Foundation for Endangered Languages

Home | Manifesto | Membership details | Proceedings | Grant Applications | Newsletter | Links | Bibliography


10. Book Review

Maurais, Jacques (editor). 1991. Quebec’s Aboriginal Languages : History, Planning and Development. Reviewed by Jessica Payeras, Université du Québec à Montréal

Publisher - Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

During the last decades, there has been a marked decline in the vitality of aboriginal languages all over the world. This comes as no surprise as most of the records show among other facts that languages originally spoken in pre-colonial times in the Americas have considerably been reduced for several reasons. Besides, it is very risky to depend on statistics because each researcher uses different methods to count how many aboriginal languages still survive.

In Canada and particularly in Quebec, the public’s attention has historically been more concerned with the danger of the survival of French in a dominant English-speaking environment. An unfortunate result has been that the richness of Quebec’s aboriginal linguistic diversity, striving to resist total disappearance, has been seriously overlooked.

Jacques Maurais’s book Quebec’s Aboriginal Languages : History, Planning and Development comes to us like fresh air in the defence of Quebec’s aboriginal languages. This 334-page book provides clear and practical solutions to the problems encountered by many languages around the world. Besides this already difficult task, the book gives a very clear description of the syntax, morphology and phonology of these languages. This very useful information for linguists is presented with all the additional sources clearly indicated.

What’s so original about this book? In this book, part of Quebec’s cultural heritage comes to the reader like a three-dimensional picture. The book is a collection of articles by Quebec’s leading researchers, historians, teachers and everyday life aboriginals. A plethora of information is presented in a very organized way to facilitate the reader’s comprehension of the real problems that Quebec’s aboriginal population faces. Moreover the practical solutions presented in this book are potetially viable elsewhere.

The book has three main parts. The first part (chapters 1 to 3) deals with the description of the linguistic situation of aboriginal languages in the Americas. In this part, the geographical, historical and legal account of aboriginal languages are also reviewed. This information is vital as it prepares the reader to deal with the more specific issues than will come later on in the book.

Different authors like Jacques Maurais, Louis-Jacques Dorais and François Trudel deal with different sub-topics such as the history of the relation of aboriginal languages with European languages, the history of language repression and the legal protection granted to some languages making a special mention of Quebec’s and Canada’s governments’ policies. Some of these policies seem to be in the right direction of the protection of these languages. One such example is presented in Chapter 3. For example, the Quebec Cultural Development Policy which clearly stipulates three principles to be respected in any situation :
1. the right of the aboriginal populations to freely determine their own development ;
2. their right to government assistance and,
3. their responsibility for bringing into being the institutions and strategies suitable for their own development.

(François Trudel, The Aboriginal Policies of the Canadian and Quebec Governments, p. 109)

The second part of the book can be labelled the linguistic section. Here linguists have directed their attention to diverse aspects of Mohawk, Montagnais, Inuktitut. Several points are worth pointing out. First of all, each linguist gives special attention to the particular field in linguistic he or she is interested in. Secondly, the descriptions have been carried out as concrete as possible, facilitating enormously the various readers, not necessarily all in linguistics. This effort is worth pointing out. Thirdly, each contributor presents their work in their own style, giving the book a real sense of a shared effort.

Marianne Mithun gives a brief but complete description of what Mohawk is like. The author deals with various aspects about the phonology, morphology and general formation of discourse in this aboriginal language. It is rather interesting to learn of certain complexities of this language like the nature of the pronoun system. For instance, there are separate and different forms for the agents and the recipients of the actions. Let us take the verb “to feed” for example. There are several forms for the following pronoun relationships : I fed you, I fed you too, I fed you all, I fed her/it, I fed him, I fed him, I fed her/someone/them (Mithun, Marianne, The Mohawk Language, p. 166).

