First Nations grammar book garners $15,000 grant

October 21, 2004, vol. 31, no. 4
By Felicity Stone

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In Canada, preserving French gets a lot of attention, but it is First Nations languages that are most at risk.

Tsilhqot'in (Chilcotin), spoken in the Williams Lake area, is relatively healthy - in 1998 Statistics Canada counted 705 speakers in a population of 1,800- but it's not out of danger.

Even though many Tsilhqot'in speakers are fairly young, says Susan Russell, First Nations language coordinator (and Linguistics lecturer) for the Kamloops program, “another 30 years could pass very easily and then everyone who speaks it as a native language would be an elder. So now is the time to act.”

When Russell began coordinating the First Nations languages program in the early 1990s, she discovered that there was no written grammar or dictionary of Tsilhqot'in.

“It seemed like a golden opportunity to get something put together that would assist our courses and would assist the community in its future language teaching,” she says. “It would also help non-native people to communicate with people who still only speak Tsilhqot'in up there.”

She applied for a grant to the Vancouver Foundation, which recently awarded $15,000 jointly to SFU and the Tsilhqot'in national government. Ed Cook, former chair of the University of Calgary linguistics department and an authority on Athapaskan languages, has been hired to produce a grammar with the help of Tsilhqot'in language consultant and instructor Maria Myers. The dictionary will have to wait for further funding.

Cook had already developed a Tsilhqot'in orthography, or writing system, which is being used in schools.

The grammar, with a classroom companion written by Russell for use by teachers, is expected to be completed by June.

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