Indigenous Languages in Memorial's Linguistics Department

Indigenous languages in Canada are highly endangered, losing speakers at an alarming rate. The study of a number of these languages has been a primary focus of the Department of Linguistics for the past 45 years. Through an impressive number of research projects members of the department have provided funding and thesis topics for a steady stream of graduate students, as well as creating valuable resources for language maintenance and revival. Indeed, the work undertaken within the department is a model of what can be achieved through collaboration among faculty at MUN, as well as with researchers at other universities, Indigenous organizations, government departments and non-governmental organizations.

Work within the department has focused on Indigenous languages in eastern Canada and the Northwest Territories. The daughter languages of four major language families have been the focus of research: the Algonquian family (Proto-Algonkian, Mi’kmaw in Atlantic Canada, Cree in Ontario and Quebec, Naskapi in Quebec, Innu-aimun in Labrador and Quebec), the Eskimo-Aleut family (Inuktitut in Nunavut and Labrador), and the Iroquoian family (Cayuga in southern Ontario), the Dene family (Tlicho in the NWT and Tsúùt'ínà in Alberta). For a certain period the department was the centre of the world for the study of languages of the Algonquian language family, which covers a large portion of Canada, and this remains a strength.

The Teacher Education Program in Labrador (TEPL)

In 1979 the TEPL certificate was created at Memorial with involvement from Linguistics. Modelled on programs operating elsewhere in Canada it aimed to provide training of Indigenous people from remote locations in their own communities, as either classroom teachers or instructors of their own languages. Like the Brandon University Native Teacher Education Program (BUNTEP) in Manitoba, (SUNTEP) in Saskatchewan, (NITEP) in BC, and the Amerindianization for the Schools project in Quebec, TEPL offered a 20 course certificate which certified graduates to teach in Indigenous schools in their own region.

Members of the department regularly taught TEPL courses in Labrador and occasionally at the St. John’s campus. Alana Johns created a set of courses for both speakers and non-speakers of Labrador Inuktitut in an effort to stem the decline of that language. Several speakers were trained as co-instructors for the courses, and this practice has continued with Douglas Wharram teaching Inuktitut courses when the TEPL certificate was replaced by the BEd (Native and Northern). Marguerite MacKenzie delivered language courses to the Innu and Julie Brittain offered courses in English and Indigenous literature.

The Aboriginal and Indigenous Studies Program

In the late 1990s Department of Linguistics, under Irene Mazurkewich as Head, took the lead in establishing the Aboriginal Studies Minor Program within the Faculty of Arts with courses offered on campus and in Labrador. Coordinators Mackenzie, Dyck, Wharram) have always been members of the Linguistics department and have taught in the program. The program has now been revamped as the Certificate in Aboriginal and Indigenous Studies in the renamed Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Research with speakers of Indigenous languages
Proto-Algonquian: Hewson, Bubenik

Proto-Algonquian is the ‘mother’ language of a large set of ‘daughter’ languages spread across North America; proto-languages have been reconstructed using the comparative techniques of historical linguistics applied to words from a set of documented languages. Working with data from four central languages and the mainframe computer programs of the day, John Hewson and Vit Bubenik reconstructed the sound system of 4,000 roots and formatives. The lists, originally published as a book, are now available in pdf format.

Beothuk: Hewson

The language of the Beothuk people of Newfoundland is now generally accepted to be a member of the Algonquian family, largely due to the historical work of John Hewson on the four word lists written down in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Mi’kmaw: Hewson

By the time that Hewson began work on the Mi’kmaw language of Newfoundland, it was in serious decline. Although the were up to 5,000 speakers elsewhere in Atlantic Canada, Mi’kmaw was no longer known on the west coast of the island and had fewer than 10 speakers in Miawpukek (formerly Conne River). Hewson reports that,

"In the sixties only 30 of the 100 miles from the Trans Canada Highway to Bay d’Espoir were paved, and the only way into the Mi’kmaw settlement at Conne River (now an official reserve) was by boat. The Conne, where it flows into Bay d’Espoir, is a quarter of a mile wide, and tidal. To cross it one parked the car in a little parking lot at the end of the road on the north side, blew the horn a few times, and someone would row across (in the old days) or come by speed boat to pick up the waiting passengers."

This willingness to travel to mainly remote Indigenous communities in order to work with residents on the documentation of languages under serious threat of no longer begin spoken is a feature of all the work done by linguists at Memorial.

Hewson later began working with Mi’kmaw speaker and linguist Bernie Francis from Nova Scotia, to provide modern versions of historical grammars and dictionaries of the language, including the 1939 grammar of Father Pacifique which was re-transcribed in modern spelling.

Cree: MacKenzie, Brittain, Dyck, Rose

MacKenzie had been working eastern James Bay Cree in Quebec, begun in 1969 during her MA, expanded to include more dialects, as well as the closely related Innu-aimun and Naskapi as part of her doctoral research, and later included the western James Bay Cree communities. Hired to teach courses in the communities due to her familiarity with the communities and dialects she worked with speakers for several decades to produce dictionaries of the northern and southern dialects. Collaboration with Marie-Odile Junker at Carleton led to revised versions that are available online and pages of grammatical description. Carrie Dyck contributed pages on the phonology to the website. Julie Brittain and Yvan Rose, with MacKenzie, began ongoing research on the acquisition of northern East Cree in the village of Chisasibi, making an important contribution to the very small amount of work in this area.

Naskapi: MacKenzie, Brittain

MacKenzie began working with speakers of the single Naskapi language community in north-central Quebec in the late 1970s and later joined the linguistics team of the Naskapi Development Corporation, to produce a trilingual dictionary. Brittain did doctoral research on the grammar and now works with the team to bring stories recorded with an elder in the late 1960s to publication in a series of books in Naskapi syllabics, roman spelling, a literary English translation as well as attractive illustrations. They continue to collaborate on revised versions of the dictionary and grammar.

