Words that empower: The transformation of Indigenous language dictionaries

A travelling exhibition on dictionaries and Indigenous languages, created by student curators at the Canadian Language Museum, traces the varied functions that dictionaries have played over 400 years. This interactive show also offers resources for the enrichment of Indigenous languages.

The Canadian Language Museum at the Glendon Gallery

Last fall, the Canadian Language Museum at the Glendon Gallery (Glendon Campus, York University) staged a compelling exhibition “Beyond Words: Dictionaries and Indigenous Languages.”

The travelling show (which ran at Glendon from Sept. 19 to Oct. 23, 2019) examined the relationship between dictionaries and Indigenous languages – the former functioning, at first, as rudimentary translation tools to facilitate trade; then later, as vehicles through which to retain Indigenous languages for future generations.

The show encapsulates several centuries and tells the story of this remarkable transformation.

Amos Key Jr. with the English-Cayuga Cayuga-English Dictionary

Guest speaker Amos Key Jr. (Tae ho węhs), inaugural vice-provost Indigenous Engagement at Brock University, spoke at the opening and set the stage for the exhibition. A member of Mohawk Nation, Key is an educator and advocate for First Peoples’ human, civil and linguistic rights; the decolonization of Indigenous education; and the emancipation of Indigenous Peoples.

He was central to the creation of the digital archive of Onkwehonweh Ceremony and Rituals and the publication of an English-Cayuga Cayuga-English Dictionary, which was part of the exhibit.

Show examines the different roles of dictionaries over four centuries

“Beyond Words,” created by student curators Briahna Bernard and Stephen Shurgold, under the supervision of Elaine Gold, director of the Canadian Language Museum, has an ambitious objective: to trace the varied functions that dictionaries have played over 400 years. Given this massive scope, establishing themes was a brilliant idea. The show is built around six themes that frame the examination and, essentially, walk the viewer back in time. It is organized by:

  • first meeting and trade;
  • dictionaries for conversion;
  • early modern dictionaries;
  • community initiatives; and
  • embracing technology.

The show begins with first contact between European settlers and the Indigenous population. It features word lists, dictionaries and phrasebooks that were needed to communicate for economic trade – words such as “fur,” “cost,” and “value,” for example.

These early resources, created by non-Indigenous wordsmiths, were far from bias free. Bilingual dictionaries were used as tools of colonization, conversion and assimilation.

Beyond Words exhibit

The “Beyond Words” exhibition

In this way, the show exemplifies how dictionaries are a microcosm for the world at a particular point in time. “Dictionaries are not just lists of vocabulary; they are artifacts of the time and place they are made and reflect the goals of the people who create them,” says Gold.

In sharp contrast, today’s Indigenous language dictionaries are vehicles to retain and restore Indigenous languages for future generations. “They have become a powerful means of community-driven Indigenous language revitalization and cultural continuity,” says Gold.

Show offers compelling new resources to combat the loss of Indigenous languages

This exhibition provides an important opportunity to recognize that the loss of language in this community, over the last few decades, has been grave. Dislocation and fractured communities negatively affect a person’s or a community’s ability to retain a mother tongue.

Effort such as this traveling exhibition are turning this around. Today, there are more than 60 Indigenous languages and over 200,000 people speaking them. Cree and Inuktitut are the languages with the most speakers.

Books on display at the “Beyond Words” exhibition

Books on display at the “Beyond Words” exhibition

The interactive component of this show is an important part. The exhibition features an online tool where visitors can access language materials being developed by Indigenous communities to transmit the elders’ language knowledge to today’s youth.

“Beyond Words” is an engaging, comprehensive and interactive show containing historical insights and resources for the enrichment of Indigenous languages.

The show toured in 2019, from spring to fall, launching at the 2019 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in June and displayed at venues including Glendon, the Markham Public Library and the University of Calgary.

The Canadian Language Museum promotes an appreciation of Canada’s rich language heritage: over 60 Indigenous languages, the official languages of French and English, and the many other languages brought to this country by immigrants from around the world. Exhibits at this museum explore important language issues such as bilingualism, multilingualism, and language endangerment, preservation and revitalization.

To learn more about the show, visit the Language Museum website. To learn more about the show on the Glendon Campus, visit the website.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, which profiles current research strengths and areas of opportunity, such as Artificial Intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, Research Communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca