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‘Expressive and picturesque’: The Sto:lo worldview found in Halq’emeylem

The complex indigenous language resembles a cathedral: linguist
A map from the Sto:lo Coast Salish World Atlas shows the spread of Halkomelem’s three dialects. Halkomelem Dialiects in Keith Carlson et al, A Stó:lō Coast Salish Historical Atlas, 2001

This article accompanies a News special feature: Meá:ylexw: Reviving an indigenous language on the brink of extinction.

Halq’eméylem is not just another list of words for the same things.

Stó:lô culture is deeply embedded in the 10,0000-year-old dialect.

Christine Seymour, both a student and teacher of Halq’eméylem, has gained a much deeper understanding of her culture by learning the language. Simple nouns, verbs and everyday expressions reveal deep connections to the land.

She learned that the word for Earth, tém:éxw, contains the same root word as xwélmexw.

“When we took care of our people after they died … we wrapped them in the trees, and then they returned back to the land. So tém:éxw means ‘our person in the land,’ ” she explains.

“Those two words show that connection and it made it clear for me because our ancestors were returned back to the land and that is where the animals get their nutrients from and our people had such a high respect for the animals and the trees. We really believe we’re connected.”

As a child, Seymour would hear her grandparents say “grandfather sun is strong today” on hot summer days. Her children are learning that when someone calls to “brother raven,” they really consider the bird to be a sibling.

“It feels good to remember our ancestors and to see what they’re saying really is true,” she says.

Elizabeth Phillips, the only living fluent speaker, says Halq’eméylem is “expressive and picturesque,” with words for feelings that English can’t describe.

WATCH: Elizabeth Phillips reads ‘Bear and Coyote’ in Halq’eméylem.

She has seen students learn these words and say: “I didn’t think I could say that!”

UBC linguist Strang Burton, who has worked with the Sto:lo Nation since the mid-1990s, says the 10,000-year-old language contains many words that don’t translate to English and rediscovering them opens up a world nearly lost.

He says there’s a “rich complexity” to the structure of the language.

“I think of it as like a cathedral in terms of all the intricacies of how it’s all put together and how it works to express ideas,” Burton says.

About half the sounds used to compose Halq’eméylem words don’t exist in English.

There are eight different consonants that sounds like a “k” to English speakers, he says.

Even after more than 20 years of studying the language, Burton struggles to hear the difference. He has even taken ultrasounds of Phillips’ tongues to show how one sound is made with the tongue slightly farther back or forward.


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