Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Language Matters - the importance of aboriginal languages

The Fraser looking towards X'axlip in the winter
Same place but in the early fall
An old friend from my days of working with the Ts'kw'aylacw First Nation is staying with us for a couple of weeks while he is doing some course work for his Masters degree.   Bucky is involved with reviving the St'at'imc language and in talking with him I am reminded how vitally important the language is to the survival of the culture.

I love the land along the Fraser from Lytton through to near Williams Lake.  It is a landscape that speaks to on a very personal level but it is also a place that neither English or German describe well.  Look at the two pictures of this canyon on the Fraser and think about how short we are of words to name the features we can see.

Language matters because all languages are strongly tied to the time and place they come from.   Languages do evolve over time but always retain their core connection to the culture and place they come out of.  Protecting the land or the culture becomes very hard if the very words and phrases to describe it are lost.

English is a language that evolved to describe a cool, damp, and green island off of the coast of Europe.   In English there is no end of ways to talk about damp and rainy weather.   There are no end of words for small brooks or creeks, hills have a mass of words.  At the same time there is only one word for mountain, one word for a river, and one word for lake.   Green can be named in numerous ways but brown has few words and most of those recent created ones like "coffee" or "chocolate".

Aboriginal people are working hard to protect the lands they have inhabited since the start of human history.   In working for First Nations I could tell that there was something else going on about why the land mattered and that this is not simply a real estate transaction but few people could still express what the land means to them.

In St'at'imc, the word for the people (úcwalmicw) and the land (tmicw).    Who the St'at'imc are as a people and culture is tied to the land in a very intimate way but they can not describe this in English.   I have seen the frustration in leaders who know there is something more but they can not say what it is.   Working in English on aboriginal title and rights issues leads to frustration on all sides.

I remember living at Pavilion Lake and having this amazing changing landscape in front of my doorstep.  In the winter when the lake froze we suddenly had all this landscape to walk on.   We set up tables on it, we fished in the lake through holes in the ice, I took Laika for long walks on the ice.   What I could not do was easily describe this place.

View from our front door on Pavilion Lake
Ice is such a limited word.   Ice comes in so many forms on the lake.  Early in the season it is thin and growing to the middle from the edges.  It is relatively smooth at this point.  Once we could walk on it became something different.  It was not smooth and flat but bumpy and lumpy.  Snow that fell would be compacted on it.   The pressure of the ice would cause cracks and sections to rise up a bit.   It was nothing like an ice rink.    Late in the season the ice would melt in reverse from how it froze, the edges would come free first.   The ice would also completely change structure to something I have heard called rotten ice but it does not really describe what it was like.   Every day the ice on the lake was different and we only had one word to describe it.

The most amazing thing that would happen on the lake in the winter is when it would go down to -30.   At this point the ice would have cracks suddenly appear.   At night we would hear loud travelling booming sounds under the ice.   I have no easy way in English to describe this like.  It is as if rain had to cover mist and torrential downpour at the same time.

Ashcroft, a small town in a large landscape
I think it is important for everyone in BC to see a strong revival of the aboriginal languages so that we can find a better connection to the land.  If we are to do more than just exist day to day we need to be able to speak about what is around us.  We need to be able to name the places in an easy and specific way.   English as a global language is never going to make itself be BC specific but we do not need to have it become specific to BC when we have all these aboriginal languages that developed in this landscape.

Not being able to speak of the places we live in means we alienate ourselves from the world around us.  This is not healthy.

Farwell canyon


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