About Jessica

Jessica Coon grew up in Oregon, went to graduate school at MIT, and began in 2011 as an assistant professor in the linguistics department at McGill University. In addition to her new love of Algonquian languages, Jessica leads an alternate life as a Mayanist.

Idle No More and Canada’s Languages

The grassroots Idle No More movement is gaining momentum across Canada. In Listuguj, supporters have blocked and slowed highway traffic and set up blockades at the railroad tracks at Pointe-à-la-Croix to prevent freight trains from passing through. The Mi’gmaq Grand Council recently issued a letter in support of the movement, calling on Canada to respect Mi’gmaq Constitutional and treaty rights. This afternoon, the Van Horne bridge will be closed for a peaceful march, and Listuguj Chief Dean Vicaire will travel to Ottawa to meet with Stephen Harper as part of a delegation of First Nations Leaders.

Vicky Metallic holds a sign at the Van Horne bridge, also pictured on the banner of this blog

Much of the discussion surrounding Idle No More focuses on the Harper Government’s policies on natural resources––and specifically on Bill C-45. But Montreal-based blogger âpihtawikosisân points out that the movement is about more than land and water rights: it is about the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples more generally.

How does language factor in to all of this? In 1951, 87% of Aboriginal people in Canada spoke an Aboriginal languages as their first language. By 1986 this number had dropped to 29% (Burnaby & Beaujot 1986). At current rates of decline, it is predicted that only four of what were once sixty Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada will survive into the next century (UBC 1996).

These languages have not simply fallen out of use. Rather, their decline began in large part with targeted assimilation efforts by the Canadian Government and churches, specifically in the form of Residential Schools. Residential school attendance was mandatory for Aboriginal children between 1884 and 1948, and the last school did not close until 1996. During this period, some 150,000 children were removed from their homes and forced to stop speaking their languages––often at the threat of physical violence. By forcing children to stop speaking their languages, Residential Schools attempted to take away more than just a means of communication:

If you take a language away from its culture, you take away its greetings, its curses, its praises, its laws, its literature, its songs, its riddles, its proverbs, its cures, its wisdom, its prayers. You are losing those things that essentially are the way of life, the way of thought, the way of valuing, and a particular human reality (Fishman 1996).

Though some steps towards reconciliation have been made, a lot of work is still needed to bring these languages back to their communities.

Given the importance of language to cultural identity, it is no surprise that languages have played an important role in indigenous movements worldwide. Across Canada, advances are being made by community-driven language reclamation efforts. This momentum can be seen clearly in Listuguj. In addition to the Mi’gmaq language classes and immersion program being offered at the Listuguj Education Directorate, a number of other community efforts are underway. See the links under “About this project” above to learn more about  the Can-8 language-learning software and the new Master-Apprentice Program currently being piloted in Listuguj.

Pacifique’s conjugation 6: “Transitive animate”

The long-awaited “transitive animate” paradigm! To figure out how to conjugate a form, find the person of the subject by going down to the left-side column to find the right row; next move over to the column for the object you want. For example, a first person exclusive subject (13) acting on a second person plural object (2PL)––e.g. for “We saw you guys”––gets the ending -ulneg.

↓ Subj / Obj→ 1 13 12 2 2PL 3 3PL
1 (refl) X X -ul -ulnoq -(V)’g -(V)’gig
13 X (refl) X -ulneg -ulneg -(Ve)g’t -(Ve)g’jig
12 X X (refl) X X -ugg -uggwig
2 -i’lin -i’lieg X (refl) X -(V)’t -V’jig
2PL -i’lioq -i’lieg X X (refl) -(V)oq -(V)oqig
3 -i’lit -ugsieg -ugsi’gw -(V)’sg -ugsioq (refl) X
3PL -i’lijig -ugsieg -ugsi’gwig -(V)’sgig -ugsioq X (refl)

Before we get into the patterns themselves, a few points should be made: diagonally from top right to lower left you see cells marked “(refl)” for “reflexive”; these forms will get a special marking, not included here. In addition to the reflexive forms, there are certain cells that are impossible. Note that these are cells where features “overlap”. Meaning, if there is a first person specified anywhere in the subject, it can’t be anywhere in the object; same for second person. This rules out forms like “You all saw you”, and “We saw us”. In Mi’gmaq, third persons can act on third persons, but this is where obviation comes into play, which we will save for a future post.