Danielle Cyr deals with Montagnais in the next chapter. She starts by introducing the complex morphology of this polysynthetic aboriginal language. As an example of this process, the author gives forms such as «tashkamassetshipanu» to indicate ‘s/he flies across the swamp’. The rich morphology also indicates the manner, i.e. who performs and who receives a specific action. With respect to its phonology, Montagnais is described as having nine consonants and seven vowels. Montagnais morphology is characterized by a generous usage of prefixes, affixes and suffixes which are very productive. The syntax allows certain variation in the word order. The author nevertheless explains the speakers’ « preferred » tendencies. The rest of the chapter deals with the description with what a Montagnais child has to learn in the process of language acquisition. This knowledge is not restrained to the grammar components of the language but also involves the pragmatics and cultural aspects of language use such as the concern for certitude, precision and honesty in communication.

In the next chapter, Ronald Lowe deals with Inuktitut. The author clarifies that the term ‘Inuktitut’ is frequently used to refer to the Eskimo language. However, the extension of the term is not at all equivalent as the Inuit people of Eastern Canadian Artic refer to this language as Inuktitut but they have specific terms for their other languages : Inuinnaqtun (Central Artic), Inuvialuktun (Western Artic), Iñupiatun (Alaska), Inuttut (Labrador and Natsilik areas) and Kalaallisut (Greenland), (Lowe, Ronald, Grammatical Sketches: Inuktitut, p. 231, footnote 1).

This chapter is the longest of the linguistic descriptions in the book. In it, the author gives a detailed account of what Inuktitut is opposing it as much as possible to the characteristics of the Indo-European languages. This chapter begins with a revision of the phonology, the relationship between morphology and syntax and lexical morphology (structure of the Inuktitut word, word bases, lexical suffixes, grammatical suffixes, event-expressing words and enclitic suffixes).

The third part of the book, The Future of Aboriginal Languages, comes next. This is probably the section that makes this book so different from other books dealing with the issue of aboriginal languages. In this part, the contributors themselves are aboriginal language speakers who express their feelings and attitudes towards their native languages. Other aboriginal books tend to focus in a much too narrow view on linguistic studies or historical accounts of aboriginal languages. It is in this section of the book where the aboriginal language and culture seems to come alive. The objective of the chapter clearly shows this :

«It is extremely important in a volume such as this to give a voice to Aboriginal peoples, who are the most qualified to comment on the future of their languages. The pages which follow were opened to Aboriginal speakers themselves, to those who live the daily vicissitudes of their ancestral language». (Maurais, Jacques, The Future of Aboriginal Languages, p. 233).

In this section, we find a total of nine contributions related to the future of the following aboriginal languages of Quebec: Algonquin, Atikamek, Cree, Huron, Inuktitut, Micmac, Mohawk, Montagnais and Naskapi.

With respect to the future of the Algonquin language, the first to be discussed, Molly Kistabish encourages parents who speak this language not to let it die, «through proficiency in their mother tongue, they will be able to understand and communicate with their parents and grandparents, as well as elders of the community, who have much wisdom to pass on. The greatest heritage that parents and grandparents can give their children is indeed their mother tongue» (Molly Kistabish, The future of Algonquin, p. 236).

Next language, Atikamet, is presented by Marthe Coocoo. She mentions the need to raise awareness of the people and to speak about Atikamet in Atikamet (Coocoo, Marthe, The future of Atikamek, p. 238). She speaks of the importance of education program designing which have already been developed such as natural sciences, the human sciences and kindergarten education (Op. Cit. 243). There are also constant reminders of the importance of culture transmission from generation to generation and pride of community sense.

James Bobbish presents in the next chapter, the Cree language. The author is aware of the severe hardship his community have had to go through in dealing with relocation. Now that they find themselves back to where they feel united, they have discovered that they have to act quickly if they want to save their language. Even though one might get the idea that Cree education is well implanted in schools, Bobbish explains that there is a lot of missing connections between Cree culture taught as a subject and Cree language classes because of government imposed methods which treat Cree as a second and foreign-like language. He finishes the chapter by giving very precise indications about parent and community involvement in the efforts to save the Cree language and culture.



