"We can't allow things that are inaccurate to stand." — The Word of Our Dan, February 19, 2008.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Innu-Eimun as a Second Language

The English language fails us. It’s a shame that Innu-eimun, for example, isn’t a provincial official language. If it did, it might just help us to understand one another.

Just then, I twice used what grammarians call the first-person plural: “us”. Where English has just one word for “we/us” – Innu-eimun has two.

In Innu-eimun there’s a first-person plural: ninan, “we/us”. But there is also another first-person plural, one which includes the person being spoken to, tshinan. Ninan = “me and my gang here.” Tshinan = “you and me together.”

In English, you say to your friend “we should rent a movie tonight”. That’s a tshinan-we. You and I. But if your friend invites you over to watch a movie, and you say “we have company”, that’s a ninan-we. Me and my gang here, not including “you”.

So one little English word has to do all the heavy lifting, where in Innu-eimun the work is shared by two. A distinction that is hard to make in English becomes perfectly clear.

Now Innu-eimun is very different from English, very different even from the languages that most people study as a second language in school or university. It’s not an easy one for someone to master as a second language, but it might just be worth it. If Innu-eimun was an official language, we would be better able to understand politicians. Rusty Innu-eimun would be better than the most fluent English.

Back in the 1960s, Joey Smallwood raved, in English:

We are completely selfish, let there be no mistake about that. This is our river, this is our waterfall, this is our land.”

It is ambiguous as to who is the “we” he is speaking for. Or it was, until he hit his “Newfoundland first!” line. Or, perhaps his “Newfoundland” included Labrador. Ninan-we, or tshinan-we?

When Smallwood says “our river”, would that be said in Innu-eimun as nishipiminan or tshishipiminu? “our river”, or “our river, yours and mine”? Nitassinan or tshitassinu; “our land”, or “our land, yours and mine”?

When Smallwood famously declared:

”If we are not big enough, if we are not daring enough to colonize Labrador, then somebody else will, and we won’t deserve to own it.”

An obvious ninan-we. “Us Newfoundlanders.” Not a tshinan, “you and we together”.

But that was the 1960s. A different time. Surely, no political leader could ever get away with that kind of language – in any language – today. No one would put up those walls of an exclusive-we, a ninan, that doesn’t include the people being spoken to, or spoken about.

Now, apply your newly-won knowledge of Innu-eimun to the following case:

“It’s high time that Labradorians, instead of feeling like someone else’s treasure trove, started feeling like an integral part of our province. We cannot expect fair treatment from Ottawa if we don’t practise what we preach. We have the deed to Labrador, but we don’t have the heart and soul of its residents – and that must change. We must reach out and include Labradorians, and we must physically link our province by commencing a feasibility study on a fixed link sooner rather than latter.”

Ninan? Or tshinan? Who is this “we”?

That was part of the speech that Premier Williams gave when he accepted his party leadership four years ago this spring. I’ve often thought about that section of his speech. And I often wonder, in the parallel universe where Innu-eimun is an official language, what it would have sounded like if he had delivered it in the language of Ben Michel and Kashtin, instead of the language of Shakespeare… and Smallwood.


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