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First Words

The languages of British Columbia in four maps

Further south, colours collide like a half-finished jigsaw. Complex, interlocking, in shades of pink and brown, grey and purple.

My first map crinkles over my lap, its folds snarling against one another as I smooth it with a gentle palm. Green forest, channels, peninsulas, islands. The city of Vancouver spills from a fold at the bottom, in the crook of the elbow of the Straits of Georgia and Vancouver Island, a crease across its face. Names brought from the east; Fraser, Pitt, Anmore, Burnaby, Langley, Granville, but in amongst them others; Semiahmoo, Coquitlam, Shashishalhem, Tsleil-Waututh, Nłe’kepmxcin. Seemingly inexhaustible in their profusion, they cluster over islets and inlets, superimposed over the greyscale of city streets spiralling out to sea. I roll their syllables around my mouth, feeling their unfamiliar edges and corners, the juncture of consonants catching on my tongue. As I trace a line north along a coastline with indentations like Norway, there are still more names – Haisla, Nisga’a, Smalgyax, Tingit – to trip up my tongue as the inlets trip up my finger.

The second map is in a frame, on a wall in a classroom. You have to stand to one side of it to see past the glare from the windows, painting clouds on the surface of the glass. The ocean, bright blue, and on it a list of names, more names, small enough to make you lean in close. Like cured meats at a deli counter, slabs of colour, each a language family, lay over the cut outs of the rivers and the shadows of the mountains. Fish scale shapes, in bright greens like new leaves, run from north to south, a band of various yellows and a wedge of orange separate them from the sea. Further south, colours collide like a half-finished jigsaw. Complex, interlocking, in shades of pink and brown, grey and purple. Each shade a step on the dialect continuum of interrelated tongues. Each clash a linguistic watershed. The highlands of Papua New Guinea, the mountains of Dagestan, the Pacific coast of British Columbia; language hotspots. Culture and trade flow thick and fast over the slabs of colour, so the isolation of mountain valleys is only part of the story. Cheek by jowl, half the language families of Canada on one strip of coastline. Mild climates, fertile seas, the bounty of the forest. It is tempting to believe that abundance – in languages and otherwise – seeps up through the soil here.

Map three unfolds reluctantly from the back of a guide book, borrowed from the library. Glued to the back, its concertina contains a grid of streets in white, bypass loops in yellow. This is the bull’s eye, headland, inlet, estuary, a screwed up ball of lines overlaid with a typographic tangle. Squamish, Tsawwassen, Kwantlen, Salish. The name of one of these First Nations has no overlap with the city’s edges, it is contained. The Musqueam speak Hen’q’emin’em’ – fluent speakers 0, understand or speak somewhat 27, learners 7. They are named for məθkʷəy̓, the river grass that is sometimes abundant, sometimes scarce. xʷməθkʷəy̓əm becomes Xmuthkyuy’um, becomes Musqueam. Their speech flows into Hul’q’umin’um’ and Halq’eméylem, tributaries forming the river of the Halkomelem language – fluent speakers 257, understand or speak somewhat 987, learners 2,052. This city grew up around the Musqueam, engulfing, surrounding. For Musqueam Indian Reserve, take Salish Drive left of SW Marine Drive as you head out of town. Musqueam Park. Musqueam Golf Academy. UBC Point Grey Campus. A 4,000 year old midden at C’usna’em, reprieved from being buried under a 108 unit residential condo development.

My fourth and final map glows from a screen, sunlight slants from the left, bleaching it of colour. Canada in faded peach; Pacific West in green; click here for a close-up of this diverse linguistic region. Russian dolls nest one within the other, language nests. I click and click again, drawn a layer in and down each time. Superscript, colon, acute, macron. Sound file attached, carefully pronounced like picking your way over a rocky river bed. Each apostrophe, a slip, cutting the air flow. Lists of words are collected, labelled and stored for safe keeping, nesting. Halq’eméylem; 1,745 words archived, 667 phrases archived. South Carrier; 1,530 words archived, 830 phrases archived. Senćoŧen; 726 words archived, 1,325 phrases archived. Seal, mink, baby, seagull. Ey kw’els kw’etslome, el siyaye. It’s good to see you, my friend. I click, a window opens, a glitch. All the sound files play at once. Voices clamour, talking over one another. One by one they fade off. The final file, an elaborate traditional greeting, continues alone for almost a minute.

First Words
First Words

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