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Documentation of Under-Represented Genres of Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Linguistic Practice


Language Passamaquoddy-Maliseet
Depositor Conor Quinn
Affiliation Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Linguistics and Philosophy
Location Canada
Collection ID 0240
Grant ID IPF0103
Funding Body ELDP
Collection Status Collection online
Landing Page Handle


Summary of the collection

This collection contains materials on under-represented genres of speech, particularly conversation. These were gathered in and around several communities along the northern border of Maine (USA) and Canada over a period of two years. The collection contain sets of annotated transcriptions of audio recordings, designed to be suitable as base material for second-language instruction, as well as for a broad range of analytical work.


Group represented

The traditional territory of the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet language centers along the St. Croix and St. John river valleys, in the border and east coastal region between Maine (USA) and New Brunswick (Canada).

Presently the language is still spoken in the Passamaquoddy communities of Sipayik (Pleasant Point) and Motahkomikuk (Peter Dana Point) and in the (Canadian) Maliseet communities of Tobique, Woodstock, Kingsclear, St. Mary’s, and Oromocto. Speakers on the whole view Passamaquoddy and Maliseet as regional variants of the same basic language, the distinct names arising more from the distinct political histories of their respective speech communities than from any substantial linguistic differences.

Passamaquoddy-Maliseet is severely endangered. Between the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet communities, approximately 500 native speakers remain, with strongly age-graded fluency. Most fully fluent speakers are over the age of fifty; below thirty, even passive competence is rare. All speakers are fully fluent in English, which is now the dominant cross-generational language. With few exceptions, Passamaquoddy-Maliseet is no longer being learned in the home from birth, and since the 1970s a severe contraction in its range of domains of use has threatened the survival of the language.

The speech community is small but increasingly active in efforts to restore Passamaquoddy-Maliseet as a living language, recently moving away from earlier school-based approaches to revitalization and beginning to implement home-, family-, and camp-based immersion programs.

Community language activists report having previously sought to create rich audio and video recording of fluent speakers, especially elders, only to be stymied by insufficient funding and training resources. Native-speaker language activists in particular have been very forthcoming in their willingness to be filmed and recorded for documentary and pedagogical purposes. There is also keen interest in providing community members with the skills to continue documentation work on their own.


Language information

Passamaquoddy-Maliseet is a member of the Eastern Algonquian branch of the Algonquian language family. Aboriginally it is bordered to the northeast by Mi’kmaw (Micmac), a distantly related Eastern Algonquian language with which it shares some (mostly lexical) contact influence. Passamaquoddy-Maliseet has had intense and long-term contact with its southeastern neighbor and closer relative, Penobscot (an Eastern Abenaki dialect), with the result that the two languages share a nearly identical grammar and a greatly overlapping vocabulary, while nonetheless maintaining quite distinct vowel inventories and accentuation systems.

Of the two Eastern Algonquian languages for which in-depth field work is still possible, Passamaquoddy-Maliseet is the only remaining exponent of the “canonical” Eastern Algonquian type (the other, Mi’kmaw, is rather divergent). Its linguistically interesting features include contrastive pitch accent, obviation, absentatives, discontinuous constituents, a complex system of clause-type-sensitive agreement, and – most salient to speakers themselves – on-the-fly construction of richly descriptive polysynthetic verbs.

Passamaquoddy-Maliseet is the only Algonquian language still investigable that is known to have an objurgative, an unusual construction in which pre-existing (primarily verbal) stems split apart at certain morpheme boundaries, between which are then inserted elements variously described as indicating “surprise” or “exasperation”. These constructions are regularly and vibrantly used in everyday speech – despite being relatively scarce in the narrative texts that dominate existing documentation – and are valuable for the potential insight they offer into the structure of complex polysynthetic stems.

A phonemic orthography was introduced in the 1970s, but literacy remains confined primarily to those few speakers working in the education system. While Passamaquoddy-Maliseet has been incorporated into local school curricula for three decades, so far these have not reached the point of producing new fluent younger-generation speakers. At present the language is mainly heard only in a few ceremonial contexts or in conversations between fluent older-generation speakers.

The most well-documented aspect of Passamaquoddy-Maliseet is its lexicon: a small print dictionary exists, with a vastly expanded electronic database already well along in development through the Waponahki Museum and Resource Center at Sipayik (Pleasant Point) and the Micmac-Maliseet Institute in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Other publications of recent decades have examined Passamaquoddy-Maliseet syntax, phonology, and brief grammatical overviews. Since the 1970s, local education programs have also produced a small series of schoolbooks and narrative texts.

At the start of this project, the overall set of documentation, while of good quality, was fragmented and extremely limited in its accessibility. For example, much of the schoolbook/narrative text series presupposes native speaker competence for the user; language shift has now made these texts inaccessible to much of the heritage language community. Accessible audio recordings were equally few, and video recordings nearly nonexistent. However, as mentioned above, overall prospects for revitalization remain positive.


Collection contents

The collection contains audio recordings and annotated transcriptions of under-represented genres of speech, particularly conversation, in Passamaquoddy-Maliseet, an Eastern Algonquian language spoken in and around several communities along the northern border of Maine (USA) and Canada.


Acknowledgement and citation

Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Conor Quinn as the principal researcher. Users should also acknowledge the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme as the funder of the project. Individual speakers whose words and/or images are used should be acknowledged by name. Any other contributor who has collected, transcribed or translated the data or was involved in any other way should be acknowledged by name. All information on contributors is available in the metadata.

To refer to any data from the collection, please cite as follows:

Quinn, Conor. 2016. Documentation of Under-Represented Genres of Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Linguistic Practice. Endangered Languages Archive. Handle: Accessed on [insert date here].

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