(I originally wrote this post on my other blog in 2009, and have since learned that what was spoken in Northern VA, i.e the suburbs of Washington DC was a dialect halfway between Delawarian and the dialect/language reconstructed for the movie)
The Patawomecs and Powhatans Indians used to live here. They’re are a few people who can trace their lineage to that tribe, but all of them have stopped speaking their ancestral tongue for 100s of years. We know it was an Algonquin language, but that is like saying we know it was a Romance language- not really enough to starting building sentences.
A linguist has tried to reconstruct the language for a movie using the 600 remaining words and some inferences from surving languages in the language family. So I start wonder, how can I get a piece of that and learn Virginian Algonquian?
It makes for a good movie– but after a language is dead, if you wanted to go further, which version of it do you revive/reconstruct? Every 300 or so years a language becomes mutually incomprehensible with the version that came before and after it. So across time, there are probably 4 or 5 Virginian Alogonquian languages. And across space, there are dozens of Algonquian languages, in various states of being extinct or slowly disappearing.
A reconstruction project is doubtlessly going to be influenced by the language of the reconstructor and the surviving examples of Algonquian languages. And reconstructing by looking at similar langauges is more likely to end up with an Alogonquian Esperanto– something that has the most common features of all sampled languages, but itself isn’t exactly mutally comprehensible to any speaker of the source languages.
Finally, because the reconstructed language isn’t testable without a time machine, it isn’t scientific, it’s artistic. So if I’m saying anything, I’m saying we should judge revivals of langauges like this as constructed languages and judge them on the merits of constructed languages.
Constructed languages tend to be successful when they are simplified, well defined and well governed. Simple like Esperanto, well defined unlike Volapuk and well governed like Klingon (although the activity on the website for the KLI* makes it look like it has about as much chance as Virginia Algonquian of surviving!)
* Update- The KLI website is neglected, but the Klingon community still exists both online and in person as of 2011.