NEH Grant to Create a Penobscot Dictionary Dedicated to Keeping the Language Alive

Language revival and education are at the core of a three-year project by the University of Maine, Penobscot Nation and American Philosophical Society (APS) to create a comprehensive printed version of the Penobscot Dictionary, complete with an English index and searchable online database.

The project, which was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant of $339,411, aims to provide resources and linguistic training to the Penobscot Nation’s language revitalization community, which aims to keep the language alive and in use, through the creation of the language’s first published comprehensive dictionary.

“I think it is important for the university to reach out to communities, aiding their cultural efforts, and in particular to the Penobscots, who are our neighbors,” Pauleena MacDougall, director of the Maine Folklife Center and faculty associate in anthropology at UMaine, says.

A Penobscot Dictionary manuscript created by pathologist and linguist Frank T. Siebert, Jr. and based on his work with native speakers from 1935-93 exists at the APS. The 494-page work includes approximately 17,000 entries representing more than a half century of a largely underdocumented language.

Researchers hope to add 30,000-45,000 words, phrases, sentences and usage examples from field notes and other archived materials to Siebert’s original manuscript — which was created from index cards, then entered into a digital text file format in the mid-1980s — to prepare an updated edition of the dictionary. That version will include a user guide to introduce readers to key linguistic factors for understanding the resource.

The project also aims to build a Penobscot language database and support the Penobscot Nation’s efforts to increase fluency in the spoken language.

In its digital form, which will be available to the Penobscot community, the text will include expanded usage examples, consistent grammatical category labeling, annotation sourcing new entries and discussion of problematic forms.

Co-principal investigators MacDougall and Conor Quinn, a linguist who earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2006, and a project advisory committee will oversee the compilation and implementation of the dictionary. MacDougall and Quinn were both assistants of Siebert and have extensive backgrounds working with the Penobscot language.
Timothy Powell, director of the Native American Projects at APS, is on the project advisory committee with members of the Penobscot Nation’s Recovering Our Voices Language Immersion Project, or ROV, which prepares digital audio learning materials from archived sources.

The Penobscot Nation, which received federal funding to support the development of Penobscot language resources and learning opportunities, initially proposed the project to the APS in an effort to revise the dictionary and make it more widely accessible. Community members then proposed working with UMaine to obtain more funding, hire a linguist and complete the editing of the dictionary for publication.

Quinn, who began working with Siebert in the 1990s and has also worked extensively on the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet language, is responsible for adding to and editing the dictionary for print as well as providing training to ROV language teachers.

MacDougall says Quinn, who wrote his dissertation on the Penobscots, is probably the most qualified linguist for the project.

MacDougall, who will oversee the grant administration and dictionary preparation, says UMaine will also hire a student researcher to work with Quinn, and will work closely with the ROV throughout the project.

“It’s going to be a constant interaction,” MacDougall says. “We’re going to be meeting with the Penobscots regularly and hopefully provide them with resources for their language program as we prepare the dictionary for publication.”

The ROV advisory committee includes Penobscot elders, cultural specialists, Darren Ranco, Penobscot Nation member and director of Native Programs at UMaine, Powell, MacDougall and Quinn. The group will also test the database for accessibility.

“The University of Maine and the Penobscot Nation will not only greatly benefit from the end product of this project — the first published dictionary of the Penobscot language — but also from the collaborative process of this work happening on and around campus,” Ranco says. “This shows the potential of collaborative, engaged research that is promised in our land grant mission and the recent Blue Sky Plan.”

Ranco also says the dictionary will be a valuable resource for the university’s classes on Native American languages, which will be taught for the first time in a two-course sequence this coming academic year.

The project, which will take place from September 2013 through August 2016, will start by archiving the original dictionary in database form and providing linguistic training. By the second year, researchers hope to edit and add entries, continue training and user-test the database. By the third year, the group hopes to have a final version of the dictionary ready for printing.

The Penobscot Nation, which is paying for the printing costs, will then decide where to have the resource published.

The University of Maine Press, which published “Peskotomuhkati Wolastoqewi Latuwewakon: A Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary” by David A. Francis and Robert M. Leavitt in 2008 could be a possibility, MacDougall says.

The Passamaquoddy-Maliseet dictionary project has been going on at least as long at the Penobscot project — possibly longer — and has been collecting, editing and disseminating in similar ways, according to MacDougall.

Although MacDougall believes there may be more speakers of the  Passamaquoddy language, which is the same as the Maliseet language, it is still as endangered as the Penobscot language.

“All languages that are not English are endangered in this country,” MacDougall says. “Anyone you talk to in Maine that is French will tell you the same thing, or any of the other native languages. It’s difficult to maintain that second language unless you have a real strong community effort. It’s always going to be a struggle, and that’s true of many languages all over the world.”

MacDougall says the Eastern Algonquian languages of the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy-Maliseet are closely related.

“They’re in the same language family but they’re not dialects, they’re different languages,” she says. “It’s not so much the pronunciation; in some cases you’ll find words that are very similar. But the grammar is different, the way you put words together is a little different.”

Penobscots started speaking English to their children between 1880 and 1900, with only six children born after 1900 learning to speak Penobscot in childhood, according to the project proposal by MacDougall. In 1935, Siebert found there were 98 speakers of the language.

“Siebert’s documentary work was a race against time for a dwindling speech community,” MacDougall wrote.

The language is now taught mostly in community adult education classes instead of being learned at home, according to MacDougall.

Along with making the Penobscot Dictionary more accessible and easy to use for community members, researchers, educators and language learners, the project also aims to educate the public on current issues in language endangerment, documentation and revitalization.

“The primary motivation for this proposed project is that the Penobscot Dictionary manuscript is extremely valuable, already substantial, and has languished in a nearly complete form for more than 20 years,” MacDougall wrote.

Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747