Linguist revitalizes Virginia Algonquian for The New World.

Kalani Queypo as “Parahunt” in The New World. Credit: ©2005 Merie Wallace, SMPSP/New Line Productions

When the dead are raised in movies, usually some sort of special effect is in play. But when University of North Carolina-Charlotte English professor Blair Rudes revitalized Virginia Algonquian for the newly-released motion picture The New World, a retelling of the Pocahontas story, the only tricks he used were the painstaking methods of a historical linguist.

The movie’s director, Terrence Malick, hired Rudes to recreate Virginia Algonquian, the 220-year-dead language of the Powhatan people. Rudes, who holds a doctorate in historical linguistics, has a long history of working to revitalize Native American languages. He’s published a dictionary of the Tuscarora tribe of Virginia and North Carolina, so the process of language reconstruction is old hat to him. But, Rudes said spending time, money and effort for the sake of historical accuracy isn’t always typical of Hollywood.

“It’s one of the first historical movies [about Native Americans] where the actors actually use the language that was spoken by the people,” Rudes said. “I think the only other one would be Dances with Wolves, where they did make the effort to use Lakota and Pawnee. But in things like Black Robe [a 1991 movie about French Jesuits and a tribe of Canadian Algonquians], they didn’t resurrect the Huron language; they used Mohawk and Cherokee.”

Yery little was known about Virginia Algonquian before Rudes set out to revitalize it. He began with a short collection of known words, which came from vocabulary lists recorded by colonial pioneer John Smith and Jamestown Colony secretary William Strachey, along with a few later colonists and settlers.

“We don’t have much,” he said. “We have about 600 words of the language to work with. There’s no text or stories or anything else.”

Rudes first figured out how to pronounce the words recorded by the English explorers. He examined Strachey’s and Smith’s individual English dialects to discern precisely which sound would have corresponded with each letter. Knowing that these colonists were not linguists, and that both likely made mistakes in transcribing vocabulary, Rudes looked at better-understood Algonquian dialects when reconstructing vocabulary and grammar.

Still, the 600 words from primary sources were not enough to translate all of the dialogue in the movie. Rudes had to steal words from related languages and use his earlier analysis to tweak them so they would closely resemble the lost Virginia Algonquian words.

One amusing example of Rudes’ work involved a bit performer in The New World whose task was to walk up a hill, gaze down on the new colonists building Jamestown Fort and promptly be shot dead by the oh-so-civilized white men. The actor lobbied to say something cute before he was killed off, eventually settling on the New Yorker-worthy quip, “There goes the neighborhood.”

To translate this short sentence, Rudes first rephrased it as “They will destroy the neighborhood.” He already knew the word for “they;” the suffix to change it to the future tense; and the verb meaning “destroy.” To create the word “neighborhood,” he joined two words from the closely-related language of the Massachusett tribe, one for “neighbor” and one for “place.” He then added the ending for “it is.” He next changed the letters from the original Massachusett words to the corresponding Virginia Algonquian letters. Finally, he came up with the word “wikahkamikaaw” for “it is the neighborhood.” Rudes later discovered that there was once a Virginia Algonquian town of the same name, reassuring him that his made-up word existed in the original language.

Rudes’s efforts on The New World will not merely go toward helping Colin Farrell regain some of the respect he lost with the huge flop Alexander;” Rudes will use his newfound knowledge to teach the descendants of the Powhatan Confederacy their ancestors’ language.

“The agreement was that everything I did for the language for the film would get turned over to the tribes for their language revitalization efforts,” Rudes said. “And that is supposed to happen as soon as the DVD of the film is released.”

So, wait, the residuals have to come through before the movie’s secrets can be made available to their rightful owners? Ah, there’s the sleazy Hollywood we know and occasionally love.

Originally published January 25, 2006

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