How Did a Self-Taught Linguist Come to Own an Indigenous Language?
April 16, 2021 2:00 AM   Subscribe

The Penobscot language was spoken by almost no one when Frank Siebert set about trying to preserve it. The people of Indian Island are still reckoning with his legacy (Alice Gregory, The New Yorker)
posted by adrianhon (9 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I had never heard of this tribe before, but I was familiar with the name through one pop culture footnote: It was the name of the oft-mentioned fiancé of Margaret Houlihan on the TV show "MASH". Given that the character was depicted as very old money and very white bread, that surname was an interesting choice on the writer's part.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 5:05 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

That was a really good, deep examination of the issue. Thanks for the link.

I was interested in the aside that mentioned that the Cherokee Nation included fluent speakers of the language along with first responders as among the highest priority vaccine recipients.
posted by Orlop at 6:32 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

What a remarkable story. I took special notice as I live in southern Maine, and had heard of the Penobscot Nation in passing, usually in downeast news. It is serendipitous that a linguist (Conor Quinn) who taught himself Irish is now helping with the revival of the Penobscot language, because Ireland went through a similar phase in its own history, took control of its own affairs, reemphasized its own culture and language as a government imperative, and now: nearly every road sign I've seen there is in both English and Gaelic, new generations learn Gaelic in national schools, and the Irish are viewed by the world as a distinct culture, people, and country.

I hope the state of Maine and its institutions consider funding the language revival effort. From what I've read, recent history has been fraught, and there's still simmering tension between the (moderate Democrat, former attorney general) governor and the tribe, but it's so important to grant sovereignty in all forms to the tribes. And reviving pride in ancestral language is key to sovereignty, imo.
posted by Jubal Kessler at 7:01 AM on April 16 [6 favorites]

I guess I don't get how the New Yorker website works? Is the real article the audio, and the text I'm seeing just a sample? This is the last sentence that I see: "Siebert, who had moved to Maine permanently about fifteen years before Dana joined him in his work, had no such memories, but together they muttered and scribbled in a language that only a handful of people still spoke."
posted by JanetLand at 9:10 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]

JanetLand, I was able to read the whole article text. I'm not sure about your particular case but I think they have one of those "you get x free articles per month" cookie situations - so you might try clearing cookies?

This a great article, thank you for posting it adrianhon.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:05 AM on April 16

I was once at a meeting between Irving Howe and students at my college. A young man stood up and proudly told Howe that he was teaching himself Yiddish. Howe said something like "Don't kid yourself. Yiddish is a dying language and you can't bring it back". The entire audience stared at him with horror.

It's sad, when it seems that Yiddish and apparently, Penobscot, can change your personality when you speak it, as Dana observed with her grandmother.
posted by acrasis at 8:57 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

Down East Magazine published a similar story by Brendan Wolfe about Siebert and the revival of Penobscot back in 2001. It confirms Siebert's reputation as an ornery old coot, but Siebert was actually a very active non-affiliated linguist, publishing his studies in recognized journals throughout his life. Frank G. Speck, Siebert's mentor at U Penn, was another eccentric more dedicated to his native "subjects" than to his position as an academic department head.

American linguistics has always attracted some uniquely bizarre characters. John Peabody Harrington dedicated himself to recording the declining languages of Native California for the Smithsonian. He was deeply paranoid of other linguists, and after his death in 1961, as Smithsonian curators began cataloging his papers, they discovered over six tons of boxes stored in warehouses, garages and even chicken coops throughout the West. Communities such as the Chumash are now using Harrington's material to revive their languages.

Jaime de Angulo was born in Paris, came to America in 1905 to become a cowboy, medical doctor and psychologist, and ethnomusicologist. He studied linguistics with Alfred Kroeber at Berkeley but went on to despise academia. preferring the company of impoverished Achomawi people to hobnobbing with professors. He became a prototype character in the development of Beat counter culture in Big Sur.
posted by zaelic at 3:51 AM on April 18 [4 favorites]

Today's Washington Post ran a story on the language revitalization of the Mutsun language in California. Geary, who is now the chairwoman of the Tamien Nation, is part of a legacy of Indigenous women who have preserved language and traditional cultural practices throughout history. Seen as the keepers of cultural knowledge, women are also the primary transmitters of this information to younger generations.
posted by zaelic at 12:20 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]

I can understand the complicated relationship the Penobscot have with Siebert. That he never seems to have consulted with native speakers on orthography reminds me of someone who had a complicating influence on Icelandic written language.

Back in the 19th Century the pioneering Danish linguist Rasmus Christian Rask taught himself Icelandic and got involved in Icelandic debates about orthography. His lasting contribution was to browbeat Icelanders into using the letter eth (Ð, ð). It was some weird borealist idea he had.

There’s no particular need for it. Before Rask’s intervention, the letter “d” was used for “ð”, and there are almost no cases where there could possibly be any confusion. Eth has been a problem character ever since, most notably in all kinds of digital contexts.

It’s part of a set of special Icelandic characters, with the thorn (Þ, þ) and Y with an accent mark (Ý, ý) that is lacking in other languages, and we feel fondly towards all of them. Incidentally, of those three, only the thorn would be difficult to do without.

So yes, Rask saddled us with a useless, troublesome letter, which by now is difficult to get rid off. But we feel basically warmly towards him.

But we don’t face the same situation as the Penobscot. We don’t have an orthography that was designed for fine distinctions, rather than practical use. Also, we had centuries of writing before Rask came along, and a vibrant linguistic community. No one could work with Icelandic orthography without including Icelanders.

A dictionary is an incredible resource for a language, but that is only one tool in the set. If Siebert had treated the Penobscot as partners in his project, even senior partners, he might have helped to create a practical orthography to give the language a useful tool to survive. He might have given the Penobscot a link to their own past as a people, and the culture of their ancestors. But he cared more for his linguistic project than the people who spoke the language.
posted by Kattullus at 1:38 PM on April 22

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