Mohawk language has changed

SIX NATIONS – Over years and generations of influence from European contact, different local dialects and slangs, and the robbery of the Mohawk language through the residential school experience, what is being taught today as Mohawk could possibly be a corruption of the ancient language brought to the Grand River Territory by Joseph Brant’s generation, according to two Mohawk language speakers and teachers.

Francis Hill, and her sister Sandra Loft, are fluent Mohawk speakers. Fran defines herself as a Mohawk first language person who grew up speaking what she would call the pure Mohawk language with the specific Grand River Territory dialect, meaningful to all Grand River Mohawks. They were taught this pure Mohawk by their mother, Vina Loft.

According to her, this is the dialect she, her mother and her grandmother spoke which she has tried to keep pure of slangs, dialects and misused words.

The sisters say that over the past 20-25 years this “new” form of Mohawk has seeped into the pure language, but before then, it was much closer to what Brant’s Mohawks spoke.

This, the sisters believe, has seriously weakened the power of the Mohawk language, but what has them most concerned is the impact that it has on young future speakers being taught the improper language.

In the same way that Parisian French is similar but not the same language as what is taught and spoken in Quebec or even at French immersion schools, the Mohawk language spoken today would be very hard for a traditional Mohawk speaker to understand.

There are many people trying to recover the Mohawk language as well as other Six Nations tongues and are making a living from doing so, which is a good thing. However, Hill wonders if they are really teaching Mohawk or some kind of watered down Mohawk variation.

The sisters want to see the Mohawk language taught to Six Nations of the Grand River Territory be the Grand River Mohawk language, standardized to better reflect its original form.

“What I am finding at Grand River is a mixture of possibly all other Mohawk dialects from other regions,” said Francis Hill. “There are also new words being developed that are meaningless to speakers fluent in old Mohawk and I find that very upsetting.”

For example, the word “window” in Grand River Mohawk is “tsi senh da ga ronh deh,” while in Akwesasne and Kahnawake Mohawk it’s “o tsi se rah.”

According to the sisters, the word “police” is another example. In Six Nations of the Grand River the word is “Sa goh di ye nahs” where at Akwesasne and Kahnawake the word is “ga rih donh”. Another example is the word “hill” which in the Six Nations Mohawk dialects is “oh nya ra get”. But in the Akwesasne or Kahnawage dialect is “o non da”, which to a Six Nations speaker means “milk.”

But the word that causes her most concern is “go wah”, which is generally being used for big or large. However, according to Hill and Loft, it is a word that should only be used in context of “the great law or great peace,” since it has spiritual connotations and the sisters believe by using it improperly, it weakens the meaning of the word and the language in general.

Further proof of the evolving Mohawk language from its older, more pure form, is a translation of a bible passage on the wall of the Mohawk Institute, which was translated into the Mohawk language by Joseph Brant in 1785.

This is the Mohawk language Brant’s Mohawks spoke upon arrival in the Grand River Territory.

According to Hill, it would be almost impossible to read in today’s variation of the Mohawk language.

“I spoke to some Six Nations language teachers and what they are teaching our kids is other dialects of Mohawk and not Six Nations of the Grand River Mohawk,” she says. “And there are certain words and thoughts that each of them would be teaching differently. That has to be confusing to our young speakers just learning.”

Bill Squire of the Mohawk Workers does not speak the language himself, however, he is very interested in preserving the original Mohawk of the Grand River tongue and agrees that if it continues to be taught to a new generation of Mohawk speakers inaccurately, that the pure language is being weakened significantly.

“We have some language teachers here who only learned this ‘new’ Mohawk language a couple of years ago and don’t have a firm grasp of it themselves,” says Hill. “My recommendation would be that the people here at Six Nations, need to develop an understanding of what is happening with the language.”

In 1994, at Tyendinaga, speakers from every Haudenosaunee reserve gathered to try and standardize the Mohawk written language,” recalls Mohawk speaker and teacher Frank Miller. “It’s important to understand that you can’t actually standardize a spoken language, but you can when you codify it into written form.”

Miller agrees with Hill and Loft about the watering down of a powerful language.

“I think it was in the 1930’s Julia Jamieson wrote a partial lexicon of Mohawk words,” says Miller. “Ruth Isaacs did one as well back then but those books and notes have disappeared over time, so it has been recognized for a long time the need to codify the language somehow.”

He also tells of a Mohawk lexicon of sorts written by Seth Newhouse in the late 1890’s. But he laments that without a standard playbook, the language is being taught from whatever resources the teacher may have at hand, since to date there is no true standard Mohawk.

Only recently he noticed three distinct dialects of Mohawk being spoken at Akwesasne alone.

Miller says that when he began teaching Mohawk, there were about a dozen dialects all mixed together at the Grand River and it remains important to try and standardize at least the written Mohawk language to ensure that everyone will be teaching from the same page.

Miller is currently working with historian Rick Hill on a Mohawk language lexicon, but it is a great deal of work and time invested to do so.  Miller began tape recording conversations between fluent Six Nations speakers several years ago. He uses these old tapes to study how these words were spoken by fluent, first language speakers.

Not everyone agrees with this point of view, however, it is an issue which needs to be seriously considered by those who hold the responsibility of saving and promoting the true Mohawk language in its Grand River dialect.

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1 Comment

  1. I’ve discussed this article with friends for a little while.

    It seems the best action we can do as Endangered Language Revivalists, is to Invite those fluent speakers to Work With Us in Mutual Respect and Mutual Peace.

    It’s easy to get mad when my attempts for Onkwehonwehneha Sataweinstha are referred to as ‘unpure’. Then I have to ask myself if I Can Be the Change and move forward with a Good Mind even while relatives refer to my work with disrespectful labels such as ‘unpure’?

    Maybe the ladies in the article have a past that convinced them Onkwehonwe like me do not appreciate the older language they carry? (which is not true at all by the way).

    If any of the Two Row Times journalists are around here – please do find a way to be a bridge of peace between all of our generations. You are in a position to cause divisions and war in our communities or to create new friendships and peace in our communities.

    I will do all I can to help our older generations dialects to be carried into our future with Respect. The women in the article are always most welcome to work with me on Endangered Language Revival projects, I sincerely appreciate all they do to keep our relatives words alive for our future generations. If anyone can make this 2016 the year of serious Endangered Language Revival; it is all of us here that fearlessly keep speaking our truth without asking for permission.

    Onkwehonwehneha Satati!

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