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What does “orthography” mean? Orthography is simply a spelling system of a language. Since the invention of written languages, there has been orthography. Orthography is a system representing sounds and what results is known as an alphabet. We can bend meaning to our own worldview and say that certain native languages have had orthography for millennia: in our case, we have the carved beaks of our yaahl raven and Guud eagle, the painted line of our split-U shape and sharp-edged ovoids, evoking our histories and beliefs upon sight.
But before the 19th century, Haida never sat with pen and paper to write out our thoughts in such a way that English or other European languages do. “Today I am thinking about yesterday, and yesterday I thought about the day before that. Tomorrow I shall think about next week, and next week I shall remember last year.” One can spew out long passages in English and never reveal any particular thing or give any specific meaning. The slippery nature of our colonized language says a lot about the Western worldview. Our Haida language, on the other hand, demands that we know and communicate the specifics of what is being communicated. What is being thought? Who is involved? What action will take place, and with what degree of accuracy do we know this will happen? It is difficult to communicate in the Haida language without knowing and identifying these specifics.
Our Haida language, on the other hand, demands that we know and communicate the specifics of what is being communicated. What is being thought? Who is involved? What action will take place, and with what degree of accuracy do we know this will happen?
Our language has been written since early colonizing explorers, from missionaries spreading the word of God, to scholarly ethnographers, and European visitors. Some of these foreign visitors simply wrote it how it sounds. This meant using the English orthography to reflect sounds in the Haida language, which some people still do today. Examples of this can be seen on maps and other written material past and present, such as “Chaatl” for the village Ts’aahl, “Tahayghen” for Dah Xiigan, and other Englisized names such as “Delkatla” for Dal Kahlii and “Tow” for Taaw, amongst many more. Other visitors, most notably ethnographer John R. Swanton, used the International Phonetic sound system to write down our language. And as time progressed, different linguists and anthropologists developed orthographies specific to the Haida language, and from these orthographies we have developed our own modern language orthography. Knowing how our current orthography came to be can help all of us understand and use it with confidence.
Certain linguists have worked very closely with the Haida community as they developed orthography. In the 1970s, Jeff Leer from Alaska developed an orthography that is the foundation of the modern Haida orthography we use today. Other linguists began their work collaborating with community, but their knowledge of linguistics and their worldview rooted in Western academia resulted in them making changes to our orthography without community consultation or consent. The most famous example of this is the use of the English letter “R” by one linguist to represent our G sound – a change wholly rejected by the Haida community because there is no R sound in the Haida language. This resulted in tension however we continue to exclude the R in our orthography.
There are many more examples of changes to the alphabet and how it is used within community: one being the elimination of our famed 7 and replacing it with an apostrophe. For example, instead of 7iiwaans for the word “big,” we now write ‘iiwaans. Many in our community were emotionally tied to the 7 and the decision to replace that sound with an apostrophe was met with mixed feelings. I advocate for community members not to become frustrated with orthography changes and turn away from our own alphabet entirely, but instead to promote an ongoing conversation that will have us moving forward together, making our orthography relevant, useful, and helpful to our efforts as a Haida language community.
I advocate for community members not to become frustrated with orthography changes and turn away from our own alphabet entirely, but instead to promote an on-going conversation that will have us moving forward together, making our orthography relevant, useful, and helpful to our efforts as a Haida language community.
Becoming literate in our language has many benefits that will bolster us on our collective journey to learn and revitalize the use of our language after it sustained so many devastating blows from colonization. This tool of the written language can be incredibly valuable if we use it with yahguudang respect. Knowing and using our Haida orthography means putting the English alphabet and sound system away entirely and turning off the English reference point as we embark on learning. If we can agree to this as a community of learners and teachers, the years of work developing orthography can be honoured and continued.
What is called the Haida modern orthography is the result of linguists and community language teachers and learners discussing, testing, and using a series of letters and symbols based on the English alphabet to represent the Haida sound system. Is there a sound like X in English? Is there a sound like G in English? The answer is no. The Haida language community created a series of symbols – our own alphabet – to represent our unique Haida sounds. It is imperative that we teach these symbols with our own Haida words. If we can separate the idea we need to teach with English equivalents, we can ensure better success at understanding and learning our Haida orthography.
Instead of saying the single ‘a’ sound is like the English ‘a’ in the word cat, we can teach that the single ‘a’ sound in Xaad Kil is like the sound in the word awa mother. For beginners, we can associate our letters with commonly known words in the Haida language and remove English entirely from the equation. We can say, the ‘aa’ sound is like in the word naan grandmother. It is when we use English as a reference point we “muddle up,” as the late Tsinii Stephen Brown would say, the proper Xaad Kil / Xaayda Kil pronunciation.
In the case of our Haida language, we need to view English as a pollutant and keep it far from our reference points in learning our language as much as we can. This is tricky at first, but I believe with multiple efforts to teach our orthography as a basic foundation of learning, we can realize the benefits of building our collective Haida language learning tool kit as a community. It is a continuous balancing act though.
Over the years, it has been said many times that we should focus and prioritize speaking our language correctly and not focus on writing. Writing is a colonized tool and completely foreign to our language. Indeed, these statements are true. Wouldn’t we all rather speak in our language than write it down? Wouldn’t we all prefer a correction to our pronunciation than a corrected spelling mistake? Does it really matter if there are three A’s or four in a certain word? Who really wants to debate ending a word in ‘G’ instead of ‘K’ based on how it is spelled when it is made into a definitive statement?
We know that our language is not meant to be put into colonized boxes or written on paper and put on a shelf. We know our language is meant to be carried on our winds and heard by our children. However, writing is a practical tool, and our language can be seen written on street signs, river signs, in glossaries, in children’s books, in our art books, and on t-shirts and in newspapers. It would be a great disservice not to teach how to decode what can seem so very confusing. We all deserve access to skills to better understand and embrace our orthography, so the Haida language we see all around us can be understood, read, seen, and spoken.
The multiple Haida language communities have come together many times over the years to have the ever-evolving orthography discussion. Our K’iis Xaadee relatives from Alaska, the dedicated Elders at SHIP, the workers from Xaad Kihlga Hl Suu.u Everyone Speak Haida and now Xaad Kil Nee Haida Language House Society from Gaw Tlagee Old Massett, as well as our urban Haida language learners and linguist friends are all contributing towards our collective goal of a common Haida orthography. Each dialect is unique, representing multiple dialects and clans, and each deserves to keep that history and uniqueness. In the case of SHIP, they have worked consistently for many years to finalize their orthography and that needs to be acknowledged and honored.
Although there are differences with pronunciation, we recognize that spelling our sound system the same will have many benefits, including a greater ability to share resources, promote cross dialect learning and encourage new learners with consistency and offer increased comprehension skills to our communities. We need support and understanding from the Haida community as a whole that this journey towards a Haida orthography is all part of the bigger picture: to provide all of us with the best toolkit to use Xaad Kil / Xaayda Kil in our everyday lives.
This article is published in the 2019 Special Haida Language Edition of Haida Laas featuring Haida language speakers, learners and advocates. View or download the full edition here.