Unknown Victoria

Victoria: The Unknown City is a guidebook to an eccentric town on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. This is the author's blog. Look here for Victoria lore, updates and additions to the book, and hate mail.


Friday, April 07, 2006

First Words

Unique cultures produce unique words. Victoria hasn’t contributed many to English aside from acronyms and bureaucratese (TFL, four-core), but there are literally thousands of them in the languages of the region’s First Nations. One special collection of them is in Saanich, North Straits Salish: Classified Word List, a 1991 book by linguist Timothy Montler. Over several months in the 1980s Montler interviewed elder Elsie Claxton, then the most knowledgeable speaker of “old-time Saanich,” because her parents had kept her out of English schools and given her a traditional education. Claxton taught Montler dozens of extraordinary Saanich words that have no direct equivalent in English, providing a deep sense of her people’s history and once-daily life.

Since the words had never been written out before, Montler copied them in the linguistically precise (but typographically maddening) International Phonetic Alphabet. Today they’re being rendered into SENĆOŦEN, the newly developed written form of the Saanich language, and will eventually be posted on FirstVoices, a website run by the First People’s Cultural Foundation. In the meantime, here are some examples of their English translations:

big salmon going upstream
in the open to the wind
sea-mammal burying ground
receive discipline from elder
river rising from rain (not tide)
get together with the like-minded
great-great-great-grandparent
follow the beach in a canoe
spouse of deceased sibling
get pinched by a crab
person who has lost all relatives
wish for a particular food


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