Reviving a long-lost language

Professor John Steckley is the person who brought the Huron language back into being in the 20th century. It was spoken until the mid-17th century, and then it died out due to many reasons: from European contact to war with other indigenous groups. Three centuries later, Professor Steckley started translating texts, and taught himself a language that had lain dormant for hundreds of years.

He was kind enough to speak with me about his fascinating work on a language that had no speakers when he started his work.



MI: You’re known for reviving the Huron language, what is the Huron language?

JS: The Huron language is a Northern Iroquoian language that was spoken in Southern Ontario for hundreds of years until the mid-17th century. From that point the speakers moved eventually to the community of Wendake, near Quebec, where they live today. Another group travelled through the Upper Great Lakes before settling in the Detroit area (whose descendants are known as the Wyandot of Anderdon), Ohio, Kansas, and finally Oklahoma. Between the dialects of Huron and Petun, there were over 20,000 speakers at around the time of first contact with the French early in the 17th century.

MI: Are there any related languages which are still spoken?

JS: There are six fairly closely related languages still spoken, the languages of the Six Nations: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca. Together they make up what are called the Northern Iroquoian languages. The one surviving Southern Iroquoian language is Cherokee.

MI: How did you first hear about the Huron language?

JS: I first heard about the language and its situation when I was working as a research assistant for Roy Wright of the Anthropology Department of the University of Toronto in 1973-4. I was doing data entry for him. I learned then that the language had no speakers, but had been recorded in many manuscripts written by the Jesuits in the 17th and 18th century.

The idea of studying a language that had lost its speakers intrigued me from the very beginning. I had done some limited work in the unrelated language of Ojibwe, and I had long been fascinated by Aboriginal languages. The idea that my work would make a contribution to the world: not only to academics, but also to the people themselves won me over.

MI: How did you teach yourself the language?

JS: I learned the language through the works of those who came before me. I first acquired the knowledge of how to learn the language by studying the grammars of related and still-spoken Northern Iroquoian languages such as Oneida and Seneca, and Gunther Michelson’s A Thousand Words of Mohawk (1973).

The big breakthrough was in finding Victor Hanzeli’s, Missionary Linguistics in New France, (1969). He must have had a large budget in his grant to write the book as he had made copies of a number of dictionaries of Wendat: both French-Wendat and Wendat-French. Although having almost no budget myself, I had copies of a number of these dictionaries printed off.   I soon had a Wendat language research library in my home.

This low budget library was completed by adding the linguistic work of Father Pierre Potier, which was fortunately published in 1920 as a Province of Ontario Archive Report (Potier 1920). He worked with the Wyandot of the Detroit area from 1743 until 1781, and was a dedicated copier of all manuscripts written in and about the language.

MI: Are there efforts underway to bring the language back?

JS: People in Wendake, where the language is taught in the local elementary school, and in the Wyandot communities are working on the language, beginning with its use in prayers and songs. The hardest part of bringing back a language with no speakers is the creation of a venue or forum where the language can be used by people in the community. The people are meeting this challenge through lessons taught to the children, and through the songs and prayers. I am trying to create a huge literature in the language for future Wendat as well as anthropologists and linguists to have a relatively easy way to enter the historical and cultural world that the language speaks of and for.

MI: What is your favourite thing about the Huron language?

JS: It is very hard for me to say what my favourite thing about the language is. I like that its grammar made more sense to me than the grammar of English. I really liked that verb structure was the main grammatical key to the language. I love the concepts that it taught me, such as “orenda”, the two soul/spirits each individual had (the topic of my Master’s thesis), and that it contains few terms of hierarchy (no ‘best’ no ‘worst’, no ‘command’ and no ‘obey.’)

MI: Why is it important to preserve, document, and revitalize indigenous languages?

JS: It is important to preserve, document and revitalize indigenous languages first because the peoples and their ancestors are owed the kind of respect that such activities demonstrate. Second, it puts the people in greater contact with their ancestors, a very important goal. Third, because the languages present alternative views that are so badly needed in our monocultural times.

MI: Finally, if you could go back to see the pre-contact Huron peoples, what would you most like to see them doing or discussing?

JS: If I could go back in time, I would like to hear and record the stories that the people tell. The ones I would especially like to hear are the stories of the origins of the clans. I have hypothesized that these stories contain the names that were owned by the clans, and this would be a fantastic way to test my hypothesis.



A sincere thank you to Professor Steckley.


And if you’d like to learn more about the Huron language, a language revitalization class at the University of Toronto (in which, full disclosure, I am a student) is hosting an evening of presentations and talks regarding the Huron language’s revival after going unspoken for centuries, the significance of the language, and how the language itself works.

The event will be held on November 26, 2014 at 6:00 PM in ES4001 (Earth Sciences) at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus. The Earth Sciences building is across the street from New College, and kitty-corner from Sidney Smith.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi