For thousands of years before English and French were the predominant languages spoken in northern New England, the region’s woods rang with a tongue sounding like a gently gurgling forest stream. That language was spoken by the wabanakiak, the ‘people of the dawnland,” who inhabited the area from Lake Champlain to the Atlantic.
Speaking closely related but distinct dialects of the eastern Algonquian language, the eastern Abenakis – the Kennebec, Penobscot, Androscoggin and others – lived in what is now Maine, while the western Abenakis inhabited the region from Lake Champlain to the White Mountains.
The western Abenaki’s northern limit was the St. Lawrence River. Their southern villages extended to the upper Merrimack River on the east and the Hoosic River on the west, with a number of villages along the Connecticut River in the area of what is now the Vermont-Massachusetts border. The area between Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River, the land that came to be known as Vermont, was the heart of the western Abenaki homeland. Since the beginning of time, at least as reckoned in Abenaki cosmology, this land had been ndakinna, ‘our land,” to the western Abenaki.
The ancient Abenaki were a forest people, whose seasonal activity began with the tapping of maples in the spring, then moved to the river banks for the runs of fish and gathering of wild leeks, groundnuts and other greens and tubers. In autumn, they collected acorns, butternuts and chestnuts, netted migrating waterfowl and passenger pigeons, and hunted deer, moose and bear. Winter saw Abenaki hunters on snowshoes running down moose or checking their traps for muskrat and beaver.
The Europeans and, eventually, the Americans who drove the Abenaki from their homeland, learned a great deal about the woods from them, including the native names for plants, animals and places. We’ve forgotten that when we say skunk or moose, Connecticut or Missisquoi, we are speaking Vermont’s original language, a language born of the forest. The Abenaki glossary below is a primer to help us remember that language springs from the land and our relationship to it.
An Abenaki Woods Glossary
Many Abenaki words are essentially phrases made up of other words, and the following glossary breaks down these phrases in order to demonstrate the natural history lore that is contained in them. In each entry, the accepted technical spelling of the Abenaki word is followed by a phonetic transcription to give an idea of its sound.
You will probably notice that the Abenaki language lacks English’s f, q, r and v sounds, and that it includes a sound not present in our language, the nasal o (denoted in the following list by a circumflex ô). The d and v sounds become in Abenaki respectively t and b, so that the English word David would be pronounced as Tabit. The g sound is always hard, like “Gum,” for which the Abenaki word would be pego. The j sound is always pronounced more like ch. For instance, the word cabbage was rendered kabich by Abenaki speakers.
goas (go was) white pine. Many of the sandy Connecticut River valley terraces bore place names that spoke of the goas groves growing on them. Though most of these place names have faded (such as goasek, the Abenaki village on the oxbow of the Connecticut at Newbury), Coos County in northeastern New Hampshire memorializes the Abenaki word for white pine.
alnizedi (alnee zedee) hemlock. For the Abenaki this was the vernacular conifer; their word for hemlock combines alni which means common or ordinary with sedi, denoting any evergreen branch.
mkwisagizo (mikwee sock geezo) red cedar. Mkwi means red and sakw means inside, speaking of red cedar’s beautiful red heartwood.
ossagakw (aws ah gahk wuh) quaking aspen. Many Abenaki would translate this word as meaning tastes like medicine; ossag is bitter and akw is a part of many tree words, simply meaning woody stem.
wawabibakw (wah wah bee bahk wuh) Lombardy poplar. Familiar to the Abenaki ever since settlers of New France brought this tree with them from home to plant for windbreaks, the Abenaki word is a delightful metaphor combining wawabi (up high) and bakw (leaf) to make tall tree.
pagimizi (pahgee mizzee) black walnut. This word, combining pagi (hit with instrument) and mizi (tree), reminds us that the nuts were the most useful part of the black walnut.
maskwamozi (mahsk wuh muzzee) white birch. What characteristic other than its maskw (peelable bark) could be an appropriate way to name this tree? The fire or pin cherry is named by the Abenaki by negatively using this same distinctive feature, thus maskwazimenakwam; the zi essentially says that the bark of this tree, though it may look similar to birch, cannot be peeled.
wadzomizi (wahdzo mizzee) beech. This word tells of the beech’s habitat, on mountains (Wadzo).
pabalakw (pah bah lahk wuh) sycamore. Like so many Abenaki words, this one uses a tactile metaphor, pabal, which means smooth.
mozmezi (muzz mizzee) striped maple or moosewood. The “moose-missy” of old Yankee woodsmen, this word’s persistence into the twentieth century makes one wonder if there weren’t other Abenaki words for trees that were adopted by settlers but have since been lost.
kagdwiakwam (kah gon wee ahk wahm) prickly ash. Another wonderful metaphor: kagowi means angry, referring to prickly ash’s menacing thorns.
wigebimizi (wij uh bee mizzee) basswood. Basswood’s fibrous bark (wigebi) made it a primary source of basket material.
bagon (buh gahn) butternut. Our word pecan comes from this widespread Algonquian word for nut.
Abenaki Place Names
gwenegwitegw (gwen eck whu teg wuh) the long river, i.e., Connecticut River.
onegigwetegwiz (ohn eg if whu teg weez) the little river of otters, i.e. Little Otter Creek.
gwenaska (gwen ask au) the long point, i.e., Shelbume Point.
mazipskoik (mahz eep sko eek) at the flint, which refers to the chert quarry near Swanton. The name, Anglicized to Missisquoi, was applied to the river, the people, and the Abenaki village nearby. The contemporary Abenaki community in the Swan ton area retains this name.
bitawbagw (bet uh bahk wuh) the lake between, i.e., Lake Champlain.
gitsimenahan (geetsee men ah hen) literally big island, the Abenaki name for North and South Hero, is composed of two Algonquian words familiar to many. Think of the big sea water (Lake Superior) of Longfellow’s Hiawatha (“By the shores of Gitchee-Gumee…”) and Manhattan (menahen), the island traded away by the Abenaki’s southern relatives, the Lenape. Lenape means original people. The Abenaki word for Indian man is alnônbak.
This glossary has been compiled from the publications of Gordon Day, a native of Albany, Vermont, who worked for two decades as a forester before becoming a linguist and ethnologist. For further reading about the Abenaki, see his articles, “The Indian Occupation of Vermont,” Vermont History (l965):365-374, and “The Western Abenaki,’ Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 75 (Northeast) 1978.
(Published in Northern Woodlands December 1994)