Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 17: Language and Culture (13-17)

Opinion: Can’t read c̓aləχʷəlenəx? For Indigenous Canadians, that’s a point of pride.

December 9, 2022
A school in Vancouver boasts a sign partially written in the Halkomelem language of the Musqueam people. (J.J. McCullough/The Washington Post)

Washington Post: By J.J. McCullough, Global Opinions contributing columnist

Is being forced to use the English alphabet to communicate basic information about yourself a form of cultural oppression? In Canada, this is a question that seems to be popping up more and more as Indigenous citizens — and in some cases, citizens of other non-European backgrounds — oppose using letters not their own.

For many Indigenous nations in Canada, these written versions of their languages were introduced only relatively recently, often by non-Indigenous linguists. Rather than create entirely new alphabets, many of these scholars pulled heavily from the special characters of European text. Accordingly, today many untranslated Indigenous Canadian words appear as a distinctive medley of Latin letters, numerals, punctuation marks, and niche symbols from math and phonics rarely seen outside academia.

In my home province of British Columbia, for instance, one of the major First Nations is the Musqueam, whose name is spelled “xʷməθkʷəy̓əm” in the written form of their Halkomelem language, which was developed by an American linguist in the 1970s. Authorities across the province have made Halkomelem writing — and the writing of other Indigenous nations — a familiar sight in recent years as part of a broader initiative to “decolonize” society. Not far from where I live is a school called šxʷwəq̓ʷəθət Crosstown Elementary (pronounced shwa-qua-set). The park I played in as a kid is now təmtəmíxʷtən/Belcarra Regional Park(tum-tum-ee-hw-tun).

Trouble arises, however, when use of these alphabets is seen not as a courtesy but as a right.

Earlier this year, a British Columbia woman belonging to the Squamish Nation, who wanted her daughter’s name to be written as “Alíla7” on her birth certificate, was told that names can’t contain numerals — reflecting the standard European understanding of what names should look like. Stories like these are becoming increasingly common across the country: a baby called “Sahaiʔa” in the Northwest Territories, a daughter named “Atetsenhtsén:we” in Selkirk, a woman wanting her surname to be spelled “H̓áust̓i” in Bella Bella — all told by some government official that names using unusual symbols won’t work on official documents.

The complainants express great outrage upon learning that this is the case — “It just blows my mind,” said the mother of Alíla7 — but the shock seems a tad disingenuous. To insist that a name appear on government forms in the glyphs of an Indigenous alphabet is clearly a political act, an attempt to reassert the presence of Indigenous culture in a society not organized around accommodating it. Canada’s ultra-assimilationist Indian residential schools were ruthlessly effective at helping reduce aboriginal languages to their fragile state today. A sense of historic justice can thus be found when a modern-day Indigenous person, in turn, undermines the dominance of “colonial languages.” If a White official struggles to read a name like “c̓aləχʷəlenəx” off a driver’s license, well, that’s kind of the point.

The question is whether this type of justice can be pursued broadly. Canadian society, after all, demands that people from all sorts of backgrounds abandon the alphabets of their heritage; a Korean-Canadian woman, for instance, might be called “Hyeon-Jeong” on her official documents, not “현정.” Asian-Canadians have been on the receiving end of countless racist assimilation initiatives over the course of Canadian history — does this mean that the state should now have to print their “real names” on social insurance cards and passports? During Vancouver’s recent municipal election, some Chinese- and Iranian-Canadian candidates insisted on having their names written on the ballot in the traditional characters of their languages, alongside Latin ones. “I was born with a Chinese name, it is a usual name that I use, and I was very shocked to find out that this would have been challenged,” said school board candidate 馬陳小珠 (aka “Suzie Mah”).

Call it the war on “alphabet privilege”: the idea that the characters and scripts used by a linguistic minority should be deformed into culturally blasphemous phonetic translations for the majority’s benefit.

To the extent that all translation requires one language to be subordinate to another — “giving English the power over the Spanish,” as Steven Spielberg put it, justifying his decision not to use subtitles in “West Side Story” — writing “Honieh Barzegari” instead of هانیه برزگری or “Squamish” instead of Sḵwx̱wú7mesh is an act of dominance. But language exists for reasons beyond demonstrations of cultural integrity. In multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural Canada, English (and its alphabet) has become a bridge of universal communication, a language increasingly divorced from the culture of England, but a tremendously useful tool for giving a diverse people some means of understanding one another.

The phonetic translation of names is but one way this is accomplished; when names from a language with a different alphabet are made broadly readable through the bridge language, barriers are brought down and understanding is deepened. We are reminded that a person’s most culturally particular identity can be made universally accessible, that no person is so alien as to be beyond comprehension.

But maybe that’s no longer the goal?