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Movie brings lost language to life
Linguist recruited to help new Pocahantas movie be realistic
BY BRYN NELSON
The long-dead language of Pocahantas has been given new life by a linguist recruited to lend an air of authenticity to a Hollywood epic.
When the Native Americans of southeastern Virginia's Powhatan Confederacy first encountered John Smith and the English settlers at Jamestown, the basis for director Terrence Malick's new movie, "The New World," hundreds of languages existed in North America.
Most have since died out, but months of painstaking research by University of North Carolina at Charlotte linguist Blair Rudes may allow the reconstructed Virginia Algonquian tongue to persist long after the movie's end credits roll.
"I like language," Rudes said. "Every language has its own possibilities." And each, he said, provides a different perspective on the world.
Several words descended from the large Algonquian family of languages, once spoken from the Carolinas to Nova Scotia, provide a glimpse of the Native Americans' familiarity with their surroundings, from "raccoon" and "hickory" to "terrapin" and "moccasin."
During the movie's pre-production phase, Malick sought out someone to coach his cast in Virginia Algonquian to ensure historical accuracy, and he eventually approached Rudes. The linguist has worked with Native American languages for more than three decades, and has revived Pequot -- another extinct Algonquian language -- for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation that owns Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.
For the movie, however, Rudes faced the challenge of recreating a working vocabulary for a language last spoken around 1785. The vast majority of its words were compiled in two surviving 17th Century lists, one by Smith, the love interest of Pocahantas, and another by William Strachey, secretary for the Jamestown Colony.
In all, Rudes found about 650 words, but they had been written down phonetically by Englishmen whose pronunciations differed markedly from modern American English. To recreate how the words would have actually sounded -- and to fill in the sizeable vocabulary gaps -- he researched not only the language's Algonquian relatives and ancestral tongue but also how it was recorded by colonists at the time.
"What you're doing is narrowing down the possibilities," Rudes said. "You're constantly fine-tuning the picture. As you do more and more words, it becomes clearer and clearer."
With an inflection system reminiscent of Russian, pronunciation rules comparable to Japanese, and an overall structure similar to Spanish, Virginia Algonquian translates the phrase, "We come from England," as "Inkuruntunk nunowámun," -- the first word pronounced as INK-uh-dun-tunk.
Rudes said the language was relatively easy to teach, compared with other Native American languages that can include dizzying clusters of consonants. Often, though, Malick would improvise and ask Rudes to teach cast members new words on the spot. Any mistakes in pronunciation were corrected during subsequent voice-over sessions.
"They wanted it accurate," Rudes said.
The push for precision may pay off in other ways. As soon as the movie's DVD is released, the scripts and pronunciation CDs will be handed over to Virginia tribes who can trace their ancestry back to the Powhatan. Already, Rudes has received requests to work with several of the tribes on the language.
Ives Goddard, a senior linguist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., said one or two languages go extinct every year, with more than half of all remaining tongues expected to fall silent by the end of the century.
Filling in the missing pieces of a linguistic puzzle can therefore benefit both researchers trying to reconstruct the basis of modern language, and a language's heirs hoping to reclaim their cultural history.
"It's a nice example," he said, "of how unexpected dividends can come out of research."
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.