Research Spotlight

Dr. Heather Bliss and PhD student Lauren Schneider present at WAIL

May 07, 2024

The Workshop on American Indigenous Languages (WAIL) is an annual conference hosted by the graduate students of the Linguistics department at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). The event is a summit of talks about the latest research on American Indigenous Languages and Linguistics. The goal of WAIL is to bring together research leaders from across the globe so that they can help each other grow and learn.

WAIL’s 2024 program featured dozens of research talks presented throughout the two-day event. As part of a session titled “Community approaches to Revitalization,” Dr. Heather Bliss and her colleagues Annette Fox-Bruised Head and Kendrick Fox delivered their research findings. The talk, titled Weaving our knowledge together to create a Blackfoot learning hub, centred on Blackfoot language revitalization efforts. See the project website here. You can read the abstract below.

SFU Linguistics PhD student Lauren Schneider presented her research as part of a session called “Language change.” Lauren’s work, titled The development of serial verbs in a subset of Salish languages, investigates the syntax of serial verb constructions in Hul'q'umi'num', the Island dialect of Halkomelem Salish. See the abstract further below.

Weaving our knowledge together to create a Blackfoot learning hub

By Heather Bliss, Annette Fox-Bruised Head, and Kendrick Fox

Niitsipowahsin, or Blackfoot, is an Algonquian language spoken in what is today known as Southern Alberta and Northwestern Montana. Although the number of first language speakers has steadily declined due to the harmful impacts of colonization, the number of second language learners is on the rise. Statistics Canada reports an increase of 18% in the number second language Blackfoot learners in the five-year period between 2016 and 2021. This is consistent with findings for other Indigenous language communities across Canada (Robertson 2023) and in British Columbia (Gessner et al. 2022). Moreover, it supports what Elders, Knowledge-Keepers, teachers, and learners already know -- that Blackfoot language revitalization efforts are slowly but surely working, and in defiance of the threats of colonization, the language is and will always be vital to the community (Bastien 2004; Bliss, Breaker & Ritter 2019).

Our work is grounded squarely within this fundamental knowledge and is contributing to the revitalization of the Blackfoot language through a multi-year, multigenerational, and multifaceted project to develop a learning hub for Blackfoot families in the Lethbridge area of Southern Alberta. The hub encompasses virtual and in-person language events, stories and teachings from Elders, a self-paced guide for language in the home, tools for pronunciation and grammar, and various other resources. The webspace representing the hub is continually evolving, serving a digital footprint and repository for the project.

In this paper, we outline highlights and outcomes of the learning hub by sharing our individual and interwoven perspectives as a team comprised of two Niitsitapi educators and one non-Indigenous linguist with longstanding ties to the community. Drawing on examples from the resources we have developed for families, we illustrate how our diverse backgrounds and areas of expertise shape our approach to Blackfoot language pedagogy.

We recognize that, for many new learners, fluency seems like a far-away and perhaps unachievable goal. Instead of centering our efforts on basic conversational skills, we adopt an inquiry-based framework that empowers learners to be curious about the grammar and its inherent connections to Blackfoot ways of knowing and being. Inspired by Rosborough et al.’s (2017) “beautiful words” model of Indigenous language learning, we focus on the “genius” of Blackfoot grammar, demonstrating the wealth of cultural knowledge that can be embedded in a single morpheme. We guide learners to seek interconnections between words and morphemes by giving them the tools to analyse polysynthetic words and paradigms.

The threads of our knowledge in linguistics, education, and Blackfoot worldviews have been woven together to establish the learning hub. As new learners join us, their own threads of experiences, understandings, and curiosities are interwoven too, bringing strength and purpose to our work.

The development of serial verbs in a subset of Salish languages

By Lauren Schneider

In this paper, I investigate the syntax of serial verb constructions (SVCs) in Hul'q'umi'num', the Island dialect of Halkomelem Salish (ISO 639-3 hur). Verb serialization is uncommon in Salish, and it is an understudied feature thus far found only in the Central Salish branch. Because of this, there is little research on serialization in Salish, and the family is largely not featured in serialization typology. This investigation seeks to fill in these gaps in the literature using corpus data and original elicitation, and draws on previous research on Salish syntax (e.g., Davis 2020; Gerdts 1988) as well as on SVCs (e.g., Cleary-Kemp 2015, Haspelmath 2016, Lovestrand 2018). Cross-linguistically, SVCs are monoclausal constructions involving multiple independent verbs with no coordinating/subordinating element. SVCs are frequent in Hul'q'umi'num' narratives (cf. Schneider 2023), but not found widely throughout the family—additionally attested only in Klallam (Montler 2008), and SENĆOŦEN (Campbell 2023). This presents the question of how serialization evolved in only a subset of Salish languages.

Aikhenvald (2018: 201) notes that it is generally assumed that all serialization results from clause fusion, stemming from an English-influenced assumption that a verb equals a clause, and thus an MVC has to be, underlying or historically, multiclausal. In contrast, the motivation for developing SVCs in some languages may instead lie in the semantics of the verbs: verbs, rather than prepositions, express parameters such as source, goal, or path of motion (cf. Creissels et al.). Just as nouns can be used as modifiers within an NP, verbs can be used as modifiers of other verbs, forming an SVC. The 'verbal modification scenario' is the least developed of the SVC development scenarios Aikhenvald describes, but is the most likely scenario for Hul'q'umi'num' and neighboring Salish languages. Hul'q'umi'num' has only a single multi-purpose preposition, and thus verbs do the work of many directional and spatial meanings (cf. Batscher & Gerdts 2013). Such a context-especially due to the lack of evidence of any historical dependency relationships between verbs is a perfect environment for verbs modification to result in the development of SVCs.

Serialization is not widespread in Salish, and thus where it has developed and why it might have evolved in a subset of the language family is of interest. To investigate this, I employ the following strategies: (i) analysis of original elicited Hul'q'umi'num' data (sample provided in (1)–(5)), (ii) analysis of Hul'q'umi'num' text corpus data, (iii) comparison with texts in neighboring languages, e.g., Bierwert (1996), to look for similar structures, and finally (iv) a comparison with non-serializing Salish languages to look for alternative verb modification systems. For example, Southern Interior Salish languages have larger inventories of prepositions (Kroeber 1999), and a few Northern Interior languages have infinitives (Davis 2020). This study sets out to increase understanding of the distribution of this feature in Salish, develop a notion of why this feature may have formed in the languages in which it did, and finally contribute to the serialization typology by providing a detailed account of this serialization evolution path.