The Teepee of Babel

Peter Shawn Taylor
December 30, 2018
Ottawa’s promise to rescue many dozens of dying Indigenous languages and effectively give them equivalent status with English and French has billion-dollar boondoggle written all over it. Peter Shawn Taylor makes a powerful case for letting lost tongues die a natural death.

The Teepee of Babel

Peter Shawn Taylor
December 30, 2018
Ottawa’s promise to rescue many dozens of dying Indigenous languages and effectively give them equivalent status with English and French has billion-dollar boondoggle written all over it. Peter Shawn Taylor makes a powerful case for letting lost tongues die a natural death.
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Last year when Winnipeg Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette delivered a statement in the House of Commons decrying violence against native women, he didn’t speak to make himself understood. Quite the opposite.

Ouellette – the son of a mother from Tottenham, England and a father from the Red Pheasant Reserve in Saskatchewan − chose to speak to his fellow parliamentarians in Cree, a language only a handful of other MPs can comprehend.

He later rose to complain that his speech was not simultaneously translated in the same manner as all members’ statements made in English or French. This complaint triggered a series of dutiful responses, including an investigation by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. During the requisite hearings that followed, several native witnesses testified that “languages are an essential element of culture and shape the way we think…[and] organize our thoughts.” The committee itself proclaimed the state of Indigenous language usage across Canada to be “alarming and troubling,” and further asserted that “the inability of members to speak in an Indigenous language in the House and be understood immediately is not consistent with current Canadian values.”

The result of this perceived violation of Canadian values was a recommendation, approved by the House of Commons several weeks ago, that simultaneous translation be now provided from whatever native language an MP might wish to use in any debate or committee work, with modest prior notice, into English and French. In doing so the House explicitly recognized all Indigenous languages as having “special status,” due to protections of pre-existing aboriginal rights in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The line, if any, between this special status and the official status enjoyed by English and French was not made clear. It may not even matter, given the open-ended promise of translation when necessary.

Having thus established the right to speak any and all native languages in parliament, Ouellette indulged himself in a Martin Luther King moment. “When I was first elected to the House of Commons, I had a dream,” he said as the translation plan was being approved. “A dream that a grandmother from her reserve could turn on the television and watch the great debates of Parliament in her Indigenous language, whether it was Cree, Anishinabeg, an Iroquoian language, Innu or any language across Canada.”

As virtuous or reconciliatory as it may seem, however, to elevate the panoply of native languages to the status of English or French, practical matters inevitably intrude. “Given that there are approximately 60 different Indigenous dialects in Canada,” the House of Commons Translation Bureau pointed out in a briefing note obtained through Access to Information, “the capacity of qualified freelance Indigenous interpreters…is extremely limited.” Cost is also likely to be a big issue, the translation office noted. Ouellette’s soaring oratory about providing native grandmothers everywhere with simultaneous translation of debates and other official business may prove rather difficult to pull off. And of rather dubious value, beyond the overt political symbolism. How many grandmothers can realistically be expected to watch debates (much less the endless and often stultifying committee hearings), regardless of translation services? Much more likely is that the insertion of dozens of new and obscure languages into Canada’s raucous parliamentary debates will make coherent political discussion even less commonplace than is currently the case, as international experience already suggests.

Then again, this plan for a poly-lingual House of Commons is hardly the end goal. Rather it should properly be seen as the first step in a much more ambitious project that aims to have Ottawa take on the globally-unprecedented mandate of reviving all the country’s dying or near-dead Indigenous languages in situ. And here the economic issue of opportunity cost rears its head with far greater force. The resources required to accomplish such a Sisyphean task will inevitably steal money from other efforts that promise far greater outcomes for native and non-native Canadians alike. It will also further isolate Indigenous Canada from the rest of the country, thus denying the many benefits of modern economic and educational progress to those who need it the most. Finally, there is ample evidence that such a scheme is almost guaranteed to fail. It’s time to speak up about the folly and fantasy of trying to preserve Canada’s many dying and doomed native languages.