Also, note that some forms begin with either a -(V) for vowel or a -(Ve). With a stem like nemi- “see”, the final vowel is kept in the stem when the (V) appears, but dropped elsewhere. For example: nemul “I see you”, but nemi‘g “I see him”. In other verb forms, the vowel doesn’t appear. Take taqam- “hit”: taqamul “I hit you” and taqam‘g “I hit him”. It would be interesting if we could find regularities here.

(I should preface what I am about to write by saying: the next part might be fun for people interesting in finding patterns here. That said, understanding all of it isn’t necessary to being able to use these forms! However, if you are interested and something I’ve written is unclear or just plain wrong, please post comments.)

Looking now more carefully at the table above, some basic patterns emerge. First, we can assign feature values to morphemes (pieces) as follows:

-i’li – 1 object; -ul(n) – 2 object; -a – 3 object; -ugsi – “participant” plural object; -eg – 13; -gw – 12; -oq – 2PL; -ig – 3PL; -n – 2 subject; -t – 3 subject

Now how do we figure out how to put all of these together? Though it becomes more clear in the negative forms (to be posted), we can think of these as involving 2 slots, plus an additional slot if there is a third person plural involved. So we can think of our template as looking roughly like this:

Verb – Slot1 – Slot2 – (3PL)

The first step is to figure out what goes in slot 1; this is the easier slot, because we can basically just think of it as object agreement: see the object forms listed above. A couple of tricks apply here. -i’li is triggered if a first person is part of the object, including first person plural; this means that a 13 object gets -i’li in a 2>13 form like -i’lieg. However, if we find a third person subject acting on a participant plural object (12, 13, or 2PL), we get -ugsi in the first slot. Finally, note that in the 3rd person object cases, we don’t always see the -a. It will show up for us in negated forms though.

Next step: what goes in slot 2? Well, if no participant plural morphemes are involved, life is easy: just agree with the subject––note that the subject agreement forms (-n and -t) look familiar from the VAI paradigm. This means that a form like nemi’lin “You see me” can be straightforwardly broken down into nemi-i’li-n: see-1obj-2subj. Also as in the VAI paradigm, there is no clear subject agreement marker; rather, a 1st person subject is indicated by the absence of marking, as in the form nem-ul “I see you”, where we only have agreement with the second person object.

If plural participants (again, 12, 13, or 2PL) are involved as either the subject or the object, they will occupy the second slot. If a first person plural is involved anywhere, the second slot will agree with it (-gw for 12, -eg for 13). If neither of these is involved, agree with second plural, -oq. This means that sometimes the subject will not get to realize any of its features. Take for example 1>2PL, “I saw you”: nem-uln-oq. First we have the stem, then we have second person agreement with the object (-uln), then we have second person plural agreement again with the object (-oq). First person is nowhere to be found. (Why isn’t this form ambiguous? Remember, if a 3rd person subject is acting on a local plural object, you get a special object form -ugsi in slot one.)

Finally, note that almost all forms involving 3PL––whether in the subject  or object––end in -ig, and this appears outside of the second slot. (Remember that [t] turns into [j] before an [i], accounting for alternations like -it/-ijig.) Interestingly, this morpheme also comes outside of tense when tense is involved. Negation also intervenes between the 1st and 2nd agreement slots, making it clear that these really are separable. A full template, which needs more work, looks like this:

Verb – Slot1 – (Neg) – Slot2 – (Past) – (3PL)

Lots remains to be worked out! In some cases some unclear sound changes take place, but again, stay tuned for negative forms to see the pattern described above a bit more clearly. That said, everything here is subject to revision––please don’t hesitate to post comments, questions, or suggestions.

Some particular questions:

  • What is -ugsi? It seems like it can also be used in VAI forms, and is listed in Pacifique as a passive morpheme in some contexts. Is it possible that the -ugsi forms are really passives?
  • Some speakers dislike -ig endings for 3 plural subjects when a plural object is also involved––is there a pattern here? Do some sound worse than others with -ig?

