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Vol 39  No 15
June 7, 2007


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Linguist’s northern treks aim to preserve language
by Leslie Vryenhoek


Linguist Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie, left, works with Innu people in Labrador and Quebec to document their language.

Dr. Marguerite MacKenzie will make several excursions north in the coming months to continue efforts to record and preserve an aboriginal language that, like so many languages worldwide, could otherwise eventually be lost.

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 said.

And, she noted, young people are losing much of the traditional language because it is not always relevant to their lifestyles. “Since they go to school and they don’t get out on the land, they’re not learning the vocabulary of the natural world in the same way. Just like in Newfoundland, where young people don’t know the words of the fishery anymore, young Innu don’t know the language of the traditional resources and landscape.”

A website is being developed to help youth regain one part of their traditional vocabulary. Dr. MacKenzie has been assisting independent scholar Peter Armitage in his creation of an online resource dedicated to Innu place names. The site will capture the full meaning and correct pronunciation of these complex and very descriptive names, which are intrinsic to Innu heritage but have been largely supplanted by English names.

The project received funding from a number of national sources. Once the website has Innu approval this fall, it will be launched publicly.

Because Dr. MacKenzie’s work focuses on identifying vocabulary and then verifying meaning, usage and pronunciation of words, her field work often involves “walking around and talking to people” in the community who have specific knowledge. For example, she recently worked with environment officers to identify words for flora and fauna.

In July, she’ll travel again to Labrador to help in translating legal terminology. This pilot project, a collaboration with the Department of Justice, will focus on creating an Innu-aimun glossary for criminal justice, although a broader goal of training court interpreters has been established for future.

Her largest project, however, 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 will use agreed-upon, common spellings, it will also reflect the variations in pronunciation that occur across dialects spoken in Labrador and Quebec.

“The Innu-aimun spoken in Natuashish is different than that spoken in Sheshatshiu,” Dr. MacKenzie explained of the two Labrador communities. “Mushuau-aimun [spoken in Natuashish] is kind of like Australian English to us – it’s very unique and very different.” The goal is to create a dictionary that reflects those differences, but can be used by speakers of any of the dialects.

In a related project, a lesson book and CD of vocabulary and useful phrases is nearing completion. The resources are intended for those who want to work in the Innu communities, whether they’re in education, social work, health, law or another field. “Anyone who is working with the Innu can improve their credibility by learning some of the vocabulary,” Dr. MacKenzie asserted.

Dr. MacKenzie isn’t the only one involved in the summer sojourns north – graduate students in linguistics like Jennifer Thorburn and Will Oxford 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.

This is the first in a summer-long series on research around the province. Have a story on a Memorial researcher working in rural Newfoundland and Labrador? Contact the Gazette at sorensen@mun.ca.

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