For thousands of years the Tla’amin Language was passed down from generation to generation. There was no writing system and it wasn’t needed. The language was perfect and whole for the Tla’amin people.
While moving through the challenges of recent history, the language and knowledge began to fragment. There were many contributing factors, most of which are centered around the challenges which accompanied coexistence with the nation of Canada.
Academics and researchers that have studied the Coast Salish languages have identified five main branches from which all Coast Salish Languages stem. The Sliammon Language falls under the Central Salish branch, and is part of the Comox group which consists of 2 dialects. A Vancouver Island dialect formerly spoken by the Comox Nation and a mainland dialect spoken by the Klahoose, Homalco and Sliammon Nation. At present there is no single word used to differentiate or label the language however most agree that “Comox” as applied by researchers is not an adequate label.
The process of trying to preserve the language has been an ongoing effort that has spanned many people over many decades. The push within the community really began in the 70’s when Betty Wilson and Sue Pielle began a campaign to start teaching the language in the preschool and day care to the youth. If the kids could be taught the language at an early age it would help to revive it.
After several years Sue and Betty developed a Sliammon Language club through negotiations with the principle at James Thompson, and then began to push for the School District to incorporate the language within the school system. Working with a committee of dedicated people (Elsie Paul, Mary James, Bill Bailey, and Roy Francis), a curriculum was developed that was finally accepted as an approved course within the School District. In the late 90’s after Sue Pielle retired, Marion Harry took over teaching the language, having taught at JC Hill and Max Cameron before coming to Brooks. Throughout the early years the teachers were using phonics when trying to write the language but It became apparent that the English orthography was not a suitable substitute for Sliammon’s complex sounds and vocal characteristics.
In the 90’s Sliammon reached out to Dr Patricia Shaw, Dr Sue Blake and Dr Suzanne Urbanczyk for assistance finding an alternate orthography that was more suitable for the language. They came to Sliammon over a two week period and gave the community a crash course in the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet Orthography, which then became the new standard. Learning to use the orthography was quite a challenge and remains a challenge for many, which is why the orthography is now taught in schools at an early age.
Since the late 70’s and continuing today, Sliammon and it’s neighbors have also been visited by talented linguists that have been studying the language for many years. Honorable mentions go to Dr Honore Watanabe from the University of Kyoto in Japan, who has spent a great deal of time in Sliammon studying the language and documenting the phonology, syntax, morphology and structure of the language. Also helping over the last few decades was Dr Susan Blake who has studied Coast Salish languages and worked with Homalco in developing introductory language booklets, Dr Suzanne Urbanczyk from the University Of Victoria who has spent many years working with Klahoose, John H. Davis researcher from the University of California who compiled early recordings in the late 60’s and early 70’s for study, and Randy Bouchard and Dr Dorothy Kennedy who have studied Sliammon, Klahoose and Homalco and written many papers on the language, culture and history, and most notably the book “Sliammon Life, Sliammon Lands” (Talonbooks, 1983).
In the late 90’s the Sliammon Cultural Department, headed by Harmony Johnson, invested a lot of time and resources into the development of a language learning program for the Sliammon community. Working with Betty Wilson, Elsie Paul, and Dave and Anne Dominick, two programs were developed. These language packs come with booklets and audio CD’s and are still available for purchase from the Sliammon Cultural Department for $25/set.
At the turn of the Century after the launch of FirstVoices, Betty Wilson approached Chief and Council seeking support to begin documenting the language in the FirstVoices system. FirstVoices provided a centralised archive that was accessible to everyone online. This would become an important resource for anyone studying the language. Chief and Council approved the request and proposals have kept the work going. Randy Timothy and Karen Galligos were also instrumental at the launch of the program along Elise Paul and Dave and Anne Dominick. In the last 2 years Sosan Blaney and Devin Pielle have also become involved along with Manu Luaifoa who have helped to get other fluent speakers recorded, like Peggy Harry, Yvonne Galligos, Willie Peters, Jim Timothy, Charlie Timothy, Charlie Bob, Maggie Wilson, and Maggie Vivier to name a few.
Thanks to the ongoing efforts of a handful of people and many of Sliammon’s Elders, close to 4000 words have been documented so far. Linguistis have commented that it takes approximately 20,000 words to save a language leaving plenty of work remaining in identifying and documenting the remainder of the language.
Sliammon language classes are held weekly at various times. The Culture Department also has language CDs available for purchase. There are 2 sets available, one deals with the language and the other focuses on stories, history and songs. The language packs are priced at $25/set.
For more information on language classes or language materials please contact the Sliammon Cultural Department.