June 5, 2012

Publication: The Language of this Land, Mi’kma’ki


Doug Smith (M.A. 1970, (Retired Instructor, Communications Department, University of the Fraser Valley) recently wrote to us with some memories and some news. In 1974 he was hired by the Micmac Association of Cultural Studies to help develop Mi'kmaw language studies and materials. Here is what he tell us about this experience.

In March, 2012 The Language of this Land, Mi’kma’ki  by Dr. Trudy Sable, Director of the Office of Aboriginal and Northern Research at the Gorsebrook ResearchInstitute, Saint Mary’s University  and Dr. Bernie Francis, distinguished Mi’kmaw linguist from Nova Scotia, was published by Cape Breton University Press.  Because of my involvement with Bernie in the linguistic analysis of Mi’kmaw and our joint development of an orthography in the ‘70s, my wife and I were invited to attend the book launches held at Membertou Reserve and Saint Mary’s University recently.  The Smith/Francis orthography has now been officially adopted by the Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia and is the one used in the above publication.  (In the ‘80s Bernie designated our writing system Francis/Smith to distinguish it from others but quickly tired of hearing “Who’s Francis Smith?”)
In 1974 Bernie and I were hired by the Micmac Association of Cultural Studies (MACS) whose board of directors was made up of all the chiefs of Nova Scotia.  Our primary mandate was to come up with an optimal writing system for contemporary Mi’kmaq, especially the young, to facilitate everyday reading and writing and the development of teaching materials for reserves and schools.  One consideration that weighed in heavily was that historically French had been the first European contact language, but in more recent times, English had become the primary ambient language. 
To start with we wanted to reassure everyone that we didn’t intend to replace the Fr. Pacifique writing system in which some Catholic texts had been translated and over the years taken on a scriptural value; on the other hand Fr. Pacifique’s orthography was not something modern Mi’kmaq would find easy to use, partly because of its “French look”, e.g., accent marks, and partly because it didn’t indicate vowel length and other significant phonemic distinctions. Fr. Pacifique had also produced a grammar, Leçons grammaticales théoriques et pratiques de la language micmaque (1938-39) on which linguist James Fidelholtz had based his doctoral thesis, Micmac morphophonemics (1968).  In 1990, a decade after I had left MACS, Bernie Francis and John Hewson (Memorial University) translated into English and retranscribed Fr. Pacifique’s Leçons… using the Smith/Francis orthography under the title The Micmac Grammar of Father Pacifique
A simultaneous dimension of our work involved the Mi’kmaq of Big Cove Reserve in New Brunswick and of Restigouche Reserve in eastern Quebec who were also keen to develop a modern practical orthography.  Because French is still commonly in use in these two provinces, they favored retaining much of Fr. Pacifique’s orthography.  Bernie and I drew the line there; still, there was an exhilarating though fleeting moment when all of us, I believe, sensed the beauty of a pan-Mi’kmaw writing system.  Alas, that wasn’t to happen until later.  Nevertheless, I still relish those animated heady days when Bernie and I, along with Emmanuel (Manny) Metallic, Albert (Don) DeBlois, Gilles Delisle Mildred Milliea, Gordon Francis, James Fidelholtz, and many other interested Mi’kmaq, explored the linguistic, orthographic, and political ramifications of what we were doing. Meanwhile, whenever Bernie and I weren’t involved in the larger issues, we were doing solid linguistic analysis and trying to resolve the many thorny issues on how to best represent the language given the allophonic idiosyncrasies, morphophonemics, dialects, registers, and the limitations of the typewriter.
After I left MACS ca. 1980, Bernie waged a one-man campaign to promote the orthography.  He travelled widely throughout Mi’kma’ki holding workshops, teaching the language, translating documents, composing documents anew, answering people’s questions, allaying anxieties and in every way proselytizing through example.  Thanks to his steadfast fearlessness and tireless efforts for over 30 years, Bernie Francis has succeeded in gaining acceptance of the current Smith/Francis orthography among the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia. And finally, thanks to Bernie’s teaching credit courses for teachers at Big Cove for McGill University and St. Thomas University, Big Cove has now adopted the Smith/Francis orthography; moreover, the Restigouche orthography has come to differ from ours in only a minor way.

Debert, N. S. Archeological Site.  Photo courtesy of Helena Bastedo
Submitted by Doug Smith April 19, 2012

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