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History through the pages

Department of Linguistics taps into Innu knowledge to develop a pan-Innu dictionary

Marguerite MacKenzie

Marguerite MacKenzie is the head of Memorial's Department of Linguistics, and Principal Investigator leading the Community-University Research Alliance project.

“There are so many Aboriginal languages in Canada that are losing speakers,” says Dr. MacKenzie. “The Innu language is one of the strongest, but you can tell children are starting to lose it.”

It’s a recognized reality, but one that she believes can be changed. A student of the Innu language for more than 40 years, Dr. MacKenzie, along with a group of engaged and passionate community collaborators, is driving the creation of a comprehensive pan-Innu dictionary.

In 2005, a report on the Innu Education System from Memorial's Faculty of Education shed light on a high rate of absenteeism in Innu schools, describing how children were “being plunged into an alien language and culture.” With many children growing up in households where Innu is the first language, what was missing were the tools to make teaching and preserving the language possible.

Dr. MacKenzie and her team were awarded a Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) grant of $996,992 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in January of 2004, to address this reality and further develop the project they had dubbed “Knowledge and Human Resources for Innu Language Development.” They began with an existing Montagnais-French dictionary, compiled by Quebec linguist Lynn Drapeau, which contained words derived mainly from the western-most community of Betsiamites, Quebec.

Over the course of six years, Dr. MacKenzie, and primary editor José Mailhot, collaborated closely with partners from the new Innu school board Mamu Tshishkutamashutau, the Institut Tshakapesh and Carleton University.

Through workshops and consultations, the team engaged Innu communities to verify vocabulary, adding English translations and checking words with various elders, including new entries that had never been documented before. “We had an editorial committee that met regularly over the five-year period so that people from the communities participated in the process of decision making for standardizing certain spelling or translations,” she says.

With nearly 27,000 entries, each with phonetic spelling and grammatical information, the completed dictionary will be tri-lingual, offering translations in Innu-aimun, English and French.

Another unique element of the Dictionary is that, along with documenting the ancient language, it reflects the diversity of Innu dialects that exist in communities across Labrador, as well as in Central and Lower North Shore of Quebec.

“We’ve consulted with people from all dialects, and re-written the definitions to be more accurate,” says Dr. MacKenzie. “Each word is so specific and contains a lot of information, so in effect, we’re actually documenting the culture through the language.”

The team has also codified the common spelling of Innu words, allowing the dictionary to be used and understood by a wide range of users, including Innu speakers from different regions.

“Even though communities pronounce words differently, the Dictionary will help people to spell them the same way,” Dr. MacKenzie says. “Communities will be able to produce school materials that will be useful to all the communities, not just a specific dialect or village.”

While the work for the dictionary was completed in fall of 2012, Dr. MacKenzie and her team are reviewing the final draft. Once finished, it will become a tool to help a number of Innu schools and community groups across Labrador and Quebec develop new teaching aids and classroom materials.

In the meantime, a pilot dictionary has become available on the Innu-aimun website, another informative resource created for the project that contains texts written in Innu, bibliographies and student theses.

Looking ahead, Dr. MacKenzie will establish teams with faculty members and partner organizations to further educate communities about the new resource. “There's a big education component that will have to follow the launch,” she says. “We will teach people how to use the dictionary, how to read phonetics and pronounce silent vowels, until people get used to it.”

Engaging these communities and partners in research, Dr. MacKenzie adds, has benefits that extend beyond the finished project. “Raising the profile of Aboriginal cultures and languages is very important,” she says. “It’s very positive to demonstrate that Aboriginal communities themselves are engaging in work that's important to them.”

She also believes there was a strong benefit for the graduate students at Memorial who have worked with the Aboriginal communities first-hand. “A number of students have been able to travel to the communities to meet people and learn aspects of the language,” explains Dr. MacKenzie. “People in the community definitely recognize that this research is important, so they are willing to give opportunities to graduate students to engage and learn.”

Ultimately, the goal is simple: recording a language, both to preserve a rich history and to give it a better shot at a vibrant future. “It will create pride in the language,” concludes Dr. MacKenzie. “This is the last generation of speakers that know these words, so it's important that we collect and value their knowledge now.”

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