Proposal for a Virtual Museum of American Linguistic Heritage (MofALH)

This is a proposal to create a virtual "Museum of American Linguistic Heritage" that would be a 21st century information center on the languages, dialects, and other speech forms spoken by both native American and immigrant populations that have found their homes in the United States. Its resources may eventually be found in a bricks-and-mortar building, such as in the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, but it will primarily be a website via which interested people can find out information about languages spoken in America---they will see written samples, learning about the geographical distribution of the language, hear audio files, see electronic images, both still and moving, about any language they are interested in, and is represented in our links.

  1. Need for the Project

    It is perhaps a truism, but it seems clear to the casual observer that the mythology that tends to be created and presented at National Parks and other historic places in this country is very focused on the Anglo-American experience. What we get as an official line about American colonial history is that English ideas and English speaking people (with an occasional nod to Voltaire or to some other non-English person) are the originators of American culture and ideas. Little note of the non-English speaking contribution to the development of American ideas is taken (cf. for example, the first protest against slavery in America, by Germantown Quakers) and certainly very little attention paid to native American contributions of any sort---how they lived, what languages they spoke, where they lived, what their aspirations were, what their contributions to American culture were, etc.

    Example: when tourists visit the Plimoth Plantation near Plymouth, Mass, they are presented with a reconstruction of what is thought the colony was like in 1627. (This is all very well done, if one accepts their notions of authenticity.) Nearby there is also a "reconstruction" of an Indian village, with no claim to authenticity of period, representing the peoples (the Wampanoag occupied a territory between Narragansett Bay and Cape Cod, and also the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard) living in that area when the "Pilgrims" arrived. Some mention is made at this interpretive center of there being a set of tribes that were federated under the aegis of the Narragansetts (or were in conflict or rivalry with the Narragansetts), apparently centered around Narragansett Bay. One wonders whether these federated tribes spoke similar languages or dialects, whether they communicated (orally of course) in their own language or in Narragansett or some other lingua franca, and what resources we could now find about these tribes. Nothing, of course, was available on the site; nobody could answer any of the questions put to them by this tourist, and nobody seemed to care. (I have since found a URL that gives much useful information at this site, on the Wampanoag language and people. And a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, by the Mashantucket tribe of Connecticut, advertising their new Pequot Museum is intriguing, but no mention of language is made at the site.

    One learned from the information given out there that the colony survived by trade with the tribes of the Narragansett federation; and we certainly know that without their friendly help they would have probably died of starvation during the first year. (In fact the Wampanoag themselves had been devastated by European diseases in the years preceding the arrival of the Plymouth colonials, which left territory open for them to settle in.) But is this conveyed by the mythology of the "first Thanksgiving" that is fed to our children year after year? Probably not very well---the idea that white people's lives were saved by the charity of native Americans does not sit well with the official mythology. One wonders, of course, what language people spoke in order to communicate; supposedly one or two of the local Indians (Squanto and Samoset) spoke English, learned from some earlier contacts they had had with English people. What else is generally known about this?

  2. A Philadelphia example:

    In the Delaware Valley, there were of course a large number of German-speaking immigrants, (also confusingly known as Pennsylvania `Dutch') invited to settle here by William Penn. (There were also Swedes and (Holland) Dutch, who preceded the English in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.) Much more is known, internally to the Pennsylvania German community, about their linguistic peculiarities. But very little if any credit is given to them for their contribution to Pennsylvania colonial life. Benjamin Franklin published a German language newspaper, and there are research institutions and research libraries here in Philadelphia itself that can be consulted. But will any of this get into the official Independence Mall mythology? What about local Indians; what languages did they speak? Who were the Indians who negotiated with Wm. Penn, famously depicted in paintings and other representations? Today the Leni Lenape (also known as the Delaware) live primarily in Oklahoma, but place-names in the Delaware Valley remind us daily of their previous residence here. There is also a Lenni Lenape Historical Society and Museum of Indian Culture in Allentown devoted to the Len(n)i Lenape.

    But even if we do not give the Native Americans much credit for anything (the Iroquois Confederation is sometimes alluded to) it does seem remiss to ignore the importance of the link between religious freedom which America represented to many linguistic groups and their attempt, usually short-lived, to preserve their language as a way to preserve their religious differences. This is now largely ignored, since it does not further the Anglo-centric ideology.

  3. Proposal

    What is needed is a Museum of American Linguistic Heritage. This would be a museum devoted to America's linguistic history, both pre-Colombian and colonial (and present-day) and it would consist of things like the following:

    1. Web-sites where people could see pictures, moving images, and hear sound files with examples of the languages; maps of the distribution of known languages, and their movement over time. This site in the Pacific Northwest gives information about the American Indians of the Pacific Northwest project.

    2. Artifacts such as the first bible printed in America, in the "Algonkin" language (actually in Massachuset ) a copy of which is in the possession of the Rosenbach Library here in Philadelphia.

    3. Live speakers of various languages, in "authentic" costume or whatever, to interpret exhibits, and give linguistic samples of their languages.

    4. Sound-recordings of oral literature, music, etc. available by web or on CD's

    5. Rotating exhibits devoted to one or more groups at a time, and their cultural and linguistic history.

    6. We are exploring a collaboration with the Balch Institute and other museums of American ethnicity in the Philadelphia region.

    7. A library-archive, with resource materials on the various languages of America, especially print-media stuff, like the Handbook of the North American Indian, Smithsonian publications of various sorts, other archives that are currently endangered. (Research on the German language in America reveals that German-American materials are scattered all over the country, often moldering in archives of once-German- speaking colleges and churches, which no longer care much about them. An exception to this is the German Society of Pennsylvania ) which has the largest collection of German books in America outside a university library.

    8. New immigrant groups that have few or no resources of their own (see for example this Hmong resources page) ) could use this as a resource either to house their own materials, or have a temporary home until they get something else. Older groups such as Polish and Hungarians have libraries and archives, and we could link to them and share resources; they could teach the newer groups how to preserve their linguistic heritage...

    9. Penn has strong resources in East Asian, South Asian , Middle Eastern, and African languages , so we can easily provide links for those linguistic groups.

    10. African-American English needs to have resources available for it, too, and fortunately, we have possibilities such as Black Vernacular English , Ebonics and all that Jazz and Wm. Labov's work.. But we need to do more in this area.

    11. Since my own research interest is centered on language policy I'd like to have a section focussing on language law, the evolution of language policy from British and other colonial traditions, and good information about this issue (English Only vs. English Plus etc.) available for school groups to come and discuss it and learn more about it.

Obviously, a Museum of American Linguistic Heritage is not going to spring up overnight, and ideas of where to get funding or how to start this are welcome; for the moment, this place constritutes a webpage at the Penn Language Center that would bring together some of these resources; in fact perhaps a "virtual" MofALH might be the first step, as a precursor to one located within stones and mortar. But it also needs to have a physical presence somewhere where American mythologies are presented to the public, so that an alternate view to the anglocentric view can be available.

Harold F. Schiffman
Emeritus Professor of Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Regional Studies
820 Williams Hall, Box 6305
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-5825
Fax: (215) 573-2138
(215) 898-5825
Fax (215) 573-2139, last modified May 5, 2007