Amie De Jong
This summer I started learning Nuu-chah-nulth, a language of the Wakashan family that is spoken in communities native to Vancouver Island, B.C. The name Nuu-chah-nulth means something like “along the mountains” or “mountain range.” The mountain range that runs the length of the island is the most visible feature from the sea, so the name is fitting for people who have traditionally relied on whales, fish, and other ocean resources and thus spent a lot of time on the water.
Unfortunately a major part of Nuu-chah-nulth culture, their language, is in imminent danger of extinction. The Canadian government’s aggressive language assimilation policies beginning in the late 1800’s, including mandatory English-only residential schools for First Nations children, have contributed to this. The whole population once spoke Nuu-chah-nulth as their first language; out of more than 7,000 Nuu-chah-nulth people there are now only about 300 fluent native speakers (Lewis et al. 2014), all of whom are now part of the older generation.
I am a PhD student in linguistics; one of the goals of the field is to describe and explain what may be common to all languages (and what can vary). This is an effort I am working to contribute to during my graduate career and beyond. Clearly, it is important to account for all the diversity of human language. Some say the Pacific Northwest of North America is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the world in terms of indigenous languages (Beck 2000), so it is potentially a paradise for a linguist like myself. Unfortunately, however, most languages in the Pacific Northwest are in as much danger as Nuu-chah-nulth, if not more.
I was surprised that more is not being done to preserve or study these languages. I thus set out to learn Nuu-chah-nulth as quickly as possible. I now plan to help in the documentation, description, and revival of the language so that Nuu-chah-nulth communities can keep an important part of their heritage, and it can continue to offer its unique insights into the human capacity for language. My latest research project focuses on Nuu-chah-nulth, and it will be a major part of my dissertation.
Finding a language class was not easy; few universities regularly offer any native language of the Pacific Northwest (if you would like to help change this, consider joining the Coalition for the Equitable Representation of Indigenous Languages [CERIL] at the UW). I was fortunate to have met Adam Werle, a linguist and Wakashanist who agreed to be my teacher. In addition to our one-on-one lessons, he organized a week of intensive language learning in collaboration with fluent Nuu-chah-nulth elders and other advanced learners, many of whom are language activists and/or teachers themselves. The intensive classes were held in c̓uumuʕaas (Port Alberni), traditionally a Tseshaht and Hupacasaht town on Vancouver Island. It sits at the end of an inlet, surrounded by lakes and mountains.
This was honestly one of the most interesting and enjoyable language classes I have ever taken thanks to everyone involved. Morning sessions consisted of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation lessons, punctuated with activities to practice with other learners or elders. Everyone was very supportive and encouraging to each other (I learned expressions like čuuckana, “great job, you’ve reached the goal”). This was very important for all of us when learning a language so different from English. For example, Nuu-chah-nulth has 35 consonant sounds, only 9 of which are shared with English. Nuu-chah-nulth words are made up of a root and multiple affixes; often, a complex word in Nuu-chah-nulth translates to a whole sentence in English.
In the evenings during the intensive week, we all met again for conversation and fluency practice led by the elders. The elders shared stories of fishing and boating, including one about a group of fur seal hunters who were lost and never came back. They also told traditional stories and teachings. I learned how to be good listener, waiting until someone is done speaking to reply and making sure everyone who wants to speak gets to do so.
The elders’ and learners’ dedication to bringing their language back was inspiring, and I enjoyed working toward a common goal. They gave me two dictionaries of their language, one of which was originally published in 1868. They will be great resources for my future work on Nuu-chah-nulth. Best of all, we learners and Adam have committed to meeting two days a month for the rest of 2014 to continue our intensive classes, with or without (but hopefully with) funding. With people like those I met on Vancouver Island working toward documenting and reviving their language, there may still be hope for the Nuu-chah-nulth language.