In the next chapter, Linda Sioui speaks for the survival of Huron. She identifies this language as the one spoken by the Amerindians who were in this territory when Samuel de Champlain came to these lands (around the year 1615). Next she cites all contributors, to the best of her knowledge, who have participated in the Huron language development and survival, among them many priests and religious scholars (Sioui, Linda, Is there a future for the Huron language ?, p. 251-253). Finally, she makes a comparison of the Huron language with Hebrew. Although pessimistic, she calls for the revival of Huron.

In the next contribution of this section, Taamusi Quimaq speaks of the importance of the Inuktitut language. Of all the contributions of this section, this chapter is very optimistic. The authors speaks of the Quebec government’s efforts to educate Inuit children in their native tongue before moving on to learning French or English. There are some complaints though as to the lack of law translations into Inuktitut stipulating what is and what is not allowed (Taamusik Qumaq, The future of Inuktitut, p. 258). Taamusi Quimac calls for a greater effort of involvement from the part of the community in matters such as education and administration of justice.

Next chapter deals with the Micmac language. Here Romeo Labillos deals with the Micmac language. He remembers Micmac repression in school. He also deals with the misconceptions of formal education (those who studied were considered lazy). He also deals with the issue of their nomad life which according to him does not upset their education system (Labillos, Romeo, Will the Micmac language survive ?, p. 264). The Micmac people fought for the right to native language education but did not foresee that they would only win this right. They did not receive funding for this project, materials or programs. Those who had received education outside the community like the author himself tried to help in giving classes. Nevertheless, the areas taught were of no concern and no interest whatsoever to the communities. Among the factors for the Micmac language decline, the author mentions «the fur trade and fire water, the Missions, the settlements, diseases, inter-racial marriages, etc.» (Op. Cit. p. 268). Labillos’s message is not very hopeful. English seems to be the dominant language in the community and more than 50% of the children have it as a second language. He finishes the chapter with a rather nice metaphor: «a native language is like a natural resource which cannot be replaced once it is removed form the earth» (Op. Cit. p. 269).

The future of Mohawk is discussed in the next chapter by Myra Cree. In this very brief chapter, the author describes Canada’s greater concern for endangered species than for endangered languages (Cree, Myra, The Future of Mohawk, p. 270). Even though there are many reasons for believing that Mohawk does not have a very promising future (specially if the public limits itself to the statistical figures of the report «Les autochtones de Québec» which signals out of 10,093 potential speakers, only 25% real ones, cf. p. 271). However the writer sheds some light of hope, particularly in the interest shown by teachers and scholars for Mohawk. The writer at the end confesses that unfortunately she does not speak the language but firmly believes that Mohawk can be kept alive by plans in conjunction with the Secretariat for Aboriginal Affairs. Efforts mentioned include «a program of intensive, systematic and broad-based teaching of the rich Mohawk language (Cree, Myra, The Future of Mohawk, p. 273).

Next chapter deals with the future of Montagnais. Marcelline Picard-Canapé explains to us the dangers of extinction that this language faces. One of the facts that could increase this danger is the oral tradition aspect of Montagnais. There is also the imminent danger from the French or English languages in the surrounding areas. Probably the most serious threat is the marked presence of French words in Montagnais, a phenomena which, though interesting from the language contact perspective, has brought many worries to the survival of the language. This code-switching practice is also motivated by the surrounding culture as there seems to be no television, no radio and almost no literature in Montagnais (Picard-Canapé, Marcelline, The future of Montagnais, p. 276). Fortunately, important efforts have been taken to ensure the survival of this language, like the Montagnais language courses established since 1972 in all communities, teacher-training programs and other education projects.

