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Missionaries Helped Preserve Forgotten Languages

An often-overlooked effect of missionary influence has been the preservation of languages. Language is the breath of a culture, and so the death of a language almost always results in the loss of a way of life. MIT linguist Norvin Richards expressed the importance of the preservation of languages and cultures well: “There are jokes that are only funny in Maliseet and there are songs that are only beautiful in Wôpanâak …. If we lose those languages, we lose little pieces of the beauty and richness of the world.”

In 2019, the United Nations warned, “Almost half the world’s estimated 6,700 languages are in danger of disappearing.” Many minority languages are lost when younger generations are educated in national languages. Written languages have a much better chance of survival than exclusively oral ones and many small, unique languages have been preserved by Bible translation.

In one remarkable case, the Wôpanâak language was brought back to life a hundred years after its last speakers died. The linguistic revival was based on the translation work of missionary John Eliot. The first Bible published in colonial America was in the Wôpanâak language in 1663. As a result of Eliot’s literacy efforts, the Wampanoag tribe left behind a collection of written documents when disease ravaged their population.

In the 1990s, Jessie Little Doe Baird, a descendant of the tribe Eliot sought to reach, used those records to revive the Wôpanâak language as part of a linguistics program at MIT. Her daughter is the first native Wôpanâak speaker in seven generations and six other Wampanoags have become fluent in the language. Interestingly, one of Baird’s Wampanoag ancestors publicly opposed missionary work in the eighteenth century.

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