Innu-aimun: Hewson, Clarke, Branigan, MacKenzie, Brittain

John Hewson recalls that

“I taught graduate students a course in Cree, a central Algonquian language, using the written and recorded materials prepared by Doug Ellis of the Linguistics Department of McGill. This enabled me to be familiar with the language of the Innu of Labrador, whose language is a sub-dialect of Cree...In the late 1970s I applied for university-internal funding to travel to North West River to do fieldwork on the local dialect of Montagnais. There, I recorded interviews .. [and] recall one interview with [a speaker], who was quick to point out that some of the sentences I was asking him to translate into Innu-aimun had no truth value, and therefore he did not see the point of translating them. (Given my lack of fieldwork experience, this definitely gave me food for thought!). ...”

In 1975, Sandra Clarke returned to Memorial and her research focus soon turned to local languages, both Newfoundland English and Labrador Innu-aimun (or, as it was more commonly known in those days, Montagnais/Naskapi), beginning with a two-week trip to Sheshatshiu, then called North West River. Back in St. John’s, she continued working with younger Montagnais speakers including some who were attending high school among them Mary Pia Benuen and Peter Penashue. A Grammatical Sketch of North West River Montagnais was published in 1982, along with an introduction to the Montagnais language for speakers of English, later revised with the addition of audio files as Labrador Innu-aimun. An Introduction to the Sheshatshiu Dialect, 2010.

Marguerite MacKenzie had worked with speakers of Innu from Labrador who had attended the ‘Amerindianization’ teacher training courses offered on the campus of the new Manitou College north of Montreal. Three Labrador students joined the English-speaking Cree and Naskapi group, as the Innu courses were conducted in French. After moving to Newfoundland, MacKenzie continued to research the Labrador dialects, leading projects to produce the 27,000 entry trilingual pan-innu dictionary, workplace glossaries and a large number of pedagogical materials. Research on theoretical aspects of syntax was carried out by Phil Branigan and Julie Brittain.

Inuktitut: Peacock, Smith, Johns, Mazurkewich, Wharram, Briggs, Dyck

While John Hewson was focusing his research on Algonquian languages in the 1970s, Larry Smith began the study of Labrador Inuttut, publishing two monographs on the grammar, as well as creating a computerized database. He worked with some of the few speakers resident in St. John’s, including arranging for one to have a day pass from her Majesty’s Penitentiary.

The late Jean Briggs arrived to begin work in the Department of Anthropology in 1963, having completed two years of doctoral thesis fieldwork living as an adopted daughter with a small group of Inuit, in what is now known as Nunavut. During these years she learn to speak the Utkuhiksalingmiutitut dialect of Inuktitut and took copious and detailed notes on the language. Briggs recollects that during the late 1960s ... Larry Smith urged her to make a list of the suffixes in Utkuhiksalingmiutitut.

Alana Johns joined the department in 1989, following her doctoral research on Inuktitut and turned her attention to the Labrador dialects. After relocating to the University of Toronto in 1997, Johns continued to work on the Labrador dialect, also involving her husband, phonologist Elan Dresher. She joined anthropologist Jean Briggs in the late 1990s to advance work on the long-running Utkuhiksalingmiutitut dialect dictionary, based on the largest collection of example sentences used in the preparation of any dictionary of Inuktitut. This successful collaboration ended in the 2015 production of a print dictionary of postbases for the rapidly disappearing dialect of Gjoa Haven, also available online. Carrie Dyck collaborated with Briggs to work out the historical developments in Utkuhiksalik phonology.

Irene Mazurkewich, who began a joint appointment with English in 1988, worked on the acquisition of Inuktitut grammar. In 1996 Mazurkewich convened a committee to plan and host the international Inuit Studies Conference, where many Memorial scholars made presentations on a variety of topics. She and Alana Johns published a joint article on the decline of Inuktitut in Labrador.

Research and teaching of Inuktitut has been continued by Douglas Wharram, whose doctoral work had focussed on a central arctic dialect. His ongoing teaching appointments, begun in 2000, have included courses in the TEPL program both in Labrador and on campus. He teaches courses in Inuktitut, increasingly offered various in Labrador communities, as part of the TEPL and BEd (N&N) programs, continuing the practice of working with speakers as co-instructors. He also supervised Catharyn Andersen, the first Labrador Inuit to receive a Masters in Linguistics. He worked as long as possible with the few remaining speakers of the now extinct Rigolet dialect, and is preparing a film about them.

Cayuga: Dyck

Carrie Dyck joined the department in 1997, having begun work on Cayuga, a language of the Iroquoian family spoken at Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario in 1989 while she was working on her MA at the University of Toronto. At the time, Cayuga was in decline, with few children learning to speak, and Dyck began working with elder Reginald Henry, who was deeply concerned that his extensive knowledge of Cayuga be documented and passed on. Between 1993-2003, Dyck worked with Frances Froman, Alfred Keye, and Lottie Keye to produce a dictionary (2003). During that time, Dyck attended Alfred Keye’s birthday party, and when she asked how old he was, he kept pointing to the Heinz ketchup bottle. 20 years later, Alfred is still actively working on language preservation projects. Sadly, however, Frances Froman and Lottie Keye have passed on.

Between 2005-2007, Dyck and co-investigator Amos Key (Language Director, Woodland Cultural Centre) held a SSHRC Strategic Research Grant and succeeded in digitizing and transcribing an extensive holding of reel-to-reel audio recordings, collected by Key in the early ‘90s. From 2010-2017, Dyck and Key worked on a SSHRC-funded Community-University Research Alliance project, which is described on the Cayuga Language website.