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Rebuilding a language

Rebuilding a language

[photo of pages  from a Mohawk/English Bible]

Pages from Nene karighwiyoston tsinihorighhoten ne Saint John/The Gospel According to Saint John printed in Mohawk and English. W.D. Jordan Rare Books and Special Collections, Douglas  Library

In the beginning was the word …

How do you go about rebuilding a language?

That’s a question that’s been on the minds of many educators and members of Indigenous communities across Canada since the 2015 release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission final report, which contained five calls to action around the preservation of Indigenous languages.

Three-quarters of the Indigenous languages in Canada are classified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as “endangered.” None of the 90 different living Indigenous languages in Canada falls under the UNESCO definition of “safe.”

There are existing community organizations and training programs to help educate those who want to learn the more common Indigenous languages – Queen’s offers courses in Mohawk, Inuktitut, and Anishinaabemowin, for example. But creating these training resources requires either the help of native speakers or existing material to work from.

So, in the search for existing material, some Indigenous groups are discovering an unlikely ally in their efforts to revive their languages: the Christian church.

The connection between the Judeo-Christian faith and Indigenous Peoples in Canada can be fraught. Many associate the church in Canada with residential schools and the government’s efforts to suppress or supplant Indigenous culture.

Yet for hundreds of years there have been Christian groups dedicated to translating the Bible and religious songs into Indigenous languages. The Book of Common Prayer, a Christian book most commonly associated with the Anglican Church, has translations dating back to 1715, while the first Gospel translation – from the Book of St. Mark – was completed by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1774.

Several examples of these translated Bibles and hymnals have been preserved within the W.D. Jordan Rare Books and Special Collections housed within the Douglas Library, including one Gospel translation dating back to 1813. The collection’s Bibles represent six Indigenous languages, including Mohawk, Ojibway, and Cree.

Some of these texts would have been used by missionaries trying to reach Indigenous communities in order to preach the gospel. Others would have been used in church services – particularly the bilingual Bibles that featured both English and Indigenous text. Still others were used in a ceremonial function. One such Bible in the Queen’s collection, written in Plains Cree, was a gift from the British and Foreign Bible Society to then Governor General John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, in 1938.

In addition to serving as examples of Indigenous languages in use, the books also tend to feature some tools to help the reader learn or better understand the language. Take, for instance, the Cree Bible given to Lord Tweedsmuir: the opening pages feature an explanation of how to pronounce each symbol in the Cree syllabics. While the Latin alphabet features 26 characters, the Cree alphabet features symbols that could individually represent a vowel or a consonant followed by a vowel. There are also symbols to represent consonants at the ends of syllables. Additionally, there are marks used to denote emphasis or pre-aspiration – breathing out before pronouncing a consonant – to help form the words and structure.

[photo of a page from a Cree Bible showing the Cree syllabic system]
A page from a 1908 Bible shows the Cree syllabic system.  W.D. Jordan Rare Books and Special Collections
Though you may occasionally see Indigenous words written out using the familiar 26-character Latin alphabet, many Indigenous languages feature their own syllabic system. However, particularly on websites and digital documents, you will often see Indigenous words written out using the Latin alphabet since it is more readily supported by most websites and computer keyboards. There is some debate as to the exact origin of Indigenous written language like Cree, with some believing it was created by missionary John Evans (1801–1846) while others claiming he merely adapted it from existing work by Indigenous Peoples.

“We haven’t spent enough time thinking about if it is possible, and indeed profitable, to turn these religious documents into teaching resources, and what you could do with them,” says Nathan Brinklow (Thanyehténhas), a Queen’s lecturer who teaches the Mohawk language. “Many Indigenous people have bad feelings towards the church, but this is a lot of text and I don’t think we’re at the point where we can be choosy. We can’t ignore it, so let’s do something good with it."

Mr. Brinklow is currently working on an automatic speech recognition project for the Mohawk language. His project is funded by the Indigenous language technology group of the National Research Council.

In Mr. Brinklow’s experience, the majority of old texts available in Mohawk today are religious in origin. So, to start his project, he reached out to the Canadian Bible Society and asked for everything they had.

“Across all of the translated Scripture, we were given 63,000 total words with 17,000 unique words,” he says. “Eight or nine thousand of those words only occur once. The society also found a whole lot of other draft material waiting for someone to take over and proof.”

Accepting and using this material led to a challenge: do you recognize the existence of these materials as an unexpected blessing and use them, or do you reject them because of their origin?

Mr. Brinklow believes keeping and using the material is essential, though he notes communities that have a hostile relationship with the church may feel differently.

“Literacy and orthography may not have been the end goals of the efforts to Christianize the Indigenous Peoples, but these are also not bad things,” he says.

His inquiries helped reinvigorate efforts at the society to complete and publish their existing Mohawk materials on one of the world’s most popular Bible smartphone applications.

Still, 63,000 biblical words are not enough to rebuild a whole language just yet. Many of the words in the collection are Bible-specific – not useful in a casual conversation – and nearly half of the words appear very regularly, so the variety is limited.

As a further challenge, some common English phrases – like “sorry” and “please” – simply don’t exist in Mohawk, so there can be many different interpretations of how to represent these ideas.

To supplement his biblical collection, Mr. Brinklow recently acquired the scripts and audio from some Mohawk media productions through the National Film Board. These texts will help fill out some of the more casual conversation needs for his database. He believes getting to a point of having a functional automatic speech recognition program would require, at minimum, 1,000 commonly used words.

But, for Mohawk speakers out there, don’t assume the success of this effort will mean your smart device will soon begin recognizing your Mohawk phrases. At the conclusion of Mr. Brinklow’s project next year, he hopes to build a database of speech audio files and text transcriptions known as a “speech corpus.” Using this database, Mr. Brinklow intends to create a gamified smartphone app to help record more audio and continue to test the data the team has collected.

“Maybe at the end of this we can expect to have broad coverage on local language, Bible language, kids’ language, and resistance language [used by protesters and activists],” he says. “Then we can identify the gaps – for example, we might not have any kitchen language, and we have no coverage on making appointments or days of the week.”

Anyone with Mohawk language materials who wishes to contribute to Mr. Brinklow’s speech recognition project may contact him at nb81@queensu.ca.

Using smartphone apps and databases is one method of spreading language awareness but for Lindsay Morcom, the training must start in the community and with young learners.

Dr. Morcom, the recently appointed Canada Research Chair in Language Revitalization and Decolonizing Education at Queen’s, is practising what she preaches.

Dr. Morcom, who is Algonquin Métis and belongs to the Bear Clan, is brushing up on her own Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe nation, while her young son learns both Anishinaabemowin and Mohawk.

“My son being able to speak Anishinaabemowin better than I could would be the dream. That would be awesome,” she laughs.

Dr. Morcom’s interest in language began while she was quite young, starting with Danish – “I tried to teach myself when I was quite young because I found a book in the library” – and moving onto Spanish, French, German, and Italian. It wasn’t until she attended First Nations University that she became more interested in her Indigenous heritage.

“It was a really formative experience because that was where, through my studies and later my teaching experience at First Nations University, I started thinking about what it meant to have Indigenous heritage and to see that as a wonderful, positive thing,” she says.

Her time at First Nations University also shaped Dr. Morcom’s research agenda, which features three interconnected strands: decolonizing education, language revitalization, and ally building. She is currently examining what impact immersion is having on Anishinaabe children from a language, self-esteem, and academic achievement perspective. Increasingly, her focus is turning to language revitalization within urban communities.

“About 70 per cent of Indigenous people live in urban centres so we can’t just leave language on the reserves,” she says.

Dr. Morcom recognizes there aren’t necessarily the same employment motivations to learn Indigenous languages as for English and French, but she says there are many intangible benefits to her Anishinaabemowin studies.

“When I go into ceremony and I speak the language that my ancestors conducted that ceremony in, I’m able to communicate with them and understand them in a way that just isn’t present when we speak English,” she says. “For instance, when we think about climate change, our language reflects the knowledge we have gained living on this land for tens of thousands of years. But most of all, language really influences the way my ancestors understood the world. When I speak that language, it gives me a stronger, clear Anishinaabe understanding of the life I’m living and the land in which I live.”

“I hope to keep working with the school boards in the Kingston area to ensure these children are going to be able to see themselves in school,” she says. “And I love that this is a possibility. When I was a kid, that just was not the case. The local school boards are doing their best, and there is a lot we can do together when the school board has that mentality. It’s great to know that Indigenous children are going to be able to self-identify and have that be greeted with esteem and pride.”

One of the ways Dr. Morcom is improving her own language abilities is through a community language program offered by Kingston Indigenous Language Nest, a grassroots organization that brings together fluent speakers of Indigenous languages with people interesting in learning their languages. Learn more about the Kingston Indigenous Language Nest: kingstonindigenouslanguage.ca.

Queen’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures now offers a certificate program in Mohawk Language and Culture, in partnership with Tsi Tyónnheht Onkwawén:na (TTO), an organization based in Tydendinaga Mohawk Territory. The two-year Kanyen’kéha certificate program is delivered in the TTO Language and Cultural Centre in Tyendinaga. Learn more: queensu.ca/artsci/mohawk.


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