A question for discussion

Laura, a blog-reader from the Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation, writes with the following question, which I would love to open up for discussion:

 I would like to know some ways that your group is encouraging speaking of the language.  Our biggest challenge is getting our people, young and old, to have the courage to actually speak it.  They are too afraid to make a mistake and get embarrassed, even my own children.

For our collaborators in Listuguj: do you see a similar problem there? For everyone: what are ways we can facilitate speaking? How can we help create safe spaces where people can practice speaking, without worrying about feeling embarrassed? What are strategies other readers have used to overcome feeling embarrassed when learning a new language? What can fluent speakers to to help?

Pacifique’s conjugations 4–5: “Transitive inanimate”

The 4th and 5th conjugations provided in Father Pacifique’s grammar are for “transitive inanimate” verbs. This means verbs that take both a subject and an object, but the object belongs to the category of inanimate nouns.

These stems fall into two main groups: in the 4th conjugation, stems end in a consonant and are then followed by [m]. Frequently the final two consonants in the conjugated forms are [tm], as in nestm- “to understand (something inanimate)”, but we also find others such as [lm] in pegawatelm- “to buy (something inanimate)”, [gm] as in ewi’gm- “to write (something inanimate)”, and te’pm- “to deserve (something inanimate)”. Stems of the 5th conjugation end in [tu]. I’ve separated the [m] and the [tu] out in the paradigms for each below.

In the tables below, the forms with singular objects are in the first column, the forms with plural objects are in the second column. For example mena’tu’n is “You remove it (inanimate)”, while mena’tu’nn is “You remove them (inanimate)”. Note that while Pacifique provides a distinction between dual and plural subjects, as in VAI, speakers we have consulted prefer to make only a singular/plural distinction with most of these forms.

Beginning with the 4th conjugation, we see that endings here after the [m] are very similar to those in the VAI conjugations, with a few exceptions. In the first person singular, we find the suffix -an appearing in the plural. Based on some other work, it seems likely that this is the first person suffix, and it perhaps does not appear in most contexts. Note that in the third person singular we find a final [g] rather than the [t]––we will see other places where [t] and [g] alternate in the 3rd singular. Note also that in the 3rd person singular the [m] final does not appear. The 3rd person dual is also different: [-ijig] in VAI, but [-i’tij] here.

TI “4th conjugation”: nest-m- “to understand (something inanimate)”

 ↓ Subj / Obj → singular plural
1 -m -m-an-n
13 -m-eg -m-eg-l
12 -m-u’gw -m-u’gw-l
2 -m-n -m-n-n
2PL -m-oq -m-oq-l
3 -’g -’g-l
3PL -m-i’tij -m-i’tit-l

Turning to the 5th conjugation we again see familiar suffixes after the [tu], but again some surprises. Note here that the third singular is [-toq]. We also find the [u] of [tu] lengthened in some forms––looks like before consonants?

TI “5th conjugation”: mena’-t- “to remove (something inanimate)”

↓ Subj / Obj → singular plural
1 -tu -tu-an-n
13 -tu-eg -tu-eg-l
12 -tu-‘gw -tu-‘gw-l
2 -tu-‘n -tu-‘n-n
2PL -tu-oq -tu-oq-ol
3 -t-oq -t-oq-ol
3PL -tu-‘tij -tu-‘tij-l

More examples of each conjugation can be found in Pacifique––also note, there is a new version of the Francis and Hewson translation, available here. As with the first three conjugations, it would be interesting to know if there is a way of predicting if a stem belongs to the 4th or 5th group––both clearly involve [t]. Pacifique also notes that for most forms in the 5th paradigm, there is no distinct negative form (negation also involves a [u]). As always, we welcome your comments, additions, and corrections!

Pacifique’s conjungations 1–3: “Animate Intransitive”

Alan and I spent some time this past week working through the “conjugations” given in Pacifique (Hewson & Francis 1990 translation). Below is the first installment: the first three conjugations, or the “animate intransitives” (we checked most of these over, but please correct us if you see we’ve transcribed something wrong).

