16217. (Bonnie Murray) Li Paviyóñ di Michif

This is a children’s book pub­lished in the Michif lan­guage. It’s quite a rar­i­ty, since less than a thou­sand peo­ple can speak the lan­guage. But the Métis com­mu­ni­ty in Man­i­to­ba is deter­mined to pass the lan­guage to the next gen­er­a­tion. Michif is one of the most pecu­liar lan­guages on the plan­et. It devel­oped in West­ern Cana­da among the Métis peo­ple, and it com­bines a basi­cal­ly Cree gram­mar and verb sys­tem with many French nouns, adjec­tives and prepo­si­tions. A few stray Eng­lish and Gael­ic terms are in there, too. It does not fol­low the pat­tern of any oth­er known cre­ole, pid­gin, or trade lan­guage. For exam­ple, it retains intact the extreme­ly com­plex Cree verb mor­phol­o­gy, which is the sort of thing that’s usu­al­ly the first to go in a mixed lan­guage. Michif is a lin­guis­tic puz­zle, with­out obvi­ous par­al­lel in any oth­er lin­guis­tic or social sit­u­a­tion. The only oth­er lan­guage that is sim­i­lar is Bungee, spo­ken by a very few Métis, in which Gael­ic replaces French as the main source of nouns and adjec­tives. There are some peo­ple known to have been per­fect­ly flu­ent in both Michif and Bungee — for exam­ple, James Isbis­ter, a farmer in Saskatchewan who was select­ed as one of the four del­e­gates (along with Gabriel Dumont) to recall Louis Riel from Mon­tana to rep­re­sent the Métis, was known to be flu­ent in both Michif and Bungee, as well as Cree, Eng­lish, French, Gael­ic, and the com­plete­ly unre­lat­ed (and noto­ri­ous­ly dif­fi­cult) Dené language. 

Nei­ther Michif nor Bungee were ever spo­ken by a major­i­ty of Métis in Cana­da. French remained the most wide­ly spo­ken lan­guage among them through­out most of their his­to­ry, and it dif­fers only mod­er­ate­ly from the rather con­ser­v­a­tive form of Stan­dard Cana­di­an French spo­ken in North­ern Ontario or the West. But Michif is respect­ed as a dis­tinc­tive ele­ment of Métis cul­ture, like the pecu­liar Métis flag, which dates from 1815.

In fact, the book is about the flag:

Michif chéñ kek­wiy izhitwáwin ayáwak?” kak­wetwew Thomas. [Do the Métis peo­ple have any­thing cul­tur­al?” asked Thomas.]
, Thomas” itiko. [“Yes, Thomas,” she said.]
Aeñ paviyóñ kitayán li bleu pi li bláñ nák­wan ekwa aeñ siné ká nash­pi­tak dañ la mid­jeu ahtew,” Omamawa itikó. [“We have our own flag. It’s blue and white and has an infin­i­ty sym­bol in the mid­dle,” his mom explained.]

Michif táp­we­ta­mok la siné ká nash­pi­tak dañ li paviy­oñ itwe makan deu lé mónd ozhitwá wini­wáwa e mamaw­inakik ekwa aká wékách chi ishkochimikoshichik, “ omamawa wétamáko. [“The Métis peo­ple believe that the infin­i­ty sym­bol on the flag stands for the join­ing of two cul­tures and the exis­tence of a peo­ple for­ev­er.” his mom explained.]

The words in red are clear­ly (at least to me) French-derived. Oth­er French ele­ments may be there, but less obvi­ous. For exam­ple, the West­ern Cree for “his moth­er” should be “okaya”. But Cree speak­ers often say “omam­mawa”. The French “mam­man” may have been bor­rowed into Cree before the for­ma­tion of Michif, or after, or at the same time. Some speak­ers of Michif would use the French word “puis” rather than the Cree word “ekwa” [“and now” or “along with”] in this sen­tence. Note that the Michif word for “flag” does not derive from the French word for flag (“dra­peau”) but from “pavil­lon”, a more archa­ic word for a bat­tle stan­dard or a cloth ban­ner. Many of the French ele­ments dif­fer con­sid­er­ably from the French which is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly spo­ken by the same peo­ple. The words of Cree deriva­tion are not iden­ti­cal to those used in speak­ing Cree, even though most Michif speak­ers are per­fect­ly famil­iar with that lan­guage. [Com­pare Cree “nakatew” (to go away) with Michif ” ship­way­tay”, Cree “nikamew” (