Word collecting

Posted on April 21st, 2010 in: 1

Karen Rabbitskin with curriculum she helped develop

Irene Carter raises her voice to speak to Karen Rabbitskin above the hum of the printer in the resource room at the immersion school at Onion Lake Cree Nation, five hours northwest of Saskatoon.

Carter is asking Rabbitskin what the word is for “print journalist.”

Rabbitskin thinks for a minute. She is sitting in front of her computer where she is working on a community dictionary.

Finally she has an answer: Nitōska kici masinahikewiskwēw. The one who seeks so that he/she can write.

New Cree words are being created all the time – and old ones revived – in this sunny room at the immersion school.

Often the new words are very long. They are describing what the thing is using existing words, Rabbitskin says. Sometimes describing complex processes can stretch several paragraphs.

The process of coming up with new words is also one that takes time. Rabbitskin and Brent Dillon, another curriculum developer, sit with local elders to develop new Cree words and to uncover old ones.

They call it word collecting. They sit down at a table with an object or a picture and the elders discuss what the best word would be to describe that thing.

“If we’re doing a science unit we bring in pictures of volcanoes, pictures of earthquakes, pictures of shapes, geometric shapes.”

“You have to meet the elders halfway to make yourself understood because a lot of the time their understanding of that concept is different from the western perspective. Sometimes we even show videos and they say, ‘Ohhhh’ and then say the word in Cree.”

Another challenge is finding ways to translate words that don’t have the same meaning in English. The word “Kaskaniktan” for example, is difficult to translate. She says the best way to explain it is ‘you killed the spirit of that thing or event.’ But she says even that is not explaining it properly.

Irene Carter and her colleagues translate English books to Plains Cree, create workbooks and stories, produce posters, signs, and charts for classroom walls. They even have math books in Cree.

Even though they have been working on curriculum for 10 years now, Carter says it’s a never-ending process.

“The language lives on because we are able to accompany the changes that are coming,” Carter says. “We’re able to describe them and put a name to them.”

Creating a dictionary

Rabbitskin has produced a draft of Onion Lake’s first community dictionary. It’s a massive job. The idea is to compile all Cree words used by people at Onion Lake First Nation.

Carter explains that even though other communities use the same dialect, they have different sayings and sound systems.

“We don’t have fish here so our words for fish are different here than in La Ronge where they have lots of fish in their community,” she says. “We have four seasons here, but some places in the north they have six seasons.”

Brian MacDonald, former director of education of Kihew Waciston, is revising the community dictionary for spelling and pronunciation. It’s about 100 pages.

He says some words Rabbitskin has included in the dictionary are not common in Onion Lake.

“If our word is different from how they say it, I will add on our word, and probably keep her word on there.”

One example is the word for bear. MacDonald says he grew up with bear as wākayos meaning something that walks bent over. The old word for bear is maskwa – that was the original word from way back, he says, but he didn’t know that.

A two-volume general Cree dictionary was published in 2001 by Arok Wolvengrey, professor at the First Nations University of Canada, himself a second-language learner of Cree. The dictionary has 15,000 Cree to English translations and 35,000 English to Cree translations.

Keren Rice, linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, has worked on dictionaries for the Dene language in the Northwest Territories. She says for indigenous languages like Cree, an online Wikipedia-style encyclopedic dictionary might work well, because numerous people can edit an entry and there can be detailed descriptions of the origin and stories behind each word.

Many Cree speakers say they often use a mixture of Cree and English. English words are seldom included in aboriginal language dictionaries, Rice says, even if indigenous language users regularly substitute English words.

“I think that a lot of times people who make dictionaries are very conservative,” she says. “So they wouldn’t really want an English word that was being used.”

She says there are two types of language mixing: one is where you speak in your mother tongue and you substitute a foreign word and it sounds like the foreign word. The other kind are loan words that come from another language that are adapted into your first language.

“People tend to put established loan words into dictionaries, but would they put in the English word that has not been adapted to fit the language? Conservatively, probably not, but should they be in there? Probably they should be, because that’s what the language is. But I think that a lot of times what people see is the language as this kind of construct that was once spoken but isn’t really what the language is now.”

MacDonald says it is difficult coming up with a standardized version of the language given regional differences, and the desire to keep the language relevant to the community.


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Words for the future

A two-volume general Cree dictionary was published in 2001 by Arok Wolvengrey, professor at the First Nations University of Canada, himself a second-language learner of Cree.

The dictionary has 15,000 Cree to English translations and 35,000 English to Cree translations.

There are three Cree dialects spoken in Saskatchewan - swampy Cree, plains Cree, and woods Cree.

But every community has its own words, phrases, and pronunciations, making it difficult, some say, to standardize the language.

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