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Reviving a Native Tongue

Can a UBC program bring back to life the Musqueam dialect?

Bryan Zandberg 23 Mar 2007The Ubyssey

Bryan Zandberg is a former features editor of The Ubyssey student newspaper and currently writes for The Tyee.

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Larry Grant does tongue-twisters à la Musqueam. Yinan Max Wang photo.

Adeline Point died in 2002 at the remarkable age of 92 years old.

She was the last person on earth whose mother tongue was Musqueam -- a Salish dialect that was once the dominant language of much of the Lower Mainland. During the last years of her life, when Adeline got too weak to get around her house, a small scrum of linguists hurriedly made recordings at her bedside. When she passed on, they had to set their recorders aside because there was no one left to tell the story of the Musqueam people in their own language.

Now, five years down the road, one of those linguists, Patricia Shaw, finds herself in a pitched battle to revitalize the language. As the current director of the First Nations language program at the University of British Columbia, she's chock full of questions about the Musqueam's countless forgotten nuances. Did women speak it differently than men? How did a mother scold a child? Was a specific term used in another context a sexual innuendo? How do you tell a joke?

Between rebuilding the language and finding people committed to learning it, Shaw works tirelessly to teach and reconstitute the language based on a single book of grammar, a dictionary and field recordings of Adeline and earlier speakers -- the price of failure, she says, is its death.

"How will you know that you have enough?"

Language of love

One certainty is that almost everyone who comes into contact with Musqueam is very quickly enchanted by it.

At least Shaw's students seem to think so. One evening, I went down to the Musqueam Indian Reserve on the banks of the Fraser river to take in a introductory level course Shaw and Musqueam Elder-in-residence Larry Grant were teaching there on behalf of the university.

They were trying to instill an important aspect of Musqueam verb structure. Whereas in English we simply walk, come or go, the vast majority of Musqueam verbs take their cue from the subject's orientation to the water.

"You can't just say, 'She went home,'" explains Shaw. "You have to [ask yourself], 'Was she farther away from the water and going home, or was she coming home in the direction away from the water? Was she walking parallel to the flow of the water downstream? Was she walking parallel upstream?'"

After an hour and a half of mortal mouth-combat with sounds that can only be described by way of adjectives like "swirly," "whooshy," "guttural" and "plunky," the dozen or so students (half Native and half non-Native) were, to my surprise, still smiling.

Ericka Forssman, a UBC Fine Arts student, was one of them. She isn't First Nations herself, but her boyfriend is, and she wants to be able to speak to him in Musqueam.

"Watching him go through it and learn was really interesting because it's a language that's so connected to the area," she explains.

Like Shaw, Forssman loves the little things tucked inside the language. Things like the fact that in Musqueam seasons hinge on the life cycle of salmon and the migrations of local animal populations.

Not sure if she'll tough out all four years of the program, Forssman is taking it step be step -- and signing up for year two after the summer break.

"I'm taking it more as a personal challenge than anything."

Playing catch up

Terri-Anne Sam, another student in the course, is a Songhees woman and mother of two, from Esquimalt.

"I'm not Musqueam, but my children are," she explains, pointing to two little kids outside the building. One of them, her daughter, is wobbling around on her tiny bike in a bright pink jacket.

"I wanted to learn so that I could teach them the language."

Sam eventually plans to become an elementary school teacher capable of instructing the local kids in Musqueam. She's taking night classes to get her teacher certification at UBC.

Does she like the language? "Yeah, yeah," she says. "It's fun, but I missed last week so it's very hard trying to catch up right now."

Passing the torch

Seeing students like Sam ready to commit themselves to the work is a welcome sight for Victor Guerin.

Guerin is a K-12 language co-ordinator and adult education teacher on the reserve, and he says there is a serious demand for people who can speak the language -- to some degree -- to be teaching it at all levels: preschool and day care, in the various elementary and secondary schools, and to the adult education classes that are held on the reserve for high school upgrading.

Seen one way, the direst need lies in teaching impressionable elementary students; there's nothing in place and no one who can teach right now.

"[We] can't answer all that demand," he says.

It's something he and the B.C. College of Teachers are trying to remedy by allowing adult speakers like Sam to begin teaching even before they finish their certification.

Incentives such as these are important in B.C. -- Canada's most linguistically diverse province -- where a number of First Nations languages are poised on the brink of extinction.

'Thumbscrews' and unions

As a recruiter, Guerin finds himself in a place similar to that of the Musqueam elders who recruited him; that is to say, looking for people willing to collaborate in the beleaguered renaissance of his native tongue.

Guerin was working as a longshoreman in the '80s when he landed a job on a project at the Museum of Anthropology. Impressionable and in his early twenties, he was deeply inspired working alongside ethnobotanist and anthropologist David Rosen, a white man and a fluent speaker of Musqueam.

"Seeing that sort of lit a fire under me and I started to think, 'If this non-aboriginal can learn to speak our language fluently, then why can't I?'"

Wherever he could find time, Guerin renewed his studies under the guidance of older relatives and elders during the following 16 years. When UBC's Faculty of Arts began offering courses in 1997, he studied Musqueam for the full four years, cementing what he'd already picked up.

By the time he finished, the makings of a mission were falling into place all around him: people who cared about the fate of Musqueam had it in for Guerin to pass on what he'd learned.

"They put the thumb-screws to me," he recalls thoughtfully in an interview at his weathered desk at the band office. "I was actually almost ready to go into the longshoreman's union."

Cheaper in English

Douglas Whalen, a Yale-educated linguist, says that given the trend of minority languages in the world, the prognosis for Musqueam and numerous other tongues isn't good.

"A greater percentage of languages is projected to die off in the next hundred years than for bird, plants or mammals," wrote the founder and president of The Endangered Language Fund by e-mail.

Put another way, 50 to 90 per cent of the world's estimated 6,000 to 7,000 languages are predicted to disappear in the next century, many with little or no significant records.

As dismal as it sounds, in the Information Age there are ways to document them before they vanish.

"We are at a stage where we can at least preserve some of the spoken form -- which was not possible in earlier times," says Whalen.

A number of First Nations languages of Canada have already disappeared, including Beothuk (Newfoundland), Nicola (B.C.), Huron-Wendat (Quebec) and Pentlatch (B.C.). Epidemics were a devastating factor, reducing pre-contact First Nations populations from over five million to less than half a million at the beginning of the 20th century. The residential school experiment served only to further cripple the linguistic heritage of many groups.

Since UBC is built on Musqueam land, it's a safe bet there will always be a program acting as a life-preserver for their language -- a bittersweet situation, considering there are numerous distinct groups in Canada and elsewhere for whom this isn't the case.

Tacitly, however, some believe the death of minority languages is a natural, and economical, phenomenon -- though it's next to impossible to find someone who will espouse this unpopular view on the record.

"Fewer languages means better and clearer communications among the majority of speakers," reads an anonymous entry on the topic in Wikipedia. "The economic cost of maintaining a myriad of separate languages, and their translator caretakers, is enormous."

But Whalen begs to differ with the assertion languages go extinct the way animals and plants do, via natural selection.

"Yes, languages have died out over time," he wrote, "but killing them off is a different story. Many languages have been under active assault, in Canada as well as the U.S. and other places. Many still are [dying], though there are some efforts (in Canada and the U.S.) to begin supporting them."

It seems counterintuitive, but Whalen looks favourably at the rise of dominant languages such as English in the world, provided they cater to diversity over uniformity.

"Bilingualism is essential," he argues, "and allows us to have the global language along with the minority language. Those who insist that only the majority language should be used are usually also intent on stamping out any cultural differences."

On a side note, the value in retaining as many as possible is clear to researchers, who continue to find important clues about human history in the study of language. For example, Nuxalk, or what has in the past been called the Bella Coola language, is internationally renowned for long words and even sentences that don't include a single vowel. Oddly, one of the only other places this rare trait is found is in Morocco. To explain the link, linguists are working furiously to document and decipher languages before they disappear.

But that's not easy in B.C., explains Shaw. Linguistic differences from one valley to the next are so diverse that thus far linguists can find no common ground between language families in the province. Gitksan Tsimshian and Chilcotin Athabaskan are "as different as any of the Indo-European languages are from any of the Chinese languages," says Shaw.

Rooted renaissance

Back at Musqueam, Guerin says that for renaissance to take hold, it has to re-enter day-to-day life.

"If the learning of a language is confined to a classroom, it will never survive," he says.

The hurdles are looming. Residential schools have left a deep scar, and Larry Grant, co-instructor of the university course, adds his own society now considers Musqueam "a ceremonial language" more than a conversational one.

For Grant, the resurrection of the language is tied to healing and self-identity in the larger context of postcolonial Western society. Things like hereditary laws and kinship ties simply can't be expressed the same way in English.

"I think [our language] is important for us to understand and appreciate who we are." says Grant. "And not only that, but for us to accept who we are. Because of legislation that denied [us of] a lot of stuff, denied who we are."

And yet talking to Guerin in his cubicle, you got a sense of how hemmed in the project is. Walking out of class, there are no TV shows, magazines or summer camps for Musqueam students. Just English or Mandarin or some other tongue seen or heard in the city.

Nor is academic scrutiny always popular with the Musqueam people.

Grant says parsing the language down into its grammatical components is met with a wary eye by some, who don't relish the idea of academics swooping in and dismantling what they see as a vibrant whole, and a sacred aspect of ceremonial meetings.

"It's a difficult part to sell to the community," he sighs. "They don't really appreciate why you need to break the language down to rebuild it."

Sitting in with his students that evening, I was struck by what a slow, minute process the work is. Following hard on its heels of that thought was the realization I was sitting with a significant slice of the people who hold some living knowledge of Musqueam. Grant says that in the underlying minutiae of the science behind the work, it can be hard for some to see the big picture.

Grammatically correct

For the moment, the only certainty for Guerin and company is lots of hard work.

"I'll be long gone and there'll still be lots left to do," he says.

By that he means building the limited body of knowledge the world has of the Musqueam language -- a relatively miniscule corpus comprising a single book of grammar, a dictionary, various recordings and documentation and what remains in living memory among community members and elders.

Nevertheless, Guerin, for one, is banking on the fact that students like Forssman and Sam share his obsession with a sleeping language, one that invites a seeker to always venture further in.

He remembers being out in the field near the reserve one time with a research assistant, working on one project or another. As he was walking he wondered aloud one too many times what the Musqueam name was for certain things he was seeing in nature.

"Do you think about the language all the time?" Guerin recalls the research assistant asking him.

"Yeah, pretty much," he remembers answering.

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