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.
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?
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.
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:
Emeritus Professor of Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Regional Studies
820 Williams Hall, Box 6305
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Fax: (215) 573-2138
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