First Nation’s English: A response to Simon’s Post ‘Non-standard French in the Uashat mak Mani-Utenam Reserve’

Posted by Dean Garlick

(This piece was originally a comment to Simon’s post, but I thought it could use greater visibility and could serve as a separate post on its own).

I’ve also noticed a similar stigmatizing effect  in English with First Nations speakers as the one Simon describes in his piece on the French used by the Innu in Sept-Îles. There is often a unique cadence, pace, and grammatical structure that is unique to First Nation’s speakers’ English that unfortunately is often perceived as ‘slow’ or ‘stupid’ by speakers of standard varieties of English. This is extremely frustrating, but more of a reflection of how First Nations peoples are generally viewed and in fact becomes yet another ‘justification’ for discriminatory attitudes.

My girlfriend, Klara Du Plessis, is curating a series of essays for ‘The Town Crier’, the blog for ‘The Puritan Magazine’, which is usually more of a literary site. The topic of her series is ‘writing in English from a Multilingual Perspective’; (she is a bilingual Afrikaans/English poet). In the series she’s included an essay by Kalina Newmark and her colleagues James Stanford and Nacole Walker, out of Dartmouth College. (Kalina is a member of the Tulita First Nation of Northwest Territories, and Nacole Walker is a member of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North/South Dakota). They’ve been researching English features of Native American and First Nations communities across the US and Canada for their Aboriginal English research project. Through their analysis they’ve found particular patterns and systematic forms of usage, such as the ‘double negative’. In the essay she also provides this chart for reflexive pronouns to show the the systematic use of ‘hisself/theirself’:
me > my car > my self = myself
you >your car > your self = yourself
her > her car > her self = herself
he > his car > his self = hisself?
they > their car > their selves = theirselves?
(Newmark, Stanford & Walker, 2016)

As we can see ‘hisself’ and ‘theirselves’ are actually more logical and orderly than ‘himself’ and ‘themselves’, the ‘standard’ varieties. So why should anyone look down on people for using those forms?

Newmark et al. (2016) also looked into the ‘sing-songy’ intonation that is often seen as a stereotypical in indigenous communities’ English. They find that: “there is a pitch pattern on where the stressed syllable has a lower pitch than the unstressed syllable. For example, with a word like Thomas pronounced in this speech style, the first syllable sounds lower than the second syllable. We also found that in this speech style, the end of the sentence is sometimes pronounced a little higher or a little lower than “Standard English” – and sometimes drawn out a little longer. Finally, we also hear rhythmic differences where syllables are pronounced in a more even-paced timing than in ‘Standard English’”(Newmark, Stanford & Walker, 2016). They also report that this style of speech tends to come out more in informal settings, where people feel comfortable relaxing and joking, than in formal ones where many speaker switch to ‘standard’ English styles. They find that though there are many regional distinctions across North America, there is a sense of familiarity with this way of speaking that spans across regions/groups that creates a sense of common identity and camaraderie.

Needless to say, it’s a fascinating essay, and I can’t sum the whole thing up here in this post, but I think it speaks to what you were saying about Innu varieties of French, Simon. The essay hasn’t been published yet. (That’s why I can’t provide page numbers, or even a website reference yet!). However, I will notify you when it IS, and provide a link. The series of essays WILL begin to be posted next week, Monday, and there are 13 in total, so there should be a lot of interesting content for us to go through! Here’s the link to the blog:

Do you see a parallel between the First Nations French Varieties and the English ones described here, Simon? Also, for our Chinese classmates; I know there are many indigenous groups in China. Do they have unique ways of speaking Chinese, and are they stigmatized in the way indigenous French and English varieties tend to be here?

4 thoughts on “First Nation’s English: A response to Simon’s Post ‘Non-standard French in the Uashat mak Mani-Utenam Reserve’”

  1. Coco: Dean, thanks for an interesting post! I was thinking of indigenous groups in China as I went through your post. And to answer your question, yes, indeed, there are many indigenous groups in China which are talking in different ways. I personally do not think that they are stigmatized in the way indigenous French or English varieties tend to be. Discrimination in languages is not quite common in China as far as I am concerned. However, as Mandarin plays a dominant role (lingua franca) in people’s communication in China, many people are losing the ability to speak in their own dialects. For example, when people who are originally from small towns and come to big cities, they would use mandarin (with accent) to communicate in big cities. The more they use mandarin, the more they are forgetting their own way of speaking dialects. They first forget some particular words, then speech structures, etc. In this sense, the issue lies ahead is not how indigenous groups are marginalized in their languages. Rather, it raises my awareness of how people are forgetting and losing their own languages (dialects).


    1. Simon Desmarais – Comment 2

      Hey Dean,

      I would need to listen to really pay attention to discern actual grammar features and so on, but right off the bat I see a parallel with the ‘sing-songy’ intonation. Along with the accent, I think they are the two most recognizable features, and the ones that most White people would use as a criterion to index a speaker as a speaker of Innu French. I don’t know if it’s qualitatively the same as the one in English, though.

      I’ve only had extensive contact with French-speaking Innus, so I can’t really comment on how specific or widespread this particular variety is (i.e. if other communities speak a similar variety). It’s interesting that the authors in the essay report a sense of familiarity that creates a shared identity; I don’t know if it’s the case in French. From the little French that I have heard from people of other First Nations (e.g. in Québec City), they seemed to speak just normal Quebec French to me. Also, interestingly, in the Basse Côte-Nord region there are several Innu communities that speak English, so it would be interesting to see what their variety of English sounds like, if it’s more similar to Innu French (because they’re Innus and probably have most contact with other Innus, including those who speak French, especially because of their isolation) or more similar to the English variety spoken by other First Nations.


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