Preserving delicate languages is the life work of Yale visiting fellow

Stehpanie Fielding
Stephanie Fielding

When Stephanie Fielding speaks about languages, she likens them to living entities that must be carefully preserved. Fielding, who is the great-great-great niece of Fidelia Fielding, the last fluent speaker of Mohegan, has devoted much of her life to the revitalization of Mohegan, an Algonquian language that is one of the native languages of Connecticut.

Languages are delicate and can die quickly,” says Fielding. “In the Hawaiian part of my family, Hawaiian was alive and well in my grandmother’s time, but there was a stigma around speaking it in my father’s generation, so he wasn’t taught to speak it. It took two generations for it to die within our family. That’s what I mean by delicate. So it was with Mohegan during the days of Fidelia Fielding.”

Fielding was nominated by Yale’s Department of Linguistics to come to Yale as a Presidential Visiting Fellow at Yale for the 2017-2018 academic year. She is teaching her second course this semester comparing the Delaware and Mohegan languages. In her course, students learn techniques in historical linguistics and language documentation to further the available language revitalization materials for Mohegan.

Claire Bowern, professor of linguistics, says that the department nominated Fielding in part because several members of the department have an interest in language documentation and language revitalization and renewal, and there was a desire to increase the visibility of Mohegan on campus.

Language preservation is important for several reasons. One of the reasons is around science. Languages give us an important perspective on history; in fact, we can do as much to trace human history over the last 10,000 years with linguistics as with archaeology. For example, we know a huge amount about the ancestors of the Indo-Europeans based on reconstructing prior stages of European languages,” says Bowern.

Fielding, who lives on the Mohegan reservation in Uncasville and was a member of the Mohegan Tribe’s Council of Elders, is often called to translate English into Mohegan for speakers at Mohegan traditional ceremonies. She graduated with a Master’s of Science from MIT. Her education was funded by the Mohegan Nation.

Fielding’s efforts to keep her ancestral language alive have includes the creation of “A Modern Mohegan Dictionary.” A grammar as well as the Mohegan lexicon can be found in the dictionary. She also developed a website which has many downloadable learning aides.

To help advance her goal of fluency, Fielding has written several children’s books in Mohegan. Among them is a counting book “Mawi Kawi,” which is aimed at teaching children how to say the names of indigenous animals and how to pluralize them. “Another bonus to these books,” says Fielding, “is that parents will also get to know the words while reading them to their children.”

A page from Stephanie Fielding’s book Mawi Kawi, featuring an illustration of three sleeping beavers.
A page from Stephanie Fielding’s book “Mawi Kawi,” which means “going to sleep.” This is a counting book that is to be read just before going to sleep. The things to be counted are the indigenous animals that are found in the woodlands of Connecticut and New England. (Illustration by Cori Redford)

Linguistic diversity gives us a unique window on human creativity,” notes Bowern. “And, more importantly, languages are important to their speakers. For example, I find it problematic that bilingualism is touted as beneficial when it's English speakers learning a second language, but speakers of Indigenous languages are pressured to switch and give up their languages.”

I hope my students learn how important it is to have their own language,” says Fielding, who believes as part of her Baha’i faith that one of the principles for a world civilization is that there will be a central auxiliary language that everyone speaks in addition to their mother tongue. “One of the wonderful things about having two languages is that you have cross hemispheric connection. I think when that happens we are going to have an even more wonderful world civilization,” says Fielding.

Fielding says that spending time at Yale as a lecturer has taught her how much she does — and does not — know about language. In her course last semester, she says, students would “pelt me with questions. For the most part I could answer them but not always. It is always nice when my students ask me questions about Algonquin languages and I can answer them. It reaffirms my own knowledge, and when I don’t know the answer to a question, I find out.”

Of her time here at Yale as a Presidential Visiting Fellow, Fielding says: “It has been lovely. I was surprised to have been asked to come here, and I’m very thankful for it.”

Presidential Visiting Fellows are appointed as part of the Faculty Excellence and Diversity Initiative. About 10 exceptional scholars and practitioners who contribute to inclusive excellence are appointed each year through the initiative.

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Bess Connolly Martell: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324