Saturday, January 21, 2006

[geek] 30-second science blogging - Back from extinction: a dead language lives

Driven by the desire for authenticity, writer/director Terence Malick of the upcoming film The New World wanted the lines of Pocahontas and Powhatan to be spoken in Virginian Algonquin. No problem, right? Too bad no one has spoken that dialect in over 200 years. The linked MSNBC article tells the fascinating tale of the apparently successful attempt to revive a dead language. Quite an accomplishment, given that of the 15 or so known Algonquin dialects of the East Coast, only two survive to this day. Working from 16th and 17th century documents, existing Algonquin grammar, and an academic gold standard 'proto-Algonquin', UNC (Charlotte) linguist Blair Rudes was able to create a fairly likely reconstruction of Virginian Algonquin. His approach was flexible enough that Malick was able to expand the number of Algonquin-with-English subtitles scenes from two to fifty; they were even able to improvise dialog with minimal turn-around time. Not bad for a 'dead' language. How cool is that?

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