A Key to a Bit of Native American Language in Holliston

From Joanne Hulbert, Holliston Town Historian

English is the dominant language of Massachusetts and Holliston since its settlement. There was a language spoken here long before the arrival of the Europeans who paid scant attention to the language spoken by the Native Americans. Fortunately, a few people did.

John Eliot, who published a Bible in the Natick language, and Roger Williams, who had the keenest, most sensitive eye to see and hear the language of the Narragansetts who saved his life, spent years listening carefully to the sounds of their language and observing the customs and manners of the people. Both Eliot and Williams left extensive written observations.

The Natick language was the Algonquian dialect spoken in the land that is now Holliston. Natick was located near an invisible line between the Massachusett and Nipmucs, and with only subtle differences in language, they were able to understand each other. The Englishmen were mostly not wohwohtog – one who understands or is understanding.

The Natick language, as were all the Algonquian languages of this northeastern corner of North America, were all vocal, none had a written code. What we perceive as an English sentence structure is unlike the native, agglutinate language, where one word composed an entire statement instead of separate words, such as, “Nuppayum” – I pay you. Or the Nipmuc name for Webster Lake: Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.

The definition for that lake in Webster has been debated by linguists for centuries – “fishing place at the boundary – or – lake divided by islands, plus several other interpretations, including the classic  “you fish on your side, we will fish on our side, and no one fishes in the middle.” Ears were obligated to – listen. The untrained ears of our ancestors sometimes got things just a little bit different while speaking.

In 1829, Joseph Cotton published the Vocabulary of the Massachusetts (or Natick) Indian Language (mostly borrowed from John Eliot; a copy is available on the internet).  The Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Museum also published a Natick Dictionary in 1903. The words were gathered by James Hammond Trumbull from sources available to him at the time. He relied heavily upon John Eliot and Roger Williams as sources, but even all their ears were fallible.

There are many words that we use today that came from the Natick language tradition and might be a surprise to some. Words we use, such as moose, moccasin, quahaug, squa[w], succotash, squantam, skunk, along with numerous words and names on cities and towns in Massachusetts (at or about the great hill) have settled comfortably into local English along with the names of ponds, hills, brooks and boundary lines.

Next time you gaze at the night sky and espy the three-star belt of Orion, know that the Nipmucs also were keenly aware of the stars above. They called that constellation we know as Orion “Shwishacuttowwauog” – “a wetu [wigwam] with three fires.” That is so much more poetic!

As for Holliston – and Sherborn – that had once been called Boggestow – here is a case study. Where the Algonquians say and hear the letter ‘p’, European ears might hear the letter ‘b’ or find that changing to a ‘b’ was more comfortable to the English ear. This tendency to change ‘p’ for ‘b’ was also noticed by linguists studying the Penobscot language in Maine.

If you look through the Smithsonian’s Natick language dictionary – the word section for ‘A’ is followed by the next section for “Ch,” and then proceeds on the letter “D” and so on.  And here in Holliston there is the Boggastow brook. How is that? The Algonquian word root ‘-pog’ or ‘paug’ is translated as ‘water.’ “Pog” is found all around Massachusetts with such words as Punkapog, or Quabaug – oops! Who heard ‘b’ instead of ‘p’? How easily that was done! And certainly, Boggastow Brook contains water.

Another interesting conundrum where there may be a logical explanation is about “Chicken” Brook. What about those chickens? The brook runs through Holliston, north to south, into Medway that also claims a bit of the brook. According to Medway lore, the brook got its name from an incident when a load of chickens on a wagon overturned into the brook. Sounds logical, maybe.

When that chicken-in-the-brook incident happened is unclear, but it must have been a long time ago, as Chicken Brook appears on 18th century maps.  Maybe there’s another interpretation. The name is old, dating as far back to a time in the misty past, so perhaps something in the Natick dictionary can provide a reasonable interpretation.

Since the Natick language was unwritten and only conveyed orally, searching for a word that sounds like ‘chicken’ was easier than expected. There is – ‘chikkup’ – which is translated as cedar tree.  Could it be that cedar trees are the key to the translation?

Next time you happen to walk along the Rail Trail between Cross and Summer Streets where there is a picturesque view of the brook, notice the cedar trees. Cedar trees were highly valued by the Native Americans in this region. Native Americans – including Old Hendrick, the last Native American to live in Holliston – were given special privileges to cut them.

Chicken Brook, Holliston

But while we are amusing ourselves with language, there are a couple other words that might suffice, such as ‘chickot’ meaning fire; or “chikkinasuog,” meaning ‘sparks of fire’ or ‘it rages’ or is violent.  Chicopee, in western Massachusetts, is translated from the Nipmuc word for, roughly speaking, “violent waters.” Perhaps the ‘pog’ that today bears the name of chicken was once livelier than it appears today, and certainly, those words may inspire our imagination more than cedar trees.

Take your pick, but I for one do not think the name the brook now bears has anything to do with chickens. Pardon us, Medway-ites, if a few linguistically curious Hollistonians opt for cedar trees or sparks of fire.

The Publishers

8 Comments

  1. Ellin Austin on July 2, 2021 at 9:04 am

    Thank you Joanne, for the very interesting article! I have often wondered about the name of Chicken Brook.

  2. Laurie Markoff on July 2, 2021 at 11:11 am

    Thank you for this article. Would love to see more acknowledgement of the Native history or our town, and perhaps our responsibility to the descendants of those who once lived here, since we displaced their ancestors.

  3. Henry Dellicker on July 2, 2021 at 11:24 am

    Fantastic. A wonderful search into Holliston and it’s surrounding. Thank you Joanne.

  4. Peter J Felber on July 2, 2021 at 11:30 am

    Very very interesting and informative ! Thank you !

  5. Carol Holly on July 2, 2021 at 12:16 pm

    How lucky are we to have Joanne Hulbert as Town Historian. Your article is beautifully composed and fascinating to read. thank you for increasing our historical heritage knowledge.

  6. Paul Saulnier on July 3, 2021 at 7:01 am

    History and folklore – Joanne is keeping both alive and wel in Holliston.

  7. antonia clark on July 3, 2021 at 4:39 pm

    So,when is the new book about Native American Language in Holliston going to be issued?

  8. Jim Read on July 5, 2021 at 10:32 pm

    Great article. Loved it!

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