The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Jessie Little Doe Baird receives MacArthur genius grant

Jessie Little Doe Baird (SM, MIT Linguistics 2000), of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, has received a MacArthur “genius grant”. Background info on Baird appears in a 2008 article in the Technology Review. There is a nice video prepared by the MacArthur Foundation, a Boston Globe article, a couple of paragraphs in an MIT News item, which includes quotes from Norvin Richards, who continues Ken Hale’s work with the project: http://web.mit.edu/norvin/www/wopanaak.html. Here are Norvin’s remarks in full:

This award recognizes many years of enormously hard work in pursuit of a dream. It’s hard to imagine a better person to receive this grant! I joined the project in 1999 when I joined the faculty here; at that point, joining the project meant meeting regularly with Jessie and Ken in Ken’s office, poring over 17th-century Wôpanâak texts to try to understand what they could teach us about the grammar and vocabulary of the language. I am honored to still be part of the project today, working together with Jessie on a dictionary, a textbook, and a variety of other educational materials. Today, the project offers language classes at a variety of levels, staffed by Jessie and by her former language students, culminating in a summer Immersion Camp at which only Wôpanâak is spoken. Children are beginning to acquire the language as well, including Jessie’s own daughter Mae Alice Baird, raised by Jessie and her husband Jason entirely in Wôpanâak.

The world is currently in the middle of a massive wave of language extinction. Some linguists estimate that 90% of the world’s languages will vanish in the coming century. The indigenous languages of America are particularly hard hit. Against that backdrop, the success of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project is a rare piece of good news. If Jessie succeeds, she will have shown that for languages, ‘death’ is not permanent; with enough dedication and hard work, as long as a language is sufficiently well documented, we can hope to bring it back to life.