Massachusett Cambridge

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It was bound to happen:

New street signs with Massachusett language translation will be installed in East Cambridge

More than 70 new signs will designate First through Eighth Streets after a participatory budget item.

Molly Farrar, (12/6/23)

The article doesn't say much about Massachusett, but at the least we should note that it is an Algonquian language and that it had a surprisingly high degree of literacy.

The Massachusett language is an Algonquian language of the Algic language family that was formerly spoken by several peoples of eastern coastal and southeastern Massachusetts. In its revived form, it is spoken in four communities of Wampanoag people. The language is also known as Natick or Wôpanâak (Wampanoag), and historically as Pokanoket, Indian or Nonantum.

The language is most notable for its community of literate Native Americans and for the number of translations of religious texts into the language. John Eliot's translation of the Christian Bible in 1663 using the Natick dialect, known as Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God, was the first printed in the Americas, the first Bible translated by a non-native speaker, and one of the earliest examples of a Bible translation into a previously unwritten language. Literate Native American ministers and teachers taught literacy to the elites and other members of their communities, influencing a widespread acceptance. This is attested in the numerous court petitions, church records, praying town administrative records, notes on book margins, personal letters, and widespread distribution of other translations of religious tracts throughout the colonial period.

The dialects of the language were formerly spoken by several peoples of southern New England, including all the coastal and insular areas of eastern Massachusetts, as well as southeastern New Hampshire, the southernmost tip of Maine and eastern Rhode Island, and it was also a common second or third language across most of New England and portions of Long Island. The use of the language in the intertribal communities of Christian converts, called praying towns, resulted in its adoption by some groups of Nipmuc and Pennacook.

The revitalization of the language began in 1993 when Jessie Little Doe Baird (Mashpee Wampanoag) launched the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP). It has successfully reintroduced the revived Wampanoag dialect to the Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond communities of the Wampanoag of Cape Cod and the Islands, with a handful of children who are growing up as the first native speakers in more than a century.


There clearly is a base of people who care enough about their native language to take grass roots action to remind others that it was once spoken across the land along the river that was called by the indigenes "Quinobequin", meaning "meandering" or "meandering still water" (source).

After more than 2,500 Cambridge residents made their voices heard during the participatory budget vote in 2021, more than 70 new street signs in East Cambridge will include translations into the native Massachusett language.

Sage Carbone, a Cambridge resident, proposed the participatory budget item to add traditional Native translations to city signs, along with commemorating Native American sites in Cambridge with markers.

“Any representation is missing,” she said. Carbone is a member of the Northern Narragansett Indian Tribe of Rhode Island with Nipmuc, Massachusett ancestry.

The signs, which will include both the English and Massachusett languages for First through Eighth Streets in East Cambridge, will be at every intersection of those numbered streets. The group of mostly volunteer Native scholars and city officials, including Carbone, will be looking at mock-ups of the sign next week in preparation for installation in the spring.

According to Carbone, the translations will read “nekône taꝏmâôk,” for First Street, with the following ordinal numbers as “neese,” “neeshwe,” “yâwe,” “napanatashe,” “nequsuktashe,” “neesâusuktashe,” and “neeshwôsuktashe.”

Every time I cross 4th St., I will think of god.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Arthur Waldron]


  1. Jeremy said,

    December 9, 2023 @ 8:26 pm

    You won't actually be crossing Fourth St. For some reason, the street between Third and Fifth is Sciarappa St.

  2. Philip Anderson said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 6:40 am

    The way I read the article, it will be called “Fourth Street” in Massachusetts.
    I think this in excellent idea, not only to recognise the indigenous people, but to remind others that there was and is this older language in the region.
    But I wouldn’t be surprised if the plan gets criticised on the usual grounds, as happens elsewhere to minority languages.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 2:47 pm

    Using Massachusett translations for streets whose English names are nothing more than ordinal numbers seems rather lazy and disrespectful. There's admittedly the problem that a very high percentage of Cambridge street names come from Anglo-Saxon surnames or toponyms or from common nouns whose referents were imported (e.g. Church St. or Museum St.), but if you poke around the map there's e.g. a Grove Street and a Fresh Pond Parkway and various other streets named for trees or other natural features that one imagines that Massachusett had its own pre-contact lexemes for.

  4. ktschwarz said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 2:55 pm

    The third letter in "taꝏmâôk" (= street) won't show up in some browsers, e.g. Safari on iPhone. It's the double-o ligature that was invented for Eliot's Bible and used in colonial-era writing, representing (generally) /uː/. Because of the difficulty of getting that ligature on a typewriter or computer, the Wampanoag Language Revival Project replaced it with the numeral 8 (some other Algonquian languages have also used 8 as a letter at some times). I wonder how Cambridge decided on that spelling, and whether the Wampanoag revivalists would prefer the 8?

    More detail at:

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    December 10, 2023 @ 3:44 pm

    “ The third letter in "taꝏmâôk" (= street) won't show up in some browsers, e.g. Safari on iPhone ” – nor will it display correctly in Seamonkey or Firefox under Windows 7 unless a suitable font (e.g., Area Neu Regular) is installed.

  6. Rodger Cunningham said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 10:05 am

    ktschwartz, the 8 in that context is found in many French transcriptions of native words in the 17th century; it's a once-common French ligature for ou, derived from a Greek ligature.

  7. ktschwarz said,

    December 11, 2023 @ 6:26 pm

    Rodger, the Ou ligature ȣ is not identical with the numeral 8 (as I've told you before), although 8 has also been used as a substitute for it. It wasn't used in French per se but by French missionaries, who had studied Greek to translate the Bible and introduced the Ou ligature (among other Greek letters) to several New World languages for sounds they couldn't write in the French alphabet, including /w/.

    But Massachusett was not one of those languages: the people were colonized by English Puritans, not French Jesuits. Eliot's Bible devised an orthography independently, based on English spelling, with both a w as in English and the double-o ligature.

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