Trudeau’s official languages promise

In their 2015 election platform, the federal Liberals heroically promised to “promote and preserve Indigenous languages.” Their first budget added an extra commitment to “enhance” these languages as well. Then, at an Assembly of First Nations (AFN) conference late in 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went much further in announcing upcoming federal legislation that would ensure the “preservation, protection, and revitalization of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit languages in this country.” (Emphasis added.) Such legislation will also enshrine a “constitutional right” to native languages beyond what has already been read into the Charter by the House of Commons. Originally scheduled for Fall 2018, Trudeau’s Indigenous language bill ought to be considered imminent, especially since 2019 has already been declared the United Nations’ Year of Indigenous Languages.    

How many languages are the Liberals promising to revitalize? That isn’t clear. The Translation Bureau uses the common shorthand of 58 individual languages divided into ten root families. Statistics Canada says there are 70. According to UNESCO, Canada is home to 87 Indigenous languages. Of these, only a very few are considered viable, including Cree (96,575 speakers, according to Canada’s 2016 Census), Inuktitut (39,770 speakers) and Ojibway (28,130). Usage even among these most-widely spoken native tongues has been falling dramatically for decades. The percentage of Canada’s aboriginal population who can conduct a conversation in their heritage language fell from 21 percent in 2006 to 15 percent in 2016.

Even worse, three-quarters of all native languages in Canada are categorized by UNESCO as either vulnerable or endangered; nearly 40 percent (32 individual languages) are “critically endangered,” meaning they’re spoken only by the great-grandparent generation. Examples are Rigolet Inuktitut, heard exclusively in Rigolet, Labrador; Munsee, unique to the Moravian Indian Reserve in Southwestern Ontario; and Oowekyala from the central B.C. coast. All involve speaking populations of 50 or fewer very elderly individuals at a single, isolated location. Most of Canada’s Indigenous languages are thus less than a generation away from disappearing forever.

This isn’t a situation unique to Canada. More than half of the world’s estimated 6,000 languages are considered unlikely to survive beyond the end of our current century. In a couple hundred more years, there may be as few as 200 living languages. The thought of so many different tongues disappearing from Earth inevitably triggers many sentimental arguments in favour of their preservation. “We should care about dying languages for the same reason that we care when a species of animal or plant dies. It reduces the diversity of our planet,” writes Welsh linguist David Crystal, making a common parallel between entomology and etymology. Yet dying languages generally find themselves in peril for good reason − they no longer serve the useful purpose of facilitating communications among large groups of humans. As essayist Malik Keenan has pointed out, “A language spoken by one person, or even a few hundred, is not a language at all. It’s like a child’s secret code.”

Winnipeg Liberal MP Robert Falcon-Ouellette.

Even the scientific community is beginning to doubt the cause of preserving linguistic diversity at all costs and in all cases. In a 2016 editorial subtitled “The loss of a language is not always an unmitigated disaster,” British science publication New Scientist notes that “linguists instinctively decry the loss of language much as conservationist biologists once mourned the loss of every single species. But conservation is in the midst of a paradigm shift, moving towards acceptance that not all species can be saved…perhaps our attitudes to language extinction are due for a similar heretical change.”

There is certainly value in preserving our collective human heritage, however constituted, for archival and academic purposes. In his 2000 book Language Death, Crystal figures it takes about $320,000 and three years of work to properly record and preserve a vanishing language. The cost of saving a dictionary as well as the grammar and pronunciation for each of Canada’s vulnerable and endangered native languages might be considered a manageable $22 million or so. But this isn’t what the government, or Indigenous activists, have in mind.

According to a 2017 joint statement by the federal government and the AFN – which follows on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action #13 to #17 − the goal of the upcoming federal language policy must not be simply to record disappearing languages, but to bring them back to common usage. “All Indigenous languages must be supported at the level required to recover, reclaim, revitalize, maintain and normalize them,” a separate AFN report on the topic thunders. “Funding must not be prioritized based on principles such as languages which have the greatest number of speakers, or languages which have the greatest level of endangerment.” (Emphasis in original.) Infighting between various language groups big and small means the reliably fractious AFN has proven incapable of agreeing on any coherent guiding principles for language preservation − beyond the demand that all funding must be delivered direct to native communities without federal interference or oversight. A complete absence of agreement on metrics or measurable goals, and in particular the refusal of the AFN to contemplate rescuing only viable languages, is an obvious, and potentially very expensive, problem. (And likely explains the current delay in the federal legislation.)

