In Review: A Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary

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Book Review by Robert Kimber

To learn another language, we have all been told, is to enter another culture. That’s true, and the deeper you delve into that language, the more acculturated you become. Eventually, when you switch into that other language, you also switch into another self, one that is still you but attuned to a different set of social and linguistic habits and signals. If your second language is Italian, you really do, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

The first taste of foreign languages most of us get are the ones on the usual high-school menu: French, Spanish, German, maybe Latin; but these languages really aren’t all that foreign to us. “Foreign” derives from the Latin adverb “foris,” meaning “outside” or, by extension, “outside the country, outside Rome.”

Growing up as most of us do in a world exclusively English-speaking, those languages may well lie outside our experience, but once we have even a rudimentary knowledge of them, we realize they aren’t all that remote from our mother tongue. There are, for instance, the endless cognates: “Hund” is close enough to “hound” that we easily remember what a “dog” is in German. And even though these languages may offer problems for the English-speaking student—things like gender and complicated declensions and unfamiliar word order—they are nonetheless close relatives of English, which is essentially a Germanic language that has incorporated a huge number of words from Latin, French, and Greek along with smatterings from all over the globe.

But pick up the 1,198-page Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary and you find yourself in a different linguistic universe. Early in their lengthy and informative introduction to this volume, the authors, compilers, and editors, David A. Francis and Robert M. Leavitt, point out two important ways in which this language differs from English.

The first is the involvement of the speaker in that whereof he or she speaks and the involvement of things in the external world with the speaker. The second is the”verb-ness” of the language as opposed to the “noun-ness” of English. The authors illustrate these points with a spatial example: “In English,” they write, “a field is usually thought of as a delimited area of open land located in a particular place: a thing, a noun.

In Passamaquoddy-Maliseet the notion of field is conveyed by a verb root (-askute-). The verb indicates how land “fields,” how an open area lies and extends; field is experienced as a dynamic phenomenon rather than as a static object. Literal translations of weckuwaskutek ‘where it fields toward here’ and elomaskutek ‘where it fields away’ suggest the distinctiveness of this way of perceiving. Because all aspects of the physical environment are so constructed, it is unnatural to speak of one’s surroundings as separate from the human being experiencing them; people are integral to the world in which they live.”

I’m tempted to say that behind, or within, most Passamaquoddy-Maliseet nouns lies a verb, an acknowledgement that “things” do not exist apart from action. We live in a world in which we are actors constantly interacting with other constantly interacting actors.

Wocawson, the word for “wind,” is really a verb that we have to translate as “The wind blows” or “It is windy.” Similarly, the entry under “rain” in the English to Passamaquoddy-Maliseet section of the dictionary lists no single noun “rain” but 26 entries that include not only the intransitive verb “it rains” (komiwon) but also other entries that convey meanings like “it stops raining, it starts to rain” and so on.

And in each case, my sense is that the “it” is a violation of what the original wants to say, which could perhaps best be translated simply by “rains” but which would be incomprehensible to us, locked in as we are to the subject-verb paradigm.

In the realm of the grand abstractions of our language—things like “love, honor, liberty”—and broad categories like “art,” we find this same animate, “verbal” predilection. No noun form for “love” is listed, only human beings loving or being loved: kselomoqsu, “s/he is loved”; kseltom, “s/he loves.” There is no entry for “art” but only for “artist,” which again is a concept of verbal origin: nuci-amalhocossawet. Nuci is a prefix indicating “profession” or “occupation”; amalhocossawet is a participle derived from the verb amalhocossawiye, “s/he colors fancily (e.g., painting, decorating baskets with colored splints.)”

As should be clear even on the basis of these few examples, translating back and forth between languages like English, French, and German, in which there are often cognates (artist, artiste) or at least clear one-to-one relationships (an artist in German is simply a Künstler) is a far simpler business that trying to render nuci-amalhocossawet in English. What reflects the original most accurately? “S/he whose occupation is coloring fancily” or “s/he who colors fancily by trade”?

Woefully ignorant as I am of what these words in Passamaquoddy-Maliseet actually convey to a native speaker, I suspect that neither of these suggested translations is very close to the original.

As should also be clear by now, this “dictionary” is much more than a bilingual dictionary on the model of, say, a French-English, English-French dictionary. It provides instead a comprehensive grammar of Pasamaquoddy-Maliseet (there are 40 tables of verb conjugations) and then, in the “dictionary” sections, not just “words” but detailed listings of phrases, sentences, and idioms. The entry “look” in the English to Passamaqoddy-Maliseet section, for instance, is four large pages long and contains everything from “see! look!” to “it looks like bad weather” to “s/he looks at it to copy it (e.g., using another basket as a model for the one s/he is making.)”

In Passamaquoddy-Maliseet, it is, to quote the authors again, “unnatural to speak of one’s surroundings as separate from the human being experiencing them.” This is a language and a culture in which “people are integral to the world in which they live” and a world in which fields and winds are not things but actors, animate beings.

For us whose mother tongue is English, which is, after all, a language foreign to this continent, this monumental work that David A. Francis and Robert M. Leavitt have created gives us practical access to the subtleties and complexities of a language that is truly native to these shores. Just as importantly, if not more importantly, they have provided the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet people with a thorough record of their language and with an essential instructional tool for passing the language on to the young and insuring its survival. We are all much in their debt.

A Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary
Peskotomuhkati Wolastoqewi Latuwewakon

By David A. Francis and Robert M. Leavitt

(University of Maine Press, Orono, Maine 2008) 

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