Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How a linguist revived ‘New World’ language

Yesterday's blog talked about the invented language Na'vi created for a science fiction movie. Today I want to look at the revival of a language for the cinema.

What would Pocahontas say? That's what was on writer/director Terence Malick's mind when he started to film "The New World," his cinematic retelling of the saga surrounding Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.

Malick thought he could just find some contemporary speakers of the language that was used by Pocahontas and her tribe in pre-colonial Virginia — and he was somewhat surprised to find out that the language had been extinct for more than 200 years.

A less rigorous director might have given up, but Malick instead turned to Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who specializes in past and present American Indian languages. Rudes' work to reconstruct and revitalize the Virginia Algonquian language might itself make for a good movie — or at least a History Channel documentary.

It's a rare success story in the linguistic game: Many of the more than 800 languages that were spoken in North America when the Europeans arrived have gone extinct, including all but a handful of the 15 or so East Coast Algonquian dialects.

Reconstructing the dialogue
Rudes started the job in the summer of 2004, after receiving the scripts for two scenes where Malick wanted to use Virginia Algonquian. First, the linguist had to reconceptualize the dialogue in American Indian terms. For example, a member of Powhatan's tribe wouldn't think of the Jamestown settlers as coming from a "land to the east" — since for all they knew, there was only water to the east. So a reference to England was rephrased as the "island on the other side of the water."

Then Rudes had to figure out how the dialogue would be spoken in Virginia Algonquian. The only surviving vocabulary is a list of about 50 words set down by Smith himself, plus a 600-word list set down in 1612 by William Strachey, a secretary for the Jamestown colony. "Neither of them was a linguist or particularly skilled in transcribing foreign languages," Rudes said.

What's more, 600 words or so fell far short of the thousands needed to do justice to the "New World" dialogue. So Rudes assessed every word in the light of better-documented Algonquian languages, including the ancestral Proto-Algonquian that linguists have reconstructed through cross-language comparisons.

Rudes also had to reconstruct the grammar, based on what he knew about Algonquian languages in general. "The sentence structure and word structure differs from English in that it's a much more inflectional language," he said. The language has some similarities to Russian, in that there is no form of the verb "to be," and no articles such as "the" or "a."

When he finished his translation, Rudes spoke the dialogue in his reconstructed Virginia Algonquian, recording it on compact disks so that the actors could learn their lines in a language no one alive ever heard before. Click on the audio link below to listen to a sample clip, or click here for a text transcript.

Once the CDs were recorded, Rudes thought the hardest part of the job was finished — but it had really just begun.

Malick liked Rudes' translations of the two scenes so much that he decided to have all the native dialogue spoken in Virginia Algonquian with English subtitles. "It went from two scenes to somewhere around 48 or 50 scenes at that point," Rudes recalled.

So Rudes had to slave away on more translations for nearly a month in a hotel room in Williamsburg, Va., where Malick was filming. And that's not all. Malick encouraged the actors to improvise while they were on location.

"Ideas would come to Terrence Malick on the spur of the moment, and sometimes that meant changing the dialogue," Rudes said. "I was on the set all the time that scenes were filmed in which the native actors were present, in case there was a change in dialogue."

Rudes and the filmmakers agreed that if his spur-of-the-moment translation turned out to be slightly off, there would be a chance to correct the dialogue later during the editing process. So for two days last September, Rudes went to Hollywood to work with the actors during their voiceover sessions. "Surprisingly little" of the language needed to be changed, Rudes said.

Bonus for the tribes
Rudes said the Indians he got to know during the filming "were very pleased with my work," and the descendants of Pocahontas' people will soon be getting a bonus. "When the DVD for the film is released, all of the CDs and scripts that I prepared on the language are being turned over to the tribes," he said.

In addition, Rudes is working with Old Dominion University's Helen Rountree, one of the country's top experts on the Virginia tribes, to help develop a dictionary of Virginia Algonquian. He's also working on other language restoration projects with North Carolina's Catawba tribe and Connecticut's Pequot tribe.

Looking back, Rudes said that if it weren't for Malick's desire to hear Pocahontas' authentic words, it would have been much harder to bring Virginian Algonquian back from the dead.

"It might have been done anyway, but it would have taken much, much longer," Rudes said. "This type of work is very time-consuming and expensive. ... There are so many other projects, I probably wouldn't have turned to this one."

Boyle, Alan. 2006. "How a linguist revived ‘New World’ language". Posted: January 21, 2006. Available online:

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