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Winnipeg proposes new Indigenous street names, but what’s behind claims they’re too hard to pronounce?

March 22, 2023 — 

This article from Nicole Rosen, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Language Interactions, University of Manitoba, is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The City of Winnipeg’s Indigenous Relations Division recently submitted suggestions for new names to replace a street and trail currently named after Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin.

The division has suggested that Bishop Grandin Boulevard be renamed Abinojii Mikanah, the Bishop Grandin Trail be renamed Awasisak Mēskanow and Grandin Street be renamed Taapweewin Way. The first two suggestions are Ojibwe and Cree phrases meaning “Children’s Road,” and are meant to represent residential school survivors and the efforts to find the children who never returned home. Taapweewin is the Michif word for truth.

Grandin was a Catholic priest and leading proponent of residential schools who lobbied the federal government to fund their construction.

Reaction to these new names has been mixed, as can be expected with any change. However, the primary pushback seems to be that the new names are hard to pronounce.

But what does it mean when we say a word is hard to pronounce?

Borrowing from other languages

English borrows extensively from other languages, and has since at least 1066, when the Norman Conquest of Britain resulted in massive borrowing of French words into English.

When we borrow words, we necessarily change their pronunciation, either to adjust for sounds we don’t have in English, or to make them conform to English phonotactic rules, i.e. the rules governing the possible sequences of sounds in a language.

Different languages have different rules or phonotactics. For instance, in English we have certain three-consonant clusters like “str” (strike) or “spl” (split). However, Ukrainian allows different consonant clusters such as дзвін dzvin meaning “bell” or штраф — shtraf meaning “fine.”

None of the proposed new names Abinojii Mikanah, Awasisak Mēskanow or Taapweewin have complex syllable structure. They can be broken down into easily pronounceable syllables [a-bi-no-jii mi-ka-nah], [a-wi-si-sak mē-ska-now], and [ta-pwee-win], so they are not hard to pronounce for phonotactic reasons.

Sometimes a borrowed word is hard to pronounce because the sounds of one language don’t exist in another. For example, none of the vowel sounds in the French word entrepreneur exist in English and the “r” sound is also different.

English just does its best to adapt the sounds. We borrow the words anyway, and just pronounce them differently. This happened with many Winnipeg street names that come from French such as Notre Dame, Lagimodière, and Des Meurons, which sound nothing like their original French when they are pronounced in English. But in the new proposed street names, there is no need to adapt any sounds.

It could be that a word uses a writing system or symbols that we don’t recognize, and don’t know how to pronounce. Imagine borrowing Japanese kanji or Cree syllabics into English; we simply wouldn’t know what to do with them.

There is a macron on one of the letters in Mēskanow, and there is a double i in Abinojii, so those two can be a bit unfamiliar. But we adapt street names with French accents all the time such as Taché, which is always pronounced with a final vowel, never as “tach.”

It could also be that there are silent letters in the spelling. While English and French are well-known for having silent letters, which generally come from older pronunciations, Cree and Ojibwe are not. So in the proposed names, what you see is what you get.

So what is the problem? What is behind the complaints that Indigenous words are difficult to pronounce?

Discomfort with unfamiliar language

Discomfort with change, and possibly, the question of what is legitimate in the Canadian public sphere, drive these claims of difficult pronunciation. Take, for example, Winnipeg’s Lagimodière Boulevard. It is a long and difficult name for anglophones to pronounce correctly. But nobody proposes we change it because it has been around for so long, and because we accept that French names are legitimate.

There are too many Indigenous place names in Canada to count — Athabasca, Saskatchewan, Toronto, Mégantic, Winnipeg, Ottawa — the list goes on. Indigenous place names have been around longer than Canada, even forming the name of the country itself. So what is different here?

Perhaps it is that in this case Indigenous words are replacing colonial ones.

People are very tied to their language and don’t like change, especially when it challenges a power structure. In Winnipeg, Bishop Grandin, a symbol of colonial power, is being replaced by languages of the historically oppressed: the Cree, the Ojibwe and the Métis. While this is precisely the point behind the change, it may make those uncertain about changing power structures uncomfortable.

If, however, you are simply nervous about learning unfamiliar long words, here are some tips. Break them up into syllables and sound them out. Listen to them being said and repeat them a few times. Given that there are no linguistic difficulties, it shouldn’t take long for them to be rolling off your tongue.

Assuming the new names are approved, they will likely be shortened just like other long names often are: like QEW for Toronto’s Queen Elizabeth Way, or Lag for Winnipeg’s Lagimodière Boulevard.

But language matters, and changing a few of our street signs from colonial languages like English and French to Indigenous languages like Cree, Ojibwe and Michif is a small act of reconciliation that can have a meaningful impact.

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