The Trudeau government is already spending $30 million a year on its existing Aboriginal Languages Initiative, along with substantial sums for language instruction included in on-reserve education allocations. But these amounts will be wholly insufficient to support any new federal bill that promises to revive every extant native language to the point of normal usage. In a recent C.D. Howe Institute research note, Don Drummond, the former federal Finance Department associate deputy minister and former chief economist of TD Bank, estimates it will take between $500 million and $1 billion per year to properly rescue Canada’s native languages. It’s an expense Drummond thinks entirely necessary. “The challenges of fulfilling the Prime Minister’s promise [on native languages] are immense,” he writes. “But the payoff for Indigenous people and all Canadians will be greater still.” On the eve of a perpetual billion-dollar a year claim on their treasury, Canadian taxpayers might be forgiven for asking themselves − what payoff? And who’s measuring?

That the normally pragmatic and frugal-minded Drummond accepts the need to spend enormous sums in perpetuity pursuing a wholly undefined and unbounded effort to revive dozens of already-abandoned native languages may be seen as evidence of how sentiment, rather than science or evidence, has taken control of the Indigenous language debate. Recall that Drummond once had the gumption to argue against the provision of full-day kindergarten in Ontario due to its prohibitive cost and lack of broad-based benefits – and in the face of its widespread popularity among politicians and the public. He seems unwilling to apply similar rigour to the question of native language revival.

In fact, there is good academic evidence that cataloguing and recording for archival purposes may be the best that can be hoped for the majority of Canada’s Indigenous languages. Crystal’s Language Death charts three stages of language decline evident around the world. In the first stage, an endangered or minority language comes under pressure from a dominant outside language due to political, educational and social forces as a broader world of opportunity beckons. Stage two is a period of emerging bilingualism in which the population achieves competency in the dominant language outside the home while retaining heritage language usage within family contexts. Finally comes stage three, as successive generations come to rely solely on the dominant language and the heritage language withers to vestigial use, mainly by the aged. By then the die is cast. “The third stage is, for most languages, too late,” Crystal states bluntly. He argues that functional bilingualism, or stage two, is the last point at which language revitalization efforts can have any positive impact; once younger generations fully embrace the dominant outside language, extinction of the heritage language becomes all-but-inevitable. And remember – over one-third of all Indigenous languages in Canada have already been abandoned by three successive generations.

I speak, therefore I am

One common argument in favour of language preservation is that it transcends mere cost/benefit analysis. Rather, language is so essential to accessing unique aspects of cultural and historical knowledge that its value is incalculable. In academic circles this is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism; in Canada this theory can be spotted bolstering familiar claims that Indigenous “ways of knowing” are so deeply embedded as to be inseparable from language itself. Native witnesses to the House of Commons procedure committee made this exact claim, as noted above, as does the recent AFN report. In 1966 the liberal-minded Hawthorn Report into Canada’s residential school system, by anthropologist Henry Hawthorn, similarly advised Ottawa that “the structure of a language determines the mental categories and thought processes of those who have inherited this language from their parents.” Without language, we are repeatedly told, knowledge and culture are meaningless.

There’s no disputing language can be an important organizing aspect for any culture. But, as famed intellectual and linguist Steven Pinker has pointed out in his book The Language Instinct, this does not mean any particular foundational reality must be rooted in any particular language. The notion that thought and language are indivisible − and therefore the loss of any language entails the permanent loss of a unique world view − is “wrong, all wrong,” writes Pinker. “Mental life goes on independently of particular languages.” Amidst the decline or even absence of heritage native languages, Indigenous Canadians would still be able to involve themselves fully in all essential aspects of their culture and traditional knowledge.

The example of Old Order Mennonite communities in southwestern Ontario can be instructive here. This distinct group retains its many unique habits, clothing and occupations – eschewing modern transportation and electricity, for example − while living in close proximity to an overwhelmingly dominant Anglo-centric modern culture. While many Mennonites speak Pennsylvania Dutch, this is by no means the most significant aspect of their distinctiveness. In fact, their language is in apparent decline as other components of their culture remain resolutely robust. When Mennonites attend local stores, schools or health care services, for example, they converse in English as a matter of practicality. But while doing so, they still leave their buggies in horse-only stalls at the parking lot of the local Walmart.

