Here’s a post-Thanksgiving addendum to that discussion of colonial dialects we had back in March. The Smithsonian and Plimouth Plantation gave some visitors the chance to eavesdrop on seventeenth-century New England.
“Waking the Ancestors: Recovering the Lost Sacred Sounds of Colonial America,” was no ordinary living history program. Performed by educators from Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the program was developed as part of the Smithsonian’s Religion in America initiative.
Just as calls to prayer and church bells are part of city life around the world, the religious lives of America’s indigenous people and colonists had their own distinctive sounds. “Waking the Ancestors” explored just what those sounds might have been like. With the help of meticulous historical research, the team behind the program reconstructed how worship traditions sounded after the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620 in what is now Massachusetts.
That soundscape is anything but familiar to 21st-century listeners. The region was new to English colonists, but not to the Wampanoag, who once numbered over 100,000 in what is now Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Pilgrims would have heard the traditional songs and dances of Wampanoag people when they arrived—and in turn, the Wampanoag would have heard Pilgrims worshiping in Anglican, Puritan and Separatist styles.
To demonstrate, the program featured worship music in all three styles, ranging from the choral harmonies of Anglicans to the unadorned chanting of Puritans and Separatists, which focused more on the text than music. “For [Separatists], music was just the handmaiden of worship,” Richard Pickering, Plimoth Plantation’s deputy director and the “Waking the Ancestors” program leader, tells Smithsonian.com. Attendees heard multiple versions of psalms sung in different styles and period accents—an attempt to illustrate the spiritual rifts and changes that occurred within what many think of as a homogenous group of colonists.
Here’s the Twenty-Third Psalm as it sounded in New England four hundred years ago.
It’s quite reminiscent of the Shakespearean pronunciation reconstructed by David Crystal, especially in the long “i”s and “a”s. But what about the dialect of the Pilgrims’ Wampanoag neighbors?
In 1992, Jessie Little Doe Baird, who belongs to the Wampanoag Nation’s Mashpee tribe, began having dreams in which her ancestors appeared to her speaking a language she could not understand. Compelled to bring back Wôpanâak, which had been little used since the 1830s, Baird and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used a rare book by missionary John Eliot to reconstruct the language. Eliot, who was given the nickname “the Apostle of the American Indian” due to his efforts to convert the area’s indigenous people, translated his so-called “Indian Bible,” a translation of the King James Bible, into the language of the local indigenous people in order to convert them, but his book has helped the Wampanoag connect even more deeply to their past traditions.
Though Wôpanâak is being taught to children and indigenous people today with the help of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, it is fiercely guarded by the Wampanoag people and is rarely spoken in public. Toodie Coombs, Darius’ wife, spoke in the language in a moment that was not recorded out of respect for the language itself. “That was incredibly powerful,” says Pickering. Coombs agrees. “A lot of people think that language is just an object. You can’t [treat it] like that—it took us a century to get our language back.”
I can see why it’s a sensitive issue. Still, I can’t help but wish somebody had recorded at least a snippet, so that those of us who weren’t in attendance could get a fuller sense of the colonial New England soundscape.