fb-pixel Skip to main content

In Maine, the Penobscot dictionary project rises again

Linguist Conor Quinn on writing the guide to a lost Native American language

 A sample of Siebert’s dictionary, now being updated.
A sample of Siebert’s dictionary, now being updated.

As Native Americans were forced to assimilate into English-speaking culture and attend English-language schools during the 20th century, hundreds of languages were lost. UNESCO counts fewer than 140 Native languages left, with more than half of these critically endangered. In the past 20 years, however, as the last native speakers of these languages die out, tribal leaders and academics have grown increasingly active in protecting them: creating language schools, writing dictionaries, and using online tools to revitalize languages that in many cases had been long given up for dead.

Such is the case with Penobscot, a language spoken by the Penobscot, or Penawahpskewi people, in central Maine. A pathologist and self-taught linguist, Frank T. Siebert, Jr., spent decades recording Penobscot legends and oral history and drawing up a dictionary; among others, he worked with Madeline Shay, the last fluent Penobscot speaker to learn the language at home, who died in 1993.

As a high school student, Conor Quinn worked as a “glorified typist” for Siebert. He went on to write his Harvard linguistics dissertation on Penobscot and has been studying the related family of Algonquian languages around Maine and southern Canada ever since, working to document and help revitalize the endangered languages of Passamaquoddy-Maliseet and Mi’gmaq. But Siebert’s dictionary, never fully completed, languished on 1980s-era floppy disks, willed to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia after Siebert died in 1998.


In 2013, the Penobscot Nation and the University of Maine secured a three-year NSF-NEH grant to pay Quinn to revise and update Siebert’s work, with a goal of finalizing an approximately 20,000-entry digital and print edition by 2016 and creating teaching material to convey the information to a new generation of young Penobscot learners. Quinn and his collaborators, who include both academics and several Penobscot language instructors who work on the Indian Island reservation, are now busy tidying up Siebert’s dictionary and turning it into something that, as Quinn says, will be useful to new learners and won’t just end up “on [a] shelf somewhere.”

Quinn spoke with Ideas over Skype from Portland, Maine. This interview has been condensed and edited.

IDEAS: How would you describe the current situation for Native languages in New England?

QUINN: The majority, at least that I’ve encountered, are working on language revitalization. Because—I don’t want to put words in their mouth—but because they see it as a crucial part of who they are, and a crucial part especially of educating the youngest generation into who they are.

IDEAS: How did the Penobscot dictionary originally come to be?

QUINN: [Siebert] first met the Penobscot while his family was on vacation in Old Town in the mid-1930s. Just from an initial meeting with a Penobscot elder, he got started working to document the language and the oral literature in particular. And he pursued that—they always call it “avocationally.”...He worked with somewhere between a dozen and two dozen and possibly more speakers of Penobscot over the length of his work, collecting over 100 notebooks of linguistic material, including the oral literature he transcribed from dictation....During the 1980s, the Penobscot Nation got an NSF grant to hire him and a bunch of other people to work on creating a Penobscot dictionary from this material that he’d collected. They were still able to work with Madeline Shay and get new information as well....

I’m not entirely clear on the circumstances of how it didn’t get finished, but it basically didn’t.... It sat there on 5¼-inch floppy disks done on an Apple IIe computer using the then cutting-edge Gutenburg word processing program—it was cutting-edge largely because it allowed you to create your own characters, which are needed to write in Penobscot—and that’s the way it sat.


IDEAS: ...Until you and the American Philosophical Society began updating them in the last few years. What are some of the challenges in working with Siebert’s files, so many years after Penobscot was last spoken in homes?

QUINN: We only have a limited knowledge of what’s wrong and right in the Penobscot language at this point. But we do the best we can. What you do mostly is you don’t change very much. You just annotate. If you see something that looks wrong, you’re less likely to just change it, and more likely to just add a note saying, this looks wrong for the following reasons, or this looks problematic for the following reasons....In particular, when it comes down to translations of Penobscot words, we’re unlikely to do any corrections at all, simply because we don’t know. We certainly don’t have a command of the fine subtleties of semantic nuance. The last time we had access to that was mostly when Madeline Shay was available to work. So we note what has been done before in that regard, and leave it to the future to deal with.

IDEAS: How do you reconcile that with the need to make it clear for people who are coming to the language for the first time?


QUINN: You have to stop presenting yourself as a teacher who knows it all and knows it all for sure. We have to teach engagement with the language as an ongoing process of recovering and rethinking and never being quite sure. It’s really ok to never be 100 percent sure about everything.

IDEAS: What linguistic challenges have you faced in working on the dictionary?

QUINN: I think one of the most interesting issues with the dictionary is how to make it usable to an English-based beginner....Not only does [an Algonquian verb] conjugate for subject, it also conjugates for indirect object and direct object and also clause type—like main versus subordinate clause. And that can be intimidating at first....You won’t just have a Penobscot verb “give,” it will literally be, “that I give her it.”...The other thing is that Penobscot is a language that has very semantically rich suffixes. We have suffixes like -er and -ing and so forth that generally do very rarefied grammatical things. Penobscot has all those and more, in that it has suffixes that mean “dog” and “fish” and “conifer” versus “deciduous.”

IDEAS: Why do you think reviving the language is so important for the Penobscot?

QUINN: I think especially for young Native kids, who are pushed and pulled in so many directions, and by one source or another being punished for being Native, and then being punished for not being Native enough, and being pulled back and forth between those two—those kids who are given the opportunity to study their own language, the more language they know, the less ambiguity there is about their own identity, the more they can just say, “This is where I’m from. I know my stories, I can talk to my own people in a language you don’t even understand, because this is ours.”

Britt Peterson writs the Word column for Ideas. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, Madeline Shay’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.