Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Distinguished visiting professor of linguistics Keren Rice presented an overview of her work with the aboriginal languages in Canada on Thursday. As part of the teaching faculty at the University of Toronto as well as director of the school’s Aboriginal Studies Program, Rice has spent nearly thirty years studying Slavey, an Athabascan language native to the Northwestern Territory of Canada.
The intricacies of native linguistic structures were particularly interesting in their vast deviation from basic English patterns. Slavey’s designation of singularity/plurality, for example, does not follow from the noun (as in English) but from different forms of the main verb in a sentence. Special exceptions were made for nouns pertaining to humans as well as dogs, highlighting different degrees of relative importance in Slavey culture. Rice also briefly touched upon fascinating examples of various structures and attitudes towards words in other Canadian languages (how a few basic sounds in Mohawk can go far through compounding of words, as Bella Coola does without vowels).
Over the course of the talk, Rice was sure to stress the importance of linguistic diversity, weaving into her presentation different quotes that highlighted the various contributions any one language can have. From an academic standpoint, Rice described language as an impressive display of human knowledge, belief systems, identity establishment, and cognitive ability. A closer, more specific Slavey vantage pinpoints language as a people’s relationship to the Creator, a key to spiritual as well as cultural survival.
That essential cultural bond is being broken fast as many aboriginal languages begin to die out. With younger generations abandoning their native tongues for English or French, the 60 or so native Canadian languages face the danger of extinction. Rice believes the language really began to be lost as native communities became less isolated and people were “made to believe that what they spoke was somehow inferior or second class” to other languages.
A substantial, quickly-growing population of aboriginal peoples allows linguistic preservation to be more of a central issue in Canada than in the United States where linguistic loss is unfortunately frequent among Native Americans. This year, however, the Canadian government has failed to renew a grant to continue language education funding despite the UN’s declaration of 2008 as the “International Year of Languages.” Local efforts to revive languages, of course, continue, but there has often been tension between older and younger generations around methodology. Elders prefer to teach the language through traditional activities (tanning hides, etc…) whereas native youth would much rather “create a video game in Cree.”
Ultimately, Rice believes that “survival [of a language] is dependent on whether people are willing to invest effort into preservation”, further stating that “a lot of work goes into simply speaking a language.”