*PhD in the Mother Tongue

When I was a kid, I heard the term “mama loshen,” mother language used for Yiddish with affection and longing for what was lost.

But as a young adult, I lived for a couple of years in an apartment across the hall from a First Nations guy. He was a big guy, tall and broad, a few years younger than I was, which seemed like a lot back then when every man I met was sized up for dating potential. Though we talked just a couple of times, I never forgot him.

He was studying law and hoping to be a lawyer for Native rights, but was struggling with depression. There had been so much loss in his life, his culture, his friends to drugs and suicide, even his language. I thought I could understand the last. YIddish is a lost language I said, spoken now only by the ultra-orthodox as their first language, their kitchen language. He looked at me and said there were only two people left who spoke his language. Two in the whole world.

So it was with glad tears in my eyes that I read the story forwarded to me by A.

York University is the first Canadian university to “officially sanction the use of a language other than English or French in graduate work.” Alfred Metallic in the Faculty of Environmental Studies is “the first PhD candidate at York to defend his thesis in an Aboriginal language – it was written and spoken in the Mi’gmaw language.”

“Our language, it’s how we maintain our relations and how we understand where we come from. It gives you access to your place in the world,” says Metallic. In the Mi’gmaw language, the action comes first, then the person. It’s the opposite with the English language….

“There’s a circle that needed to be expanded a bit by including others for a more holistic circle,” says Metallic…

And so in October, some 1,300 kilometres from Toronto, Metallic orally defended his dissertation in a ceremony that included a sweetgrass smudging, singing, a feast, a give away and the inclusion of the Aboriginal community as well as the academic one.

Read the full story. It’s worth the time.

8 thoughts on “*PhD in the Mother Tongue

  1. Rachel–me too. People have told me that there is a barrier to First Nations people in university for a number of reasons having to do with lack of resources in the community, bad school experiences multigenerationally (going back to Residential Schools), and so on. So it makes this achievement all the more significant.

  2. It’s so important to preserve those languages. I remember hearing about a couple of PhDs that were permitted to be written in Gaelic, another vanishing language. As you so rightly say, a whole culture comes with them.

  3. Pingback: *Monday Experiment: Values 1 « A Novelist's Mind: Lilian Nattel Online

  4. verbivore

    Diversity of language is so important, especially as the world continues to get smaller and smaller. I hate hearing about languages that simply up and vanish. There is a vault in Iceland which holds every known variety of fruit and vegetable seed that currently exists in the world – it was a wonderful project put together over the last decade (or longer). The idea is to safeguard our bio-diversity. We need a similar project for language (but perhaps this already exists and I just don’t know…)

  5. Litlove, I thought that Gaelic is used more commonly nowadays in Ireland (Eire), at least taught in schools. Is it more like Latin then? I’d imagined it as more of a living language there.

    Verbivore, I haven’t heard of anything like that either, not as a single repository. I’ve read about ethnographers preserving recordings of disappearing languages but only in their personal fields of study. It’s a good idea though. I wonder if anyone is doing something like that.

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