The Nipmuc People, Their Territory & Language

The People who originally inhabited New England had no name for themselves. Columbus, believing he had arrived in India in 1492, named the people he found on these shores "Indians".

"...there is a great Countrey lying between Conectacott [Connecticut River] and the Massachusets [tribe], called Nipnet, where there be many Indians dispersed", wrote John Eliot in 1651.

Nipnet extended "from Central Massachusetts northward past the Watchusett Hills, to about the southern line of New Hampshire; northeastward to the Pawtuckets on the lower Merrimac; eastward to the Massachusetts Indians by the Bay, and to the Wampanoags east of the Blackstone; southward to the northern Rhode Island bands tributary to the Narragansetts, and to the Mohegans of east central Connecticut; and westward to the Indians of the Connecticut valley."1

Nipnet (also Neepnet and Neipnett), means "small pond place" or "fresh water place". Having no name for themselves, the original inhabitants of Nipnet became known to early English settlers by the territory which they occupied, and were referred to as Nipnets, Neepnets, Neipnetts and later Neepmucks (all of which mean "small pond people" or "fresh water people"). By the late 1600s, Nipmug or Nipmuck were most commonly used to collectively refer to the Indians of Central New England.

"The bulk of the Nipmuck population was concentrated along the Quinebaug (Mohegan), Blackstone (Nipnet), Quabaug, and Nashua (Penecook) Rivers."2 As exploration of Nipnet led to the discovery of numerous band encampments, or 'villages', the Indians living in those individual encampments were again named by the English. Thus history records the Nipmuc people living "before the pond" in the Brookfield, MA area as "the Quabaugs", those living "between" streams in the Sterling, MA area as "the Nashuas", those living near "where we make mats for covering the house" in the Woodstock, CT area as "the Wabaquassets", etc., etc., etc. Since deeds had to give boundaries, land transactions extended this 'naming' process.

"All southern New England Indians spoke languages related to the Eastern Algonquian family, which extended along the Atlantic drainage from the Maritime provinces to North Carolina. Speakers of one Eastern Algonquian dialect could generally converse in the one spoken by their neighbors, but communication became difficult the farther one traveled away from home. Contemporary linguists have identified three Eastern Algonquian languages ...: Massachusett (including the dialects spoken from the Saco River to Massachusetts Bay, Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and southeastern Rhode Island); Narragansett (primarily on the west side of Narragansett Bay and on Conanicut Island); and Mohegan-Pequot (including a range of dialects in southeastern Connecticut from the Pawcatuck to the Connecticut rivers) (Goddard 1978:72)."3

The native language of the Nipmuc People is a dialect of the Massachusett. Linguistics experts identify the "Nipmuc" and "Natick" dialects as separate, but closely-related. Only words in, or believed to be in, the "Nipmuc dialect" are included in this publication.

Because Native Americans in New England did not have written languages, what remains of many Algonquian dialects today was written by early settlers; few knew or cared anything about the dialects to which they belonged. And scribes, who managed to spell 'Hartford', 'Wethersfield', and even their own names several different ways, weren't likely to be any more consistent when trying to spell Native American words. A few letters more or less didn't matter (they thought), and generally the writers put in as many letters as they could -- adding a 'k' to every 'c', doubling every 'w' and 'g', and tacking on a final 'e' for good measure.

Yet, Indian grammatical synthesis was exact: every consonant and vowel sound had its place, not one could be dropped or transposed or added without changing the meaning of what was spoken. Many Native American place names have suffered mutilation at the hands of their writers, making accurate translation into the English language very difficult today.

In and around the borders of Connecticut, four or five distinct Algonquian dialects were spoken, and each of these had its local idioms. For example, the Nipmuc dialect substituted l for the Niantic and Mohegan n, and generally made the final k of place-names sonant (aug or og, instead of auk or ock, eg.).

While attempts to spell Nipmuc words in the English language have frequently clouded or totally obscured original meanings, the real importance of this work is that it preserves and disseminates information on the sound of words in the Nipmuc dialect, and it presents historical information not generally found under one cover.

Unlike the English words we use today, Indian words describe a place -- so the same word was often given to more than one place, so long as those places were not too near each other. Indian words also unite various syllables of different words into one new word which expresses the meaning of all of the words from which it was compounded. As you will see, it can take many words in the English language to express the meaning of a single word in the Nipmuc dialect.

By 1827, the ancient Algonquian dialects of Southern New England were virtually dead as conversational languages, except for Mohegan which survived until the death of Mrs. Fidelia Fielding in 1908. Fortunately an assortment of dictionaries, names of indigenous people and Native American place names preserved in deeds and other documents have led to renewed interest by Native Americans in the Algonquian dialects spoken by their ancestors.

This work has been compiled from sources listed in the Bibliography. The Nipmuc Indian Association of Connecticut makes no claim as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained herein.

Do not reproduce without permission

Return to NIAC PUBLICATIONS ~ Nipmuc Place Names; Table of Contents

Return to NIAC Home Page

For additional information, write to:

N.I.A.C., Inc.
Box 411
Thompson, CT 06277-0411

© 1994 - N.I.A.C., Inc. Contact the People at NIAC
The NIAC Web Site is maintained by Tara Prindle.