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Wendat kwatatiahtah! (Let’s speak Wendat!): The resurgence of a language

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Posted on 
March 22, 2021

For over a century, Wendat has been a “dormant” language, one that was essentially no longer spoken. In the last few years, it has re-emerged. But considerable work needed to be done to reconstruct this language before it could be taught in the Wendake community today. Marcel Godbout, cultural officer and teacher at the Centre de développement de la formation et de la main-d’œuvre Huron-Wendat (Huron-Wendat training and workforce development centre), was kind enough to tell me more about this Indigenous language’s current period of renewal.

Steeves: Why did you start teaching Wendat?

Marcel: My passion for our language and my desire to pass on our culture to members of our Nation led me to teach Wendat. It has been my dream to be able to bring our culture and language together for the members of my community. I’m fulfilling that dream after working for more than 30 years in the cultural sector, almost 12 years as a cultural officer for the Huron-Wendat Nation and several years as a Wendat teacher.

Steeves: When you talk about the previous state of Wendat, you use the term “dormant language” rather than “dead language.” What’s the difference between these two terms?

Marcel: Unlike a dead language, a dormant or sleeping language has left behind written documents and/or audio recordings that help to reconstruct it. In our case, we were lucky enough to find a dozen substantial Wendat manuscripts, including grammar guides written primarily by Jesuits.

Steeves: Wendat all but disappeared for about 100 years. During that time, it had practically fallen out of use. When did people start teaching it again?

Marcel: Around the year 2000. The project really took flight in 2007 thanks to a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council’s Community-University Research Alliances Program. The grant led to a partnership with Laval University and allowed us to complete a number of preparatory stages needed to revitalize Wendat.

In 2010, we started giving night classes to the community. In 2011, we began offering classes at École Wahta’ (Wahta’ school) for children in kindergarten to Grade 6. In 2015, Wendat was introduced at the Centre de la petite enfance Orak (Orak early childhood centre) in Wendake. And so it continued.

Steeves: What difficulties have arisen during the revitalization process?

Marcel: Our language is an oral tradition. The writing system therefore had to be standardized before it could be transcribed; that is, a symbol had to be chosen to represent each sound. Wendat is part of the Iroquoian language family, so linguists can use related Iroquoian languages to reconstruct Wendat. Nevertheless, we can only teach the basics of the language.

The big challenge is teaching people to speak a language that’s totally different from French. One of the issues is that there’s no immersion setting for students. In order to have immersion, we have to increase the speakers’ level of oral proficiency. That’s our next challenge.

Steeves: Could you tell me a bit about the structure of this language?

Marcel: Wendat is an agglutinative, polysynthetic language, so it has very long words. And even though there are masculine words, the feminine gender plays a central role in the language: most of the elements used to create words are feminine. This comes from mythology. What makes learning our language difficult is the fact that pronouns can be declined in so many different ways. Wendat has not only the variations seen in French but also different forms to express the singular, dual and plural. For example, the following expressions all require different forms: we two, we three, you two, you three, they (two) and they (three). What’s more, there are inclusive and exclusive forms of “we.” And to complicate things even further, pronouns take different forms, based on the beginning of the root or stem of the associated verb.

Steeves: Many words that are commonly used today didn’t exist 100 or 150 years ago. So they’ll need to be created in Wendat. Does that present a challenge?

Marcel: No. We can adapt Wendat by creating new words called lexical creations, otherwise known as neologisms. We’ve created many neologisms, such as the words for “rose” and “telephone.” We’ll also create neologisms for concepts such as “computer.” In Wendat, words that refer to objects are always linked to an action that describes their nature or function. All we have to do is identify the notion that best represents a computer, based on cultural usage. We always use cultural references to create words. For example, we didn’t have a word for the colour orange. To create one, we used pumpkins as a cultural reference. But we must take care to reach a consensus when choosing new words. This work is done by the language committee.

Steeves: Once children have progressed enough in their learning, do they naturally start speaking in Wendat outside of classes?

Marcel: Yes. Sometimes parents are surprised by the fact that their children know so many words. And the children are proud to be able to tell their parents what they’ve learned. One of the most touching moments was when the preschoolers counted to 31 (the maximum number of days in a month) in Wendat, during the filming of a televised broadcast. The adults who were there had tears in their eyes!

Steeves: Do you think there will be enough teachers to pick up the torch in the years to come?

Marcel: Yes. That’s one of our priorities, so we’re devoting a lot of effort to achieving this objective.

Steeves: In closing, are you confident that Wendat will continue to flourish?

Marcel: Yes, with all the progress we’re seeing and the fact that we have all the tools to succeed, I know it will. We’re currently creating a database of the vocabulary in all the Wendat manuscripts, which will speed up the language reconstruction process. We’ve created a website in English and French that has everything you need to learn Wendat, including a dictionary, games and exercises.

If you’d like to learn more about Wendat instruction or about the role of the cultural officers in the Wendake community, you can visit the following sites:

I’d like to thank Mr. Marcel Godbout for allowing me to interview him. I’d also like to thank Ms. Sabryna Godbout for her help.

Translated by Denise Ramsankar, Language Portal of Canada

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Steeves Gourgues

Steeves Gourgues has a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and literature and has been a member of the Société historique de Québec for some thirty years. In recent years, he has combined his passion for reading with a passion for writing that finds its fulfillment in encyclopedia entries. For the last four years, Steeves has been a contributor to the most widely read encyclopedia, Wikipedia, published in some 300 languages. It is primarily by creating articles, whether through translation or by writing on topics not yet addressed in the various versions in other languages, that he contributes, on a volunteer basis, to the development of this cultural heritage for humanity.

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