Accepting the utility of a modern dominant language is not an exercise in cultural homogenization or linguistic colonialism. It is simply recognition of the tremendous benefits arising from barrier-free communication via a common language. It facilitates the coherence necessary to share ideas and debate points of view. It also facilitates trade, education and the basic functioning of any large society itself; and is particularly important in large, diverse or multi-ethnic societies. It has been this way for thousands of years.

To appreciate how important a shared language can be, consider the alternative. For example, as part of its hearings into Ouellette’s complaint, the House of Commons’ procedure committee heard from Michael Tatham, Clerk of the Legislative Assembly of Australia’s Northern Territory, home to over 100 Aborigine languages. Tatham explained in charming Aussie deadpan how this sheer diversity of tongues has produced “some interesting conflict” during law-making sessions. One member repeatedly hurled interjections at her fellow legislators in Warlpiri, a language only one other member of the legislature could understand. Beyond the existential question of whether a comment has to be comprehensible to be unparliamentary, the situation reveals the needless complications encouraged by poly-lingual debate. After much political fuss, Northern Australia’s legislature’s solution to its own language chaos has been to insist that members make all their statements in English first, to permit comprehension and proper debate. After that, they may repeat their comments in whatever language they wish to make symbolic or cultural points. Speaking first to be understood seems an appropriate guiding principle in all aspects of life.

Attempting to fulfil the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action on Indigenous languages by permitting a host of new quasi-official languages few people can speak or by embarking on a doomed experiment to revive dying languages on reserves may be the latest attempt at expiating white guilt over the legacy of the residential schools system. But that doesn’t mean it’s a wise use of resources, time or effort. Allocating billions of taxpayers’ dollars in this way will prevent that money from being spent on many other, far-more-productive purposes, such as aiding native communities in developing own-source revenue or learning skills of value in the wider world. And, to the extent that it’s successful, it will slow down or begin to reverse the hard-won economic integration that some First Nations are beginning to achieve with the wider world.

A cameo version of this dilemma can be seen currently in Nunavut. When the territorial government recently admitted it would be unable to meet its educational goal of offering Indigenous language instruction in all grades by 2019 because of a severe lack of fluent teachers, linguists and native activists everywhere were scandalized. A professor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay dramatically called it a “death blow” to Inuktitut, one of Canada’s most widely-used Indigenous languages. The solution offered by this legion of critics was to raid a $50 million job training fund set up by the federal government “to increase the employment of Inuit” living in Nunavut so as to produce more language instructors. While teaching teachers to speak Inuktitut so they can teach others how to speak Inuktitut, a language that can only be used to communicate within the territory, may fulfil the narrow employment purpose of the fund, it seems a frustrating example of circular economics. It promises nothing of substance to improve the productivity or employment opportunities of Nunavut and its inhabitants in connection to the broader outside world. Rather, it amounts to a self-licking ice cream cone.

Many First Nations are sincerely interested in alleviating the unremitting poverty on reserves through economic development. And this is best accomplished by improving the English and French language abilities and employment skills of younger generations in ways that integrate them into mainstream Canada. Putting heritage language instruction at the centre of a school system may succeed in turning remote communities into linguistic museums, but this will only increase the economic distance between native reserves and the rest of Canada. And as we have seen with Canada’s Mennonite communities, language is not the only measure of cultural success and distinctiveness.

For most of Canada’s history, in fact, the Indigenous population has deliberately sought to learn English (or French) in order to benefit from the many obvious advantages of white society. During the Treaty 6 negotiations in 1881, for example, signatory Cree Chief John Smith demanded of the federal negotiators: “I want a teacher to learn the English language and to teach it to my children.” And while Canada’s residential schools have much to answer for, it’s widely forgotten in our Truth-and-Reconciliation era that the opportunity to learn English was often considered a beneficial and attractive feature of these schools among many native parents. “I just wanted them to learn English,” one father wrote in 1943 to the Department of Indian Affairs regarding his sons’ attendance at the residential school at Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia.

