What it’s Like to Speak an Endangered Language

What language do you speak? Is it your native language? Is it your second language?

There are fifty-two Aboriginal languages in Canada. Seems like a lot, but this means that only 11% of the remaining Aboriginal groups still speak their language. Almost all of these languages are endangered.

Haida history itself is an oral culture and would not have survived without our K̲’aygang.nga LlG̲aayG̲a (professional storytellers) who passed on their knowledge only through words spoken in X̲aayda Kil. Mind you, this wasn’t a leisurely game of telephone. These storytellers would train other soon-to-be-gifted speakers word by word. Like any other apprentice, these learners had to match their masters exactly. Sometimes the stories went on for days. This is how we know of a time before there was light. When only Supernatural Beings roamed the Earth.

X̲aayda Kil is incredibly detailed and diverse, making it one of the most difficult to learn. Learning to speak X̲aayda Kil for the first time can be frustrating. It might feel like your tongue doesn’t want to co-operate. The underline G has to be the hardest sound to make, because it’s actually not created with your tongue. “G̲” is pronounced at the back of your throat, and forced upwards with the sound of an English letter G. Because Haida sounds are so distinct, if they are pronounced a little too flat or drawn out too long, you could be saying the wrong thing. Some sounds like R, TH, and SH aren’t used in X̲aayda Kil at all, and can be a tough habit to break.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had family members and school teachers who were fluent speakers throughout my childhood. Though I’m still learning in my early adult life, whenever I am able to have a conversation with someone in Haida, I feel empowered and more connected to what I’m saying.

 One of my favourite things about X̲aayda Kil is that for every situation, there’s a word to go along with it. There are about 50 different ways to describe how someone is falling, depending on how they land and what caused the fall. I haven’t seen any words yet for how to help them up. It’s probably because we’re all too busy laughing from describing the way they fell.

So if you don’t speak your ancestral tongue, I highly encourage you to try.

Languages are more than just spoken words.

They hold the characteristics and principles of your culture.

X̲aayda Kil ad t’alang kihlgulas gyin iid kuuniisii iid kil guudang gang ga.

Our ancestors hear our voices when we speak Haida.

This blog post is brought to you by my personal experience, and some research from one of my favourite books, That Which Makes Us Haida”. (You can buy it in the Haida Gwaii Museum Gift Shop!)


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