"New World" Film Revives Extinct Native American Tongue





For his movie The New World, which arrives in U.S. theaters nationwide today, director Terrence Malick wanted to accurately recreate the sights and sounds of a 17th-century English colony. The film depicts the clash between the native Algonquian Indians and English settlers at the founding of Jamestown in present-day Virginia. Malick therefore decided to have the Native American characters speak the indigenous language of the time—Virginia Algonquian. There was only one problem: No one had spoken the tongue for about 200 years.

Enter Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As the amount of Virginia Algonquian dialogue spoken in the movie increased from just two scenes to more than a third of the film, Rudes found himself reconstructing an entire language that had long gone extinct.



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John Frederick Fausz - 1/25/2006

What's the big deal? William Strachey left an extensive Powhatan word list with English translations, and Capt John Smith recorded several long phrases--both long available in print. In the 1980s PBS/American Playhouse docu-drama, ROANOAK, an entire village of Algonquian-speaking Cree was recruited to speak and teach native dialogue in a similar dialect, which was then translated into English subtitles. Our short, skimpy historical memories make some things seem innovative when they are merely derivative.