"New World" Film Revives Extinct Native American Tongue

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
January 20, 2006

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.

(Click here to download an audio clip.)

National Geographic News recently spoke with Rudes about the challenges of bringing a language back from the dead.

It sounds like the filmmakers had no idea what they were getting themselves into with this language restoration project.

Terrence Malick wanted the movie to be as authentic as possible. It was his decision to use the native language indigenous to the area at the founding of Jamestown. What he didnt know was that the language had been extinct since the late 18th or early 19th century.

Virginia Algonquian is part of a family of languages known as Algonquian, right?

Yes, there were about 800 native languages in North America, and five or six families. The Algonquian family was one of the largest. It extended from the province of Manitoba [in Canada] to the eastern seaboard and down to North Carolina. On the East Coast, there were perhaps 15 Algonquian languages. Most no longer have any speakers.

Why did the languages on the coast go extinct first?

That was simply a contact phenomenon. When the English first arrived, they were the minority population, and they were dependent upon the majority Algonquian speakers for their survival. So initially they learned some Algonquian.

Continued on Next Page >>


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