Squannit's name means "Spirit Woman" and implies a connection to the earth and blood.

Quite literally, women are "the bleeders," through whose blood the tribe renews its life. Red is the color of the earth, hence the notion of "Mother Earth." The birth of the sun in the east is thus also associated with the color red.

I'll leave it to Algonquian experts to evaluate these morphologies, etymologies and associations. But morphologies, etymologies, and associations don't reliably survive translation in general, and I don't think that Ms. Fawcett has made a case that this problem is qualitatively worse for translation between English and Mohegan-Pequot than it is for translation between English and Chinese, or even Russian or French.



  1. Stephen R. Anderson said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

    While you're at Mohegan Sun, you might enjoy reading a slightly different perspective on recent Pequot history: http://www.amazon.com/Revenge-Pequots-American-Created-Profitable/dp/0803267452
    It's not particularly well written (understatement), but it is quite interesting (especially for those of us who live in CT).

  2. Mara K said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 6:10 pm

    Is that "squa" root the source of the stereotype of Native American women/wives being called "squaws"?

  3. Rubrick said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 3:12 am

    I did a quick Google check to see whether the word "wroot" in the penulitmate quoted paragraph might be a technical term I didn't know rather than a typo. I concluded that it was the latter, but did learn that "Wroot" is a linear village in Lincolnshire, and I now know the term "linear village", so, win!

    [(myl) Best proofreading evar.]

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 9:23 am

    Mara K: Yes, but it's not just a stereotype—Native women have often been called squaws. The word is now considered offensive, though apparently some Algonquian women want to reclaim it. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squaw (which, full disclosure, I contributed to).

  5. languagehat said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 9:43 am

    This leaves open the question of why Melville chose the name of a "now extinct" tribe for his fictional ship.

    Don't forget that Melville himself sailed on the whaler Acushnet, called after a part of New Bedford whose name comes from the Wampanoag for 'peaceful resting place near water' (per Wikipedia); the Wampanoag were not far east of the Pequots.

  6. If You Don’t Like the Word “Squaw,” You Must Hate the Algonquian Language Family | Aliens in This World said,

    October 29, 2014 @ 11:35 am

    […] From The Lasting of the Mohegans, by Melissa Jayne Fawcett, via Language Log: […]

  7. Yuval said,

    October 30, 2014 @ 9:26 am

    As it happens, the Hebrew words for "blood", "red", "earth" and "person (/man)" all derive from the same root as well (dam, adom, adama, adam respectively).

  8. Bruce said,

    November 6, 2014 @ 1:05 am

    The Wikipedia entry for Manitoba (the Canadian province) says that "The name Manitoba is believed to be derived from the Cree, Ojibwe or Assiniboine languages". In the present context is Algonquian a related language family? Or is Manitou borrowed across languages?

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