The last chapter of this section deals with the future of Naskapi, another aboriginal language and the last one to be discussed in this section. Agnes Mackenzie et Bill Jancewicz deal with are the geographical situation, the history, the written language, the oral language and the people. Though the number of Naskapi speakers amount to only 500, the Naskapi have great control over their own affairs (Church Band Office, the school among other institutions). A lot of effort has gone into relating the knowing how to read and write Naskapi and the pride of Naskapi culture identification. The authors suggest that «the promotion and preservation of aboriginal language should be both, a principle and a priority of both federal and provincial governments, as well as the Assembly of First Nations» (Agnes Mackenzie et Bill Jancewicz, The current state and the future of the Naskapi language, p. 286). This chapter closes the second part of the book.

The last chapter of the book, The Aboriginal Languages in the Perspective of Language Planning, is a special chapter which presents concrete measures to save endangered languages. Lynn Drapeau and Jean-Claude Corbeil, active researchers in this field, deal first with the geographical description of the aboriginal languages in Quebec. It is calculated that there are only 25,000 speakers of 50 aboriginal languages in Quebec (Drapeau Lynn and Jean-Claude Corbeil, The Aboriginal Languages in the Perspective of Language Planning, p. 288). This gives a very pessimistic picture for survival. However not all aboriginal languages suffer the same degree of decline. While Mohawk and Micmac are in trouble, Cree and Inuktitut are statistically very alive. Among the measures discussed is the existence of bilingual teaching or immersion programs. A big obstacle that this measure encounters is the extreme decentralization in the administration of linguistic and cultural matters. All these difficulties make it impossible for an unique proposal to fit in all linguistic settings. There is also the problem of language shift, augmented by the majority society. In a very concrete line, the authors consider three distinct situations:
1. communities that have lost their language;
2. those where it is disappearing;
3. those where it is normally transmitted».
(Drapeau Lynn and Jean-Claude Corbeil, The Aboriginal Languages in the Perspective of Language Planning, p. 297).

Given the fact that there is really very little to do in extreme situations like (1), the authors concentrate their attention on situation types (2) and (3). This is what they recommend:
• Strengthen, by ideological means, the use of the ancestral language in private life, within the family and the community,
• Consolidate the use of the ancestral language in all domains of public community action (church services, local media, public gatherings, community meetings, political meetings, public notices, etc.).
• Improve language skills at school,
• Go beyond the traditional domains to take over sociosymbolic domains hitherto limited to the majority language, such as public administration and business,
• Acquire a legal status that extends beyond the limits of local communities (for instance, enshrining their status in the Canadian Constitution or in a Quebec law).» Many other suggestions with the same objective in mind are presented like encouraging research on aboriginal languages, teacher training and the creation of an institute of research for aboriginal languages. This chapter is optimistic with respect to the possibility of rescuing many aboriginal languages in danger if adequate planning and administration are carried out. However, the most important objective should never be forgotten: the will to keep these languages alive.


Chafe, W. L. 1965. «Corrected estimates regarding speakers of Indian languages». International Journal of American Linguistics 31, 345-46.

Darnell, R. 1971. «The bilingual speech community. A Cree example». In R. Darnell (ed.) 1971, Linguistic Diversity in Canadian Society. Edmonton and Champaign ; Linguistic Research Inc.

Drapeau, L. (in press). «Code-Switching in Caretaker Speech: A Case-Study in an Enclave Indigenous Group», International Journal of the Sociology of Language.

Drapeau, L. 1993. «Bilinguisme et érosion lexicale dans une communauté montagnaise». In P. Martel and J. Maurais (ed.) Langues et sociétés en contact. Mélanges en l’honneur de J.-C. Corbeil, p. 363-76, Canadiana Romanica Vol. 8. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Drapeau, L. et A.-M. Baraby. (in preparation). Éléments de grammarie montagnaise, Québec, Presses de l'Université du Québec.

Leclerc, J. 1986. Langue et société. Laval: Mondia.

Papen, R. 1993. «La variation dialectale dans le parler français des Méris de l'Ouest canadien». Francophonies d'Amérique, no. 3.