November 20, 2019
By Jordan Cryderman
Language has been his lifelong passion, but for Prince George based Canadian-American linguist, Dr. William (Bill) Poser, the Carrier language has become the primary focus. Now, thanks in large part to his research, there are a number of Dakelh language revitalization efforts that may prove fruitful.
Bill received his BA in Linguistics from Harvard in 1979 before completing his Ph.D. in Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1985. Following that, Bill became involved with the Yinka Dene Language Institute in 1992. His earlier work included a dissertation on the Japanese language, but eventually the Carrier language became his life passion.
“One day, in 1986, I was in Tucson, Arizona, in the office of the late Eloise Jelinek…and I picked up a journal that was on her desk. It happened to contain one of the very few journal articles that was published about the Carrier language. The author of this journal article was a technical consultant who had come to visit them for a few weeks and look at particular aspects of the language, and this was her report on what she had found.”
According to Bill, the article focused on the pitches and sounds of the language, which was his area of interest. At the time, Bill says his thesis advisor did not believe that a language with such pitches and stresses could exist. Bill had to find out for himself, and came to BC a few years later to study the Carrier language. As his grasp for the language grew, so did his desire to preserve it.
According to Bill, preserving the language must go beyond the classroom. Although classes can provide a basic understanding of the language, fluent speakers have to be developed further in their everyday lives.
“Look at French for example, French has all conceivable resources, you’ve got all the dictionaries and textbooks and teachers…. all that stuff. What happens if you take someone who has gotten good marks in French through secondary school? That person very likely has a decent reading knowledge of French, and very little conversational ability.”
What you get from classroom teaching, Bill says, is if you immerse in a population that speaks the language, you will be able to learn to speak the language fluently much faster than those who have no working knowledge of the language.
Bill says the problem is that “for French, we’ve got places we can send people to get up to speed in French. We don’t have any other place where we can send people to get up to speed in Carrier. This is it.”
As Bill has observed, the best way to teach the Carrier language is starting as young as possible with immersion programs.
“The popular thing now is what are called ‘language nests,’ which basically means a preschool model in which the language of instruction is Carrier. If you stop there, they’ll lost it. If there isn’t a great deal of maintenance at home, with the family members, and they basically stop speaking the language when they leave preschool and switch to English, they will lose the language.”
According to Bill, for the immersion programs and language nests to likely succeed, they should be implemented for at least as long as the end of primary school. Those kids hopefully will inspire the next generation to grow the language.
“Those kids gotta’ make babies together and bring them up using their language,” says Bill with a broad ear to ear smile.
One other successful method that Bill has observed is through Mentor-Apprentice Programs.
“These are programs where a younger person who did not grow up with the language [attaches] himself or herself onto an older fluent speaker. Basically, they agree to spend a large part of their time together and to speak their language nearly all the time.”
Bill says that the idea is to create a one-on-one immersion experience, however it is not a fulltime job for the mentor, and so they may need support. Thankfully, Bill says there are now programs that will provide funding for these one-on-one immersion experiences.
The sophistication of the Carrier language shines through many of the common idioms. For example, Bill says that saying you have a stitch in your side literally means “a crow pecked me.”
Here’s a short clip of Bill teaching some Carrier language to us. Due to audio quality, you may need to turn the volume up.
Here at Carrier Sekani Family Services, we extend our warmest appreciation to Dr. William Poser for all the hard work he has accomplished over the last 27 years he has spent researching and preserving the Carrier language. Without him and his wisdom, the preservation and reinvigoration of the Carrier language would be a much loftier goal.
Mussi cho, Bill!
Last modified: Friday 12-Jun-20 15:43:45 PDT