And when the federal government began a policy of de-emphasizing residential schools in favour of day schools on reserves in the 1960s, many native parents lobbied vigorously to get their children into residential schools so as to access a superior English-language education. “We were inundated with applications,” one Saskatchewan-based school superintendent told researchers in a 1995 academic study. “That was one of the times of the year I dreaded the most…when we had to go through these applications and turn down any number of people who had applied to put their children into residential school.” To quell demand, Ottawa eventually denied family allowance cheques to native parents who insisted on enrolling their children in residential schools. For all the obvious complaints associated with these schools – and they were legion and well-known among native communities by the 1960s, including rules that forbade children from speaking their mother tongues − many parents still sought to have their children attend because they felt it was the best way to learn English and thus integrate them into a wider world of opportunity. This quest for English fluency is as much a fact of Canadian history as the rest of the residential school story. We should not be so selective in remembering our past.

Let dying languages go

There’s no question that learning another language can be intellectually and cultural stimulating. It may also allow individuals to better understand and appreciate their heritage or upbringing. Anyone seeking to expand their horizons by learning a second − or third or fourth − language should always be encouraged to do so. But what might make sense as a private hobby or pastime does not necessarily translate into appropriate public policy. We should not allow sentiment to overrule evidence when making government decisions.

Some endangered languages, it is true, have been successfully revived or preserved from further decline. Hebrew in Israel is perhaps the most prominent near-dead language to be brought back to life. Québécois French might also be considered a success story. In both cases, however, the language in question enjoys a broad and well-defined geographic zone of dominance, official status, vigorous promotion, enthusiastic usage and, for Israel at least, significant population growth. This importance of a distinct linguistic boundary cannot be overstated. While the much-touted resurgence of Maori in New Zealand has actually been rather modest (only 21 percent of the native population are fluent in their own tongue), what success the language has seen is largely due to the fact the setting is a small, geographically-isolated country with a single, officially-recognized native tongue.

Most of Canada’s Indigenous languages meet none of the survival criteria seen elsewhere. The plurality of these languages are already deep into Crystal’s fatal third stage of generational decline due to their isolation and small, aging pool of speakers. Among those that have at least 10,000 speakers, most are spread much too thinly. Cree, Canada’s top Indigenous language, is spoken across an enormous swath of the Prairies and Quebec, without any particular centre of gravity. Ojibway similarly stretches from eastern Ontario to Manitoba. Alone among native languages, Inuktitut enjoys a distinct and defensible border within Nunavut, sufficient numbers, official status, and the real possibility of promotion as a cultural and political tool. And even it remains under severe pressure.

Given these significant constraints and obstacles, the only rational approach to Canadian native language decline is some form of rigorous triage. In defiance of the AFN’s demands and much political sentiment, most Indigenous languages must be allowed to die quick and natural deaths, as befits forms of communication that have failed to meet the needs of their constituents. We can still honour our country’s linguistic heritage through recording and archiving, while simultaneously accepting the inevitability of this outcome. Establishing new quasi-constitutional language rights and/or spending billions to preserve languages exclusive to small, isolated reserves is not going to change the diagnosis. Rather, it threatens a further shattering of Canada outside its robust English and French communities into a plethora of fragile, culturally and linguistically segregated rural native Bantustans. To geographic and economic separation, we would be adding a critical comprehension gap at a time when social media and other forms of instantaneous communications are instrumental to success in the modern, rapidly-changing world. Such a project will also have the unhappy result of diverting federal funds from other more-pressing measures in aid of native communities, such as establishing clean water, natural resource development and effective, advanced education.

In the Biblical story of Babel, the world was said to have once spoken a single universal language. As punishment for mankind’s arrogance in attempting to build a tower to the heavens, God did “confound their language, that they may not understand another’s speech.” This confusion of tongues left humanity fated to separate itself in small isolated groups for millennia. Now, in defiance of the clear global trend towards a declining number of languages dominated by a few regional or near-universal super-languages, Ottawa is planning to deliberately frustrate the ability of Canadians to communicate with some of the most vulnerable members of society, and vice versa. Is this the work of a rational secular state? Or a vengeful God?

