Is the bus alive? Depends where you are: A brief primer on the Mi'kmaw language

·6 min read
The Mi'kmaw language is spoken by over 10,000 people. (Curtis Hicks/CBC - image credit)
The Mi'kmaw language is spoken by over 10,000 people. (Curtis Hicks/CBC - image credit)

For the first time in hundreds of years, the Mi'kmaw language is having a moment.

The language is one of the descendants of proto-Algonquian, and the only one in the Eastern Algonquian subgroup that has over 1,000 speakers. Over 10,000 people currently know Mi'kmaw.

"It's been shut down by the residential schools for so long," said Mi'kmaw linguist Bernie Francis.

"And so our people were discouraged from speaking and of course, now that they grew up without the language, their children do not speak it. And that is the beginning of the end of the language."

But efforts to revitalize it are ongoing. And in Nova Scotia, the government recently announced it was going to officially recognize it as the province's first language, with more support going toward preventing Mi'kmaw from forever falling out of use.

New learners of the language, however, will find that it is a whole different ball game from any European language. In fact, Mi'kmaw is quite unlike most languages spoken elsewhere in the world.

Here are just a few aspects of what makes the language truly special.

A world on the move

Nic Meloney/CBC
Nic Meloney/CBC

Unlike noun-heavy languages such as English, the Mi'kmaw language is based on the verb, with prefixes, suffixes and infixes determining gender, tense, plurality and many other aspects.

Nouns are really just verbs with morphemes that give them a noun-like quality. A pronoun system exists, but these are usually reserved for emphasis.

This stress on verbs means the language is highly flexible, and easily allows for the creation of new words and expressions.

Take the following "sentence-word" which is featured in the book The Language of This Land, Mi'kma'ki, co-authored by Francis and Aboriginal and Northern research scholar Trudy Sable:

"Pemi'skipetesink."

Pem: moving along

i'skipe: neck

tes: jerky movement

in: stative (describes a state of being)

k: the third person singular

All together, the word roughly translates to "a person moving along as s/he moves his/her neck in a jerky manner."

Francis said this quality of the language reflects some aspects of the Mi'kmaq world-view.

"It kind of shows the world as being in constant flux. Everything is on the move," he said.

Word games

Francis said a simple transitive verb like 'to be named' could be conjugated in about 340 different ways. An intransitive verb such as "he/she is called such-and-such" could have about 430 different forms.

With such a flexible language, it is no wonder that Mik'maw allows for a lot of playfulness. Francis said a lot of Mik'maq humour is based on puns.

The animate and the inanimate forms sometimes differ between reserves. — Bernie Francis

So'qotemitaq, for example, not only can mean "he ran upstairs crying." But also "he vomited."

Francis said the language is full with such double meanings.

"I used to hear every time I saw a certain group of men, older men, standing around talking. I would immediately run to those people and stand next to them just so I can, you know, listen to them. And they will tease the bejesus out of one another about their language," Francis said.

"'He cut his fingers off' … could also mean 'his fingers blew off.' So someone could quickly say, 'oh my God, must have been a windy day.'"

A stress on relationship

Another key aspect of the language is that it's highly based on relations: Everything is spoken as it relates to something else, and many concepts can't be expressed in words unless these express that relationship.

"If you want to say ... 'father,' for example, it has to be possessed because in order to be a father, you have to have a son or daughter," Francis said.

"When the missionaries attempted to teach our people how to bless themselves as the Catholics do, 'in the name of the Father,' that was impossible to do because we just don't have the word. So they got around it by saying 'in the name of the Father who has a Son' (Ta'n teluisit wekwisit Niskam)."

Another distinction the language makes shows this emphasis in relations. "We inclusive" words include the speaker, the person they're spoken to as well as everything else around them.

Here's an example from the Mi'kmaw Grammar of Father Pacifique:

"In speaking of God they say: Kujjinu wa'so'q epit 'our Father (of all) who is in heaven'; in addressing him in prayer, they say (thereby excluding Him): Nujjinen wa'so 'q epin, 'our Father who art in heaven.' Likewise, in speaking of the priest among themselves, they say kujjinu pa'tlia 's; to him, nujjinen."

Words used for the concept of Creator such as Kisu'lkw (the one who created us) and Ankweyulkw (the one who looks after us) are we inclusive. As such they don't refer something which created a group of people, but someone that created all.

Animate vs. Inanimate

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

Just as many Indo-European languages make the grammatical distinction between masculine, feminine and neutral nouns, Mi'qmaw classifies words depending on whether they're animate or inanimate.

Humans and animals are animate (wogwis, fox; gopit, beaver; mimajuinu, person). Plants and other objects can be either (tap'tan, potato, is animate, whereas tmawey, tobacco, isn't).

"The animate and the inanimate forms sometimes differ between reserves. Like, I'm from Membertou, which is a small reserve in Sydney and a bus there is an inanimate object," he said.

"But if you go 30 miles down the road and you come upon a reserve called Eskasoni. Then you will … hear very quickly that a bus is only an animate object."

All these aspects may make learning Mi'kmaw seem daunting. But Francis said so is learning any other language.

"When I was studying Spanish ... I knew I had made a mistake because they were kind of snickering. I wanted to say, 'I'm so embarrassed,' you know? And I said 'embarazado' (I'm pregnant). So they kind of looked at me and said, 'no, I don't think that's possible, sir.' But you see what I mean? It was no big deal to me. They had a good laugh at my expense, but I didn't really care," Francis said.

"Don't worry about the mistakes because linguists such as myself ... say that if you want to learn a new language, you will have to massacre at first. And that's exactly how it works."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting