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Sunday Book Review: The Language Of This Land, Mi'kma'ki

Brilliant book examines language as a transmitter of worldview

by Miles Howe

The Language Of This Land, Mi'kmaki. Published by Cape Breton University Press.
The Language Of This Land, Mi'kmaki. Published by Cape Breton University Press.

K'jiputuk (Halifax) – Language. It will only get us as far as there are words to put meaning to our observations. And even then, how we organize our words into sentences will determine the emphasis that is placed on the subject, the verb and all the other little bits and pieces of syntax that pepper our desires to communicate with one another.

English, say Trudy Sable and Bernie Francis, authors of the fascinating book The Language of this Land, Mi'kma'ki, is a language bent on rendering a static image of a situation. Our sentences can be complex, but give precedence to the noun, and as such contain within them a strong degree of inactivity. Even the highest echelon of English, poetry, can be fabulously descriptive, but often chooses static subjects, like love, butterflies or seasons, that it then attempts to capture still in time, like so many photographs.

The Mi'kmaw language, say the authors, follows almost an inverse trend, and gives structural place of honour to the verb. When compared to English, Mi'kmaw sentence structure is more simplistic, but the words themselves, with myriad prefixes and suffixes, can become wonderfully complex in the right hands, and are often verb-centred. It lends itself to a different worldview, of a situation in constant transit, in which language is more of an opportunity to place oneself as a fluid actor into a constantly evolving paradigm.

Sable and Francis also spend a wonderful chapter putting geographical context to the Mi'kmaw language. In this land, Mi'kma'ki, place names are imbued with meaning, and correlate to geographical observations, potential uses, and legend, with seamless overlaps. Rather than the colonial trend of naming places after conquerors, in Mi'kmaw locations are meant as instructions and invitations to story and suggest a desire to participate with the landscape, instead of holding it in freeze-frame.

The land becomes alive with grandmother and grandfather rocks, who can be acted upon, and who might be acting upon you. Halifax becomes K'jipuktuk, “the great harbour,” Margaree becomes Wiaqajk “the mixing place” and St. Esprit becomes E'sue'katik “the place of clams,” to name but three.

The authors also spend two chapters examining dance, song and chants as a means of transmitting information. A dance or song isn't just something one does when one feels good; it is often a non-verbal means of sharing messages, offering praise, or re-enacting legend. It is, essentially, language in motion.

If there is a downside to The Language of this Land, it is contained in the last chapter, where the authors discuss their fear for the future of the Mi'kmaw language, which is the unique interpretation of the Mi'kmaq peoples of themselves and their environs.

Without language, the Mi'kmaq peoples risk being interpreted by speakers of languages who are neither from here, nor necessarily share their worldview. It is language, as the means of both interpreting and communicating, that is one of the key pillars of any culture, and Sable and Francis issue a call to drastic action to those Mi'kmaw speakers that remain in Mi'kma'ki. The resources exist; what is needed are the teachers.

The Language of this Land, Mi'kma'ki is available through Cape Breton University Press.

For those in the K'jipuktuk area interested in Mi'kmaw language lessons, please contact the Mi'kmaq Native Friendship Centre. If you know of other language lessons being offered, why not add a link to the comment section of this article?

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