The Colonial Invention of an Indigenous Alphabet

The preservation of Indigenous languages is often promoted as being indivisible from the protection of native spirituality. When the Alberta government recently announced a $6 million native language fund, Tsuut’ina elder Bruce Starlight told the Calgary Herald, “Our languages are holy; Creator sent it down from above.” The Assembly of First Nations’ policy statement on Indigenous language policy similarly claims “Indigenous languages of this land have existed since time immemorial” and argues that their preservation in Canada must include “respect [for] the unique orthographies of Indigenous languages” by allowing the use of their written form on “birth certificates, status cards, social insurance cards and citizenship documents.” Whether such a thing is practical or desirable, Canada’s “unique orthographies” have a rather interesting provenance. It’s a story worth telling for what it reveals about Canada’s history, as well as the nature and purpose of language.

First Nations of North America had no written language prior to contact with European explorers. To facilitate proselytization, much as the famed Byzantine brothers Cyril and Methodius had done a millennium earlier to convert the illiterate Slavs of Central and Eastern Europe, many Christian missionaries to the New World devised ways of phonetically translating oral native languages into Roman letters. These efforts produced varying degrees of literary coherence and success. In 1840 Methodist minister James Evans came up with a better idea.

Rev. Evans was a former grocery store clerk who immigrated to Canada from England with his parents in 1822. A conversion at a Methodist camp-meeting and an innate facility with languages led to Evans receiving an official church assignment in 1828 to create “a vocabulary and Dictionary of Indian words” for Ojibway at Rice Lake, Ontario. He dispensed with problematic Roman-style lettering and tried phonetic symbols instead. His first attempt was unsuccessful, but in 1840 while at Norway House, Manitoba, he perfected a similar system for the Cree language, using nine geometric shapes including triangles, right-angles, curves and circles to represent consonants, with vowels denoted by dots and a rotation of these shapes. It was an immediate success.

Evans’ invention perfectly satisfied an unmet need. The rough-hewn shapes of the syllabics were well-suited to inscribing on birchbark and lent an air of cultural authenticity distinct from European script. Plus, their phonetic nature proved far more intuitive to native learners than Roman letters. This confluence of benefits powered the system’s surprisingly rapid adoption across the country. Within just a few years, Cree speakers from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula were using syllabics to transcribe their thoughts, send letters and leave behind messages. In 1854 a Cree band that had not yet encountered European missionaries was found to be using Evans’ amazing invention, having picked it up from passing tribes. Commercial and government documents also made prompt and liberal use of syllabics to communicate with Cree communities. Keen to emulate this accomplishment, other missionaries quickly adapted Evans’ system to other native languages. The written form of Inuktitut currently used in Canada’s north by the Nunavut government on official documents, street signs and its website, for example, is derived from the Evans system. As a Library and Archives of Canada blog post notes, Evans’ syllabics “became an important part of [Indigenous] identity, despite having been developed by a non-Aboriginal, and is still used in Canada today.”

And yet Evans can’t take sole credit for this innovation. In an intriguing 1981 University of Manitoba PhD dissertation, John Stewart Murdoch uncovered many significant similarities between Evans’ work and Pitman’s Shorthand, a stenographic system invented in 1837 by English educator Sir Isaac Pitman. Murdoch’s points of comparison include a striking commonality of symbols as well as the use of slope and dots to denote changes in emphasis and sound. Murdoch even established Evans’ presence in New York City when Pitman’s work was first published there to great acclaim. This suggests a crucial piece of Canadian native identity is actually a colonial import originally designed for English stenographers and widely used throughout the Anglo business world. Instead of a spiritual endowment from time immemorial, its success reveals the hybrid and often chaotic nature of communications in all forms.

Evans’ linguistic breakthrough succeeded because it served the crucial function of allowing people to communicate in a manner relevant to them. By the same measure, the incipient death of numerous unsuccessful native languages in Canada should not be seen an indictment of white colonial hegemony, but rather a testament to the relentless Darwinism of human interaction. Only the most useful languages survive.

Peter Shawn Taylor is a freelance writer based in Waterloo, Ontario.  

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