New Indigenous dictionary compiled to save the language in British Columbia – Haida Gwaii Observer
Since time immemorial, the SENÄOÅ¦EN language has conveyed the stories and values ââof the WÌ±SÃNEÄ people. Now, for the first time, a 1,500-page dictionary containing more than 12,000 words will ensure the longevity of the language.
Timothy Montler, a distinguished linguist and research professor at the University of North Texas, has worked for 40 years with SENÄOÅ¦EN speakers to record and define the language. The effort to create a SENÄOÅ¦EN dictionary began in 2012, after Montler worked with elders, educators, and tribal councils to create a Klallam dictionary.
While there have been online resources like FirstVoices that feature recordings and definitions, Belinda Claxton said the process was more personal because Montler has worked “hand in hand” with the community for so long.
âHe actually received sentences from the elders. He doesn’t just have words, he has teachings and values.
The front of the dictionary presents the names and photos of the 26 SENÄOÅ¦EN-speaking elders who contributed to the dictionary.
Montler compiled recordings made by himself, Claxton, and others, and built a database of words and definitions, as well as grammar information. Each entry has a sample sentence to accompany it, as well as pronunciations using the International Phonetic Alphabet.
The words are recorded in the SENÄOÅ¦EN alphabet, created by Dave Elliott Sr. in 1978, which transformed an oral language into a written language by typing the 26 English letters on a standard typewriter with hyphens, bars obliques, underscores and accents so cheap, specialized equipment was needed.
âOnce he’s here, it’s like he’s saved,â Belinda’s brother Lou Claxton said. âLots of words that I forgot myself. And my mother only spoke SENÄOÅ¦EN to me when I was a child â, adding that when he was a child he would say to his mother:â I prefer to learn English.
“Now a part of the language that we may have forgotten is here [in this book]Lou said.
Lou and Belinda’s mother, Elsie, was SENÄOÅ¦EN’s last monolingual speaker, but she understood English fairly well. Before dying in 2000 at the age of about 93, she contributed to numerous recordings of SENÄOÅ¦EN words and phrases.
âIt wasn’t that long ago that everyone on the entire peninsula and on the Gulf Islands spoke only SENÄOÅ¦ENâ¦ before the great invasion of English speakers happened,â Montler said.
However, many children lost their language in residential schools, where their language was prohibited.
Montler said the language contains “stories for every place, every little spring, bay and cove.” SÈ¾ÃÂ¸EUÂ¸TWÌ±, or Tsawout, means âhigher,â Lou said.
È½ELÂ¸TOS, or James Island, means ‘splashed in the face,’ said Montler, who also said the island is home to a rare breed of white deer.
âFor a very long time, no one had proof of our language on paper as is the case now. Teachers can’t wait to get their hands on it, âLou said.
Each word has been thoroughly checked for accuracy, with their definitions and example sentences attributed to the elders who said it to Montler.
Belinda hopes the language will be taught more in public schools, but it will be used first in the tribal school.
âAt one point or another, we thought the fire was going to go out. But she survived, our language survived and I’m so happy, âBelinda said.