The following is adapted and abridged from Honoré Watanabe, “A Note on the Sliammon Language,” in Written as I Remember It: Teachings (Ɂəms tɑɁɑw) from the Life of a Sliammon Elder, by Elsie Paul, Paige Raibmon, and Harmony Johnson (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014), xiii–xxii.
The Sliammon language is Elsie Paul’s mother tongue. It is one of ten languages that make up the Coast Salish branch of the greater Salish language family.
There are twenty-three Salish languages altogether, most of them with further dialectal variations. Salish languages have many unique sounds as well as rich and complex systems for word and sentence formation that have intrigued linguists for more than a century. Sadly, four of the Salish languages have already lost all their speakers, and the rest of the languages are highly endangered. This is a consequence of, above all else, the residential school system, a topic discussed by Elsie.
The Name of the Language
The language that Elsie speaks is referred to in this book as “Sliammon.” Determining the most appropriate name for it is not a simple issue. Two other peoples, the Homalco and the Klahoose, speak essentially the same dialect as the ɬaʔamin people. All three of these peoples historically lived on the mainland of British Columbia. Some speakers have stated that there are slight differences among the speech of the three peoples; however, no systematic research has been conducted on this issue, and it is now hard to determine for certain because so few speakers of the language are left. For the present purposes, it will be convenient to refer to Elsie’s dialect as the “Mainland” dialect, as there is no other cover term for it. Another dialect of the same language, referred to as “Island Comox,” was spoken on Vancouver Island by the Island Comox people; however, this dialect has no living speakers. Linguistic research clearly shows that the Mainland dialect and Island Comox are distinct dialects of the same language. (For example, the Mainland dialect has a th sound, as in English “thin,” whereas Island Comox does not. Wherever there is a th sound in the former dialect, the latter has an s sound.) The Sliammon language has sometimes been called “Comox” in technical literature. However, “Comox” is not the term the ɬaʔamin people prefer because it is also the name of a town on Vancouver Island where an entirely different First Nations people reside. Some ɬaʔamin, Homalco, and Klahoose people call the language “ʔayʔaǰuθəm,” which also means “to speak well.” “ɬaʔaminqin” ([ɬaʔamɩnqɛn]), literally “Sliammon-mouth/language,” is sometimes, but not often, used to refer to the Sliammon language.
Differences between Sliammon and English
Translating between two languages is notoriously difficult, particularly when the two languages are as radically different as the two Elsie uses, Sliammon and English. Even though Elsie is fully fluent in English, she describes how she sometimes struggles to convey her thoughts, ideas, and especially the traditional teachings in English. Elsie often says that there is just no way to accurately translate from Sliammon to English.
The differences in pronunciation explained above are only the beginning. The following is a very brief sketch of how different these two languages are.
In English, the verb is generally placed either in the middle of a sentence (e.g., “John loves Mary”) or at the end (e.g., “The man ran”). In Sliammon, it comes at the beginning; for example, “hu ‿č” is literally “go I,” meaning “I go.”
Meaning of Words
The meanings of certain words in English do not correspond to any words in Sliammon and vice versa. Elsie’s narratives told in Sliammon are full of concepts that require explanation using multiple English words. For example, “qiqtiʔ”means “youngest child of a family,” and “hiwtaɬ” means “eldest child of a family” (this is the traditional name of Elsie’s eldest son, Glen), whereas “children of a family” is “təgixʷaɬ.” There is also a word that refers to the children in the middle, “čuxʷčuxʷ.” Another example is “hiqiθut,” which means “to pull out into water (in canoe or boat)”; in contrast, “ɬayiš” means “to go toward shore, come ashore.”
Words that reflect particular objects or acts in ɬaʔamin culture likewise cannot always be translated in a word or two but call for longer explanations. Many such words are, of course, culturally important. The word “suhuθut” is a good example. It is commonly translated as something like “to perform the traditional ritual on oneself,” but its meaning is actually more specific. The ɬaʔamin people used to wake up before sunrise and go into a nearby river, and then, as the sun rose, breathe out, blowing air out hard toward the sun several times. When doing so, one’s hands are held to each side of the mouth, and then in one motion, the arms are stretched out forward as if throwing one’s breath toward the sun. This ritual has been practised with the belief that it would get rid of illness or maintain health, both physically and spiritually. It used to be practised even during winter; small children and elderly people alike would make their way into an icy river every morning at the crack of dawn. Clearly more than a few English words are required to convey the meaning of “suhuθut.” For practical reasons, including space and accessibility, however, I have compressed this and many other words into short English phrases. But readers should be aware that much of the real meaning of many words – what they mean for Elsie – is almost entirely lost in translation.
Word formation in Sliammon is also quite different from English. For example, when Elsie began to speak about losing one of her children, she used the word “manʼa-ʔuɬ” before she explained the incident. This word is composed of “manʼa,” “child,” and a suffix that indicates the past, “-ʔuɬ.” This suffix can attach to verbs to indicate past tense, as seen in numerous passages in the narratives, but when it is attached to nouns, it indicates “something or someone of past” – hence meaning “deceased” when attached to words that refer to people. Elsie could have simply said “man’a,” but the use of this suffix immediately foreshadows the death of the child to the listener. Later in the same narrative, the same suffix is found in “čičiyaʔ-uɬ,” “deceased grandmother.”
Another example of word formation in the Sliammon language is “čaɬ-aya,” “three people.” Here, a suffix that means “people,” “-aya,” is attached to the root “čaɬ,” which means “three.” (The numeral “three” is “čalas,” but its form changes when “-aya” is attached.) “Four people” is “mus-aya” (“mus” is “four”); “five people” is “θiyits-aya” (“θiyičis” is “five”). There are other suffixes for counting different concepts or objects. For example, “-us” – “face, head, round object” is attached to numerals when counting money (dollars) or months: “čalas-us” – “three dollars, three months;” “mus-us” – “four dollars, four months;” – “θiyits-us” – “five dollars, five months;” etc. Yet another example is “-igiɬ,” “canoe”: “čalas-igiɬ” – “three canoes,” “mus-igiɬ” – “four canoes,” etc. It is important to keep in mind that although these words are written here with hyphens, they are all single words. The suffixes cannot be used by themselves, just like the English “-er” in “teach-er,” “play-er,” etc.
Verbs in Sliammon can be quite simple (such as “hu,” “go”), but they can also be quite complex. Let us take another look at our earlier example, “hə-hkʷ-ayʼ-itʼᶿa,” “to be hanging clothes.” Again, this is one word composed of the prefix “hə-,” the root “hkʷ” (or “həkʷ”), and two suffixes, “-ayʼ” and “-itʼᶿa.” None of these pieces of the word can be used by itself. The last suffix, “-itʼᶿa,” means “clothes,” but there is another word that means “clothes” that can be used by itself (“ʔiʔagikʼʷ”). Elsie could have used a different verb form without the suffix, that is, “hə-hkʷ-ət,” “hanging it/them”; however, she chose to include “-itʼᶿa” in the verb. Presumably, this is because clothes are not the central issue in the story, so the concept did not need to be expressed overtly by an independent word.
All the characteristics of Sliammon described here represent but a glimpse of the very rich, complex, and systematic nature of its grammar.