Inventing Wampanoag, 1672

By Ben Shattuck

In the mid-summer of 1672 my cousin Pequick, standing by a marsh midden and tearing quahog meat from its shell, was the first to lay the groundwork for nouns. “We take the word,” she said, tossing a purple-lipped shell on the midden, “and lengthen it the more detailed it becomes.”  An egret croaked on the far side of the marsh.

“Not sure I get it,” I said, working my thumb into a shell.

“Well, take, say, strawberries,” she continued. “If we say ‘wattuh’ is strawberry plant, then ‘wattuhimneash’ is strawberries, and finally, ‘wattuhimnasippaquash’ is strawberry leaf.  See how I’m flushing it with detail? It’ll work, trust me.”

“Mmhm,” I said.  Quahog meat clung to my teeth. Pequick was often right.

We turned around and faced my parents’ fire in a far field.  The fire was filled with oak and sweet-smelling white pine.  Smoke drifted over the field, under the gray sky, tumbled over the bayberry, and out to sea.

“Shh,” she put her finger up to her lips as we walked toward the fire.  She looked at me. “Don’t tell anyone. Promise.” We promised with finger-locks.

There were initially problems with noun-lengthening. Enormous, septisyllabic monsters were swimming through our sentences in a matter of weeks.  My jaw would slacken by evening, as if I had been chewing tough meat.  Plus some glottal-heavy words gave us nasty laryngeal sores. So we began standardizing: ‘wuttone’ became mouth; ‘quttuk,’ throat; and ‘yo,’ hand, and so on.  Things settled.

She put me in charge of spinning nouns and adjectives from clauses.  This I enjoyed.  I took long walks through the wet, early autumn woods, the sun running through the trees, the crows cackling above, and the liquid pitter-patter of my tongue searching for words in my mouth.

“Pootau,” I told Pequick on a cold morning, “for whale.” ‘Pootau’ is really he blows.

“Notice how it begins with a puff of its own,” I continued, “‘po’ – it’s a nice labial snap, a breathy, popping intransitive verb that seems like…”

“Just the thing for whales,” she finished.

“Those fleshy mounds.”

“Perfect,” she said.

It was absorbed.

I depended on Pequick for the more complicated terms of grammar. I remember the night when she and I were sitting on the edge of the marsh at high tide.  We were swirling sticks in the muddy water, stirring up phosphorescent moon jellyfish.  With each swirl of the stick, they’d light up yellow under the black water.

“What if,” she started, then drifted out, “No, never mind.”

“No,” I said, “come on, let’s hear it.”  I scooped a moon jelly out of the water and laid it on her shoulder.

“Gross. Well, it might be silly, but what if,” she continued, then stopped to pick the jelly from her shoulder and tried to throw it at me only to have it separate into tiny, glowing bits in her hand. “What if conjunct endings follow, say, the stem of the word in the animate intransitive? Like,” she rubbed the glowing jellyfish hand on my bare back, “‘neanhikqueog’ –  what he did to us. The subjunctive variant would be something like ‘ayeuqueagig’ – our adversaries. I don’t know. What do you think?”

I was quiet, shifting on my knees.  The drying, mutilated jellyfish was cold and shrinking on my back. I knew she had hit on something big. The words that had been sloshing around our tongues in the past months were becoming neatened, spun onto spools of grammar from the meaty slabs of our diaphragms, through our vocal cords, and squeezed and mashed by our teeth and lips.

“I think it’s wonderful,” I said.

I looked out at the black water.  It was so still we could see the reflection of the stars in it. I poked my stick into the water again, stirred, and lit up a cluster of moon jellies, which filled the black water with flashes.

Part Two

And so, prepared with the raw framework of language and ready for arrival of the English, we waited.  It took two years, but they came, some timidly, others loudly, happily, sourly, all pink-headed.  At first things went well, but we weren’t prepared for land deeds — orthography was not a strong-suite. There are no less than five spellings for the word myself, and three spellings for the independent clauses nummautanume and nfouwufsanneme, I have spoken enough, I am weary with speaking, in initial land deeds.

After Pequick sorted out spellings, another problem arose. It soon became evident that the documents were being used to crack our language.  So, in a secret, emergency meeting under the loamy roots of a fallen oak tree, we decided we would join words into one, long line-burner — it was our only strategy in bolting the doors to the language.  It worked for a time.  Fastening together the last and first letters of three to six adjacent words had interpreters’ heads spinning; Wuttanishkattumooonk quateatashshit, Pequick wrote in one document.

But we underestimated their determination and volumes of ink.  It seemed that in no time they had their shiny black boot lodged in the doorframe of the language, and their pale, freckled ears pressed to the crack. A few came up to me and spat out a semi-intelligible phrases. We then inserted more obviates in the deeds, and that seemed to slow them down for some time.

The beginning of the end was when Roger Williams arrived.  Late autumn.  He was fat and jowly, but eager to please so generally harmless.  He spent most of his time yamming down waweecocks (rabbit meat mashed with beach plum), or alone on the perimeters of the fire, mouthing vowels and consonants to himself that he transcribed in his dirty book. Fussing too much with orthography and not with meaning or structure, he left a few months later with only a handful of useful, usable phrases.

When Pequick explained to Roger that our sentences were primarily framed in a free-word order, he sunk his head into his shoulders and smiled before letting his gaze settle on her breasts.

“Machagenowautam” I do not understand, he said to her, scratching his quill nervously over his parchment.

“Matnowawtawatemina” We do not understand each other, she suggested.

I admit we were a little hard on him. We’d help him through sequences like mohowaugthuck, the cannibals or man-eaters up into the west, two, three or four hundred miles from us, followed directly by commonhucquock, they will eat you. Pequick and I began by mouthing the words slowly, then pantomime the meaning. Watching the moment of understanding strike Roger was wonderful — there I’d be with Pequick’s forearm in my mouth, she biting my neck, both of us growling, and suddenly Roger’s face would go from puckered-curious to slack, the meaning finally spreading over his eyes like a killing frost.

“Tsk,” my mother said, ‘Tut-tut. Come on. The poor man is terrified.”

The last word Pequick and I gave to Roger before he left that winter was also the longest.  We told him to practice it, memorize it, and sing it on the sandy path through the dunes back to port.

“Teach it to your friends,” I said. “Write it with a limb of charcoal in big letters across ships anchored in the harbor; scratch it with files in tiny letters across wet bricks in damp alleyways.”

I squared up to him and put my hands on his hips. I closed my eyes and put my forehead on his.  Together, our noses touching, our breath washing over each other, we pronounced our parting word: “machegenickquehickomina,” I have spoken enough.

It was a mouthful. It filled the very backs of our mouths.

Pequick put a warm hand on my back, and Roger slipped out of my hold and left.