Work has taken place since the early 1990s to try and understand one of the most ‘complex languages on the planet,’ according to Language Program Coordinator Mélanie Morin with the Wit’suwit’en Language and Culture Society. She says they plan on publishing a Wit’suwit’en Dictionary in 2018 to help revitalise the language.
The first edition of 400 pages will only scratch the surface of the language that will translate into English, says Morin. She says orthography has been important to help capture sounds that English can’t. As an Athabascan language, Wit’suwit’en has about 48 forms of the same word, according to Morin.
“One letter can signify a pronoun or a possessive form. Because Wit’suwit’en is so descriptive, what appears to be a word can be an entire sentence,” says Morin. “The way that people try to write out the language, there’s a lot of sounds that are missing.”
Athabascan dialects can be found in swaths of land from Alaska to New Mexico, including neighbouring First Nations in the province.
Chair of the Founding Board of Directors Violet Gellenbeck, who’s been working on the dictionary from the start, says the connection between language and culture is imperative.
“You cannot know your land if you don’t know your language,” says Gellenbeck. “We’re not here today for ourselves, but we’ve been given this time to do the work for our great grandchildren so that they can survive on this land.”
Morin says they face financial hurdles in securing ongoing funding with a lot of funders wanting results on a short order. The end goal of the dictionary is to connect Wit’suwit’en people to their culture through language.
A recent survey aimed at gauging the number of fluent and non-fluent speakers in the area found that more education is needed in the classroom setting. Morin says they’re also holding language revitalization workshops in different communities from Hagwilget to Broman Lake to try and connect communities.
“Because for revitalization to happen (it) is going to require cooperation and support,” says Morin.
She says funding will also be needed for further research into the language to develop a more comprehensive dictionary after the first edition.
So far, 60 per cent of the first edition of the dictionary has been reviewed ahead of plans to publish next year.