First a few background notes, which will be relevant for the rest of the paradigms as well. “Intransitive” verbs are those that have just a subject, like “I danced” or “Mary slept”, not a subject and an object as in “I read the book.” These are “animate” intransitives because the subject must be animate. In Mi’gmaq, as in other Algonquian languages, “animate” is a grammatical category (comparable to “feminine” and “masculine” in French). Humans and animals are generally animate, but so are bottles and potatoes. Each of the forms below involves a single animate participant. Stay tuned for wiki info on animacy; a different conjugation will be given for intransitives with inanimate subjects.

The paradigms below have are in the form of this first table, where I’ve given English versions of the “person” and “number” distinctions. Note that Mi’gmaq makes two distinctions not found in English. Where as English distinguishes between singular (one) and plural (more than one), Mi’gmaq makes a three-way distinction: singular (one), dual (two), and plural (more than two). Mi’gmaq also distinguishes different kinds of first person in the dual and plural forms (forms equivalent to “we”). In English, if I say “we” I could be referring to me and someone else in the discourse (“yesterday when you weren’t here, we went to the store”), or to me and the listener, and possibly others (“we have a lot of work to do, let’s go!”). In Mi’gmaq the first kind is the “exclusive” (excluding the listener), while the second is called the “inclusive” (including the listener). Finally, because Mi’gmaq encodes the information about the subject on the verb, an overt noun or pronoun is not necessary (compare Spanish). More on this in a separate post.

singular dual plural
1st person(excl)  I we (two, not you) we (plural, not you)
1st person(incl) we (two, including you) we (plural, including you)
2nd person you you guys (two) you guys (plural)
3rd person he, she, it them (two) them (plural)

Now for the paradigms. These paradigms are helpful because once you know one form of a given verb, you know the others. For example, if you hear [amalgai] “I dance”, you know that “they (pl) dance” will be [amalga’tijig]. Furthermore, note that while these are listed as three different conjugations, you don’t actually need to memorize three different paradigms. Instead, the main difference between the three forms is the first vowel: no vowel in 1, [a] in 2, and [e] in 3 (if you know Spanish, you can think of these as being comparable to -ar, -er, and -ir verbs; comparable distinction in French). So you just have to memorize the endings in the first paradigm, the others will be the same with the addition of the initial “stem vowel”, with one of important difference: In the first conjugation, if you compare the dual and plural columns, you see that plural involves the addition of [-ult]. In the second and third conjugations, the [u] is dropped. In the second conjugation, the stem vowel is lengthened: [-a’t]. In the third conjugation, a reduced vowel (represented with the apostrophe) is present [-‘t].

One more helpful thing to note is that the sound [t] frequently becomes [j] before a vowel. This means that the difference between the 3rd person singular [-it] and the third person plural [-ijig] can be thought of as the addition of the plural marker [-ig] plus the sound change: [-it-ig] becomes [-ijig]. We will see the [-ig] marking plural elsewhere in the language.

VAI “1st conjugation”: teluis- “to be named”

singular dual plural
1st person(excl) -i -ieg -ultieg
1st person(incl) -i’gw -ulti’gw
2nd person -in -ioq -ultioq
3rd person -it -ijig -ultijig

VAI – “2nd conjugation”; amalg- “to dance”; alangu- “to shop”; a’sutm- “to pray”; gaqnm- “to be out of things”

singular dual plural
1st person(excl) -ai -aieg -a’t-ieg
1st person(incl) -aigw -a’ti’gw
2nd person -an -aioq -a’tioq
3rd person -at -ajig -a’tijig

VAI – “3rd conjugation”; ewi’gig- “to write”

singular dual plural
1st person(excl) -ei -eieg -’tieg
1st person(incl) -eigw -’ti’gw
2nd person -en -eioq -’tioq
3rd person -et -ejig -’tijig

McGill team: could someone take charge of getting this up on the wiki? The Pacifique grammar also gives more examples of each conjugation, which would be helpful to have, and could be worked into CAN8 lessons. The verb forms should be checked over with a speaker, and let’s try to include more frequently used verbs, or verbs that will be useful in everyday conversation. Eventually we’ll want to put up at least negative and past forms––maybe in tables hyper-linked from this one.

Mi’gmaq speakers: please add comments if you see mistakes or can think of any helpful examples or frequently used verbs.

44th Algonquian Conference, call for papers

The call has been posted for the 44th Algonquian Conference, which will be held at the University of Chicago’s Gleacher Center, in downtown Chicago, October 25-28, 2012.

This conference is an international meeting for researchers to present papers on Algonquian peoples. Fields of interest include anthropology, archaeology, art, education, ethnography, ethnobotany, folklore, geography, history, language education, linguistics, literature, music, native studies, political science, psychology, religion and sociology.

We invite proposals in English, French, or any Algonquian language for papers in all areas of Algonquian research. Graduate students are encouraged to apply. Presentations will be 20 minutes long followed by a 10-minute question period. Abstracts should be no more than 300 words in length, excluding title and references.

The deadline for abstract submission is September 1st. Details for how to submit are here. Please note that this is not a linguistics-specific conference. We could, for example, think about putting together a collaborative CAN-8 related abstract. Something to keep in mind this summer!

(Fun with) Mi’gmaq verb conjugations

We now have an electronic searchable English translation of Father Pacifique’s 1939 grammar Leçons grammaticales théoriques et pratiques de la langue micmaque, available in the group Dropbox folder (add a comment if you’d like access). He describes 7 main verb conjugations in Mi’gmaq, which you can find linked from the table of contents.

I think those of us who started working on the language last term realize by now that verbs fall into different groups, which result in different inflection, but we haven’t been talking consistently about this. Let’s try to prioritize getting this up on the wiki: a “verb conjugations” page, divided into different sections, with paradigms and examples in each. It will be some work up front, but we can divide it up and I think will save time in the long run so each person isn’t trying to figure out the same thing on their own––and asking our patient consultant the same questions. Let’s also find a consistent table format to use for transitive and intransitive paradigms, to make them easier to compare.

Those who will be at the McGill meeting on Monday: please try to at least skim the relevant parts (“Lessons 9–28″) so we have a sense what we’re looking at and what will need to be done.

Bilingualism and the brain

Check out today’s New York Times for an article titled “The Benefits of Bilingualism: Why Bilinguals are Smarter“.

What does this have to do with Mi’gmaq? Many endangered languages of the world––including languages of the Americas––have arrived at their current state because of education policies designed to “help” children assimilate to the dominate culture, whether this be English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, French-speaking, etc. The logic went (and often still goes…): if a child speaks Mi’gmaq at home, it will slow down her ability to learn English, putting her at a disadvantage later in life.

Work in recent decades, as discussed in this NYT article, points to a much different conclusion, but one that many people have suspected all along: bilingualism is good for kids! Not only from a cultural point of you, but also from a cognitive point of view. This is obviously good news for advocates of revitalizing indigenous languages. The issue is not a choice between maintaining one’s cultural heritage and linguistic identity versus being able to communicate in the dominant language. Rather, having access to two languages is not only a natural state, but one with clear benefits.

Question: Do you know of other work documenting the benefits––cognitive, cultural, political, etc.––of bilingualism? Please post to the comments!

Three days of Algonquian at McGill

This week the McGill linguistics department is very pleased to host two visitors: Mary Ann Metallic (Listuguj Education Directorate) and Conor Quinn (University of Southern Maine). In addition to smaller meetings and group meetings, we will have a couple of special events, below, and a colloquium at the end of the week by current McGill Post-doc, Tanya Slavin. More information will be available Monday on this week’s McLing digest.

3:00–4:00, room 117: Ling-Tea presentation – Conor Quinn “Applicative and antipassive: Algonquian transitive “stem-agreement” as differential object marking”

10:00–11:30, room 117: Algonquian Reading Group – Conor Quinn “Deriving pronominal feature structures through asymmetrical dependencies: obviation, inverse, and antihierarchy effects in Algonquian languages”

4:00–7:30, room 002: Algonquian Mini Workshop – presentations by Michael Hamilton, Bethany Lochbihler, Jenny Loughrain, Elise McClay, Yuliya Manyakina, and Gretchen McCulloch

3:00–5:00, Leacock 14: Colloquium – Tanya Slavin “Deriving Object Experiencer verbs in Ojicree”