Exploring & Sharing the Wabanaki History of Interior New England
A Maine Nonprofit Corporation - 501(c)3 Public Charity
Last updated 29-APR-1998
People often ask us to explain the meaning of the Indian words that are used today as the names of places. In most cases, we can not be of much assistance. To begin with, our volunteers have only a casual knowledge of the many Algonqian dialects spoken in the Northeast.
But more important, there is a real problem in trying to determine the meaning of old Indian words. At what time in history was the name originally recorded, who pronounced it to the recorder, and what native group was using the area at that time? All of these factors must be taken into account.
The Native population of Maine is generally semi-nomadic and very fluid. Native place names are not static things either. Native people named places according to what the CURRENT use, importance, or appearance was. These things can change over time. The makeup of the Native population of an area can also change over time. What was the dialect of the Native people using the area at the time the name was first heard by whites? This is the dialect we need to study for a meaning.
Then we have the problem of pronunciation and spelling. Most old Indian names have been terribly corrupted by the time they are first written down. Even linguistic scholars can make little sense of them. We quote Stephen Laurent (an Abenaki and language scholar), from his discussion on the meaning of Winnipesaukee,
"The best that any etymologist will do is to hazard a guess."
If an English educated Native (and there were quite a few) wrote the word down than you should have a good sound to work with. If an Englishman heard it from a Native at the time it was first recorded, then you may be able to figure it out. However, Algonquian dialects have sounds which are lost to unfamiliar ears, pieces of the word could be missing. Now, if an Englishman heard it from another Englishman, who heard it from a Frenchman, who heard it from an Indian -- well, remember that old game called telegraph -- you get the point!
The local folks may have a meaning (or two or three!) for the word. But beware! They are generally repeating what they have seen in print elsewhere. Most writers do not know the language or understand the problems with place names. They usually write down what someone else tells them without doing their own research. Sometimes they actually take time to ask an Indian. But, here we need to use another quote, this one is from Stephen Laurent's father.
"The white man will swallow everything, arrow, bow, and quiver, just so long as it's an Indian that tells it!"
Local legends are important, but they need to be researched before being declared TRUTH!
Let's look at the name Norridgewock. This is considered a Native place name and yet this word has no meaning in any Algonqian dialect! It has been corrupted, Frenchified, and Anglicized to death. The Jesuit Priest Sabastian Rale wrote the name as Nanrantsouak in 1722. At the time, Father Rale was well educated in the Abenaki language, so we should have an accurate sound for this time in history. Still, Nanrantsouak is an old Abenaki word recorded in French using special characters for non-European sounds and now translated to English without using special characters.
There is still room for error in determining it's meaning!
If you are interested in doing research on Native place names for an area, please let us know. We would love to receive copies or oral traditions on anything from Interior New England that pertains to Native People or Native place names.