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Delving into language: the Strathy Language Unit

Delving into language: the Strathy Language Unit

[Photo of Anastasia Riehl in the Strathy Language Unit at Queen's]
Garrett Elliott

Anastasia Riehl in the Strathy Language Unit office in Kingston Hall

The Strathy Language Unit is a research unit dedicated to the study of the English language in Canada. The unit was founded in 1981 by a bequest from J.R. Strathy, BA’44, a Queen's alumnus with a lifelong passion for the English language.

Researchers at the Strathy Language Unit are interested in many aspects of spoken and written English in Canada, including issues such as standardization, dialectal variety, historical change, language and identity, and the relationship between English and Canada's other languages — Canadian varieties of French, Indigenous languages, and the heritage languages of immigrant communities.

One of the unit’s current projects is its Wolfe Island English Corpus.

Q: What exactly is an English corpus?

A: A linguistic corpus – of English or any language – is simply a collection of language samples used to study language. Some corpora are quite broad, covering many decades, different varieties of a language, and/or a range of types of materials. Some corpora are quite narrow, for example, all of the editorial columns from a particular newspaper. Typically, the people who create a corpus do so with particular research questions in mind, and they structure the corpus to meet their needs.

At the Strathy Language Unit, we have two corpora of Canadian English that illustrate different ends of this spectrum. The Strathy Corpus of Canadian English includes texts from over 30 years that represent many types of written language, from popular fiction to academic journal articles to gardening magazines. The Wolfe Island English Corpus is much narrower, containing only transcribed interviews with residents of Wolfe Island collected over a five-year period.”

Q: Why did you choose Wolfe Island to study?

A: I should start by saying that any community could be a valuable focus for a corpus. As for why we chose Wolfe Island, there are a few reasons it seemed interesting.

Wolfe Island has a fascinating history of different groups of people passing through, from seasonal camps of Indigenous people, to a French settlement, to a Loyalist population, to immigration from Europe, to summer residents and tourists, as well as a great deal of cross-border traffic throughout. Alongside this, there are many families who have been on the island for multiple generations, and this, combined with the relative isolation of island life, means that there is a somewhat consistent population with minimal outside influences. Both of these aspects of the island’s character make it an interesting place to study language.

Wolfe Island is the largest of the Thousand Islands. Wolfe Island has a resident population of about 1,400 and is a popular destination for summer visitors from both Canada and the U.S. The island is accessible by ferry from both Kingston and Cape Vincent, N.Y.

We were not just interested in language when we set out to make the corpus, though. We wanted to collect personal histories about life on the island, to contribute to the documentation of local history for both the community and historians. Stories of growing up during the Depression, the smuggling operations that took place during Prohibition, traveling over the frozen lake during the winter, the local social scene, and many others, provide rich and moving illustrations of island life, especially in the mid-20th century.

Another reason for focusing on Wolfe Island, and an important one, is that we had support from the Wolfe Island Historical Society. Several members of the community were a great help to us in locating speakers and assisting with interviews. The residents also had an independent interest in recording stories about the island, so this made for a great mutually beneficial relationship.

Q: What are the influences on the language of Wolfe Island?

A: Languages are, in part, a product of place. The English spoken on Wolfe Island, due to its relative isolation, exhibits characteristics of rural Ontario dialects, in terms of grammar and pronunciation, despite its proximity to Kingston. The ways of life on the island, particular to the geography and climate, have also had an impact on the vocabulary. There are many words in the corpus that relate to industries on the island – farming and dairy production; to the lake – ferries, fishing, and ice – and to unique aspects of the lifestyle – like the educational system and social customs.

Words from the Wolfe Island English Corpus
farmerette – a female farmer
windrow – a line of hay sheaves laid out for drying

Frozen lake
slush hole - a patch of rotten ice on the lake
ice cake – a slab of floating ice

binnacle – housing for a ship compass
jolly boat – a type of small boat towed behind a schooner 

box social – a fundraising auction where the purchaser shares a lunch with the person who prepared it
hay bee – a community gathering to harvest hay (also ‘wood bee’ and ‘thrashing bee’) 

bootlegger’s vest – a vest used for smuggling alcohol across the border during Prohibition
cutter – a light horse-drawn sleigh 

These words are not unique to the island, but they are not ones that many of us encounter in our daily lives, either because they are older terms falling out of use or because they are particular to activities or a lifestyle that we have not experienced.

We are in the process of creating an online lexicon of these words, so that we can share them with the Wolfe Island community and general public. It will have around 900 words from the corpus, along with definitions and examples of the words in context. We hope to have it completed by summer 2020.

Q: In what ways are corpora used? How do they further the study of linguistics?

A: A corpus is one of a number of ways in which linguists collect and analyze data. Other methods include recording lists of words or phrases for phonetic analysis, or asking participants to judge the acceptability of different sentence structures. It depends, of course, on the research question. What is unique and valuable about a corpus is that the language samples are “real,” in that they are not the result of laboratory study but rather have been collected from pre-existing texts or recorded interviews aimed at capturing natural speech. Another advantage of a corpus is that it typically contains a very large body of data, often millions of words, so there is a great deal of material to work with.

As for how they are used, one popular use of corpora in Canada is to study social aspects of language. For example, if you have a corpus of transcribed recordings, with the speakers coded for variables like age, gender, ethnicity, education, and a number of others, then you can study how these factors affect speech or how language changes over time.

Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception out there about linguistics?

A: One misconception is that linguists are grammarians who proclaim what is correct or proper, versus what is wrong or inappropriate. However, linguists are more interested in what people actually say and do, and in what this tells us about how language is structured and learned. Another misconception is that linguists learn to speak many languages and that they focus their studies on one or perhaps several languages. While certainly some linguists are polyglots and while many do specialize in a particular language or language family, the overarching goal is to understand how languages (all languages) work more generally, and in what this tells us about cognition or human history. Most linguists work with data from dozens of different languages over their careers, and typically they do not speak most, if any, of those languages.

Q: You have also written about endangered languages and the impact climate change has on those languages. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

A: As we now well know, climate change is impacting many aspects of our lives. People may be surprised to hear that this includes language. Climate change threatens languages because it threatens the stability of communities, and many communities are struggling to maintain their languages even under the best of circumstances. As lands and livelihoods become less habitable and sustainable, communities are forced to move or dramatically alter traditional ways of life, and this makes it more challenging to maintain Indigenous languages. To make matters worse, endangered language communities are disproportionately located in parts of the world at greatest threat by climate change.

Q: I believe losing any language is a huge blow to society, but some would say I’m just sentimental. Are there any “practical” purposes for preserving an endangered language?

A: Yes, many! Languages are closely linked to culture and identity. Studies have shown that when the Indigenous language in a community is widely spoken, people are healthier and safer. Languages also encode the knowledge and history of a community. As many endangered languages are unwritten and unrecorded, oral transmission ensures the survival of this information. Also, in a broader sense, each language on Earth gives us important insight into the human story. Understanding how languages work helps us understand how the mind works, and understanding how languages have changed and how they relate to one another helps us understand human history and migration.

Two more questions for Anastasia Riehl

The most interesting story I heard on Wolfe Island was…

“There are many interesting stories related to transportation. Over land, travelling around the island by horse and carriage was relatively slow, and this helped to define distinct communities with little interaction between them – fascinating to consider today as the island seems small when you are travelling by car. Over water, there are exciting tales of commandeering ferries in the middle of the night to rush pregnant women to the hospital in Kingston to give birth, as well as harrowing stories of journeys across the frozen lake, and the heroic efforts to rescue horses and people who had fallen through the ice.”

If I could do a corpus on any community from any period in history in any language, I would choose…

“That's an intriguing question! Many languages, especially small endangered languages, have never been recorded, so in terms of which community, I would pick one of those. As for time period, it would be amazing to have corpora from a single community created every 100 years or so, so that we could see how the language has changed over time.”

Learn more about the Strathy Language Unit.

Emily Townshend is a 2019 graduate from the Computing and Creative Arts program. They like to write about the people on the fringes, and their favourite word is "chaotic."

[cover illustration of The language issue of the Queen's Alumni Review]