President's Report 2007

Linguist’s northern treks aim to preserve language

Linguist Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie made several treks north this year, working with the Innu people of Labrador and Quebec to record and preserve their language.

The head of Memorial’s linguistics department, Dr. MacKenzie is juggling several projects involving Innu-aimun, which is spoken in Labrador and Quebec. It’s a language she speaks – though she admits not very well – and one of the few aboriginal languages left that children still learn.

“The Innu language is changing quickly as a result of bilingualism. Everybody under the age of 40 also speaks English, so that has an impact,” she says.

Her largest project is leading the development of a tri-lingual English/French/Innu-aimun dictionary. In 2005, this project received a five-year Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

While the dictionary is using agreed-upon, common spellings, it’s also reflecting the variations in pronunciation that occur across dialects spoken in Labrador and Quebec. Dr. MacKenzie’s other projects include working with the provincial department of Justice to create a glosaary of Innu-aimin for the criminal justice system, and providing assistance in development of a website for young people dedicated to Innu place names.

These northern treks also involve graduate students in linguistics like Jennifer Thorburn and Will Oxford, who are also playing key roles in the preservation and promotion of Innu-aimun. Meanwhile, back on campus in St. John’s, Thomas Poker, a Labrador Innu student who is studying business, has proven invaluable in helping to understand and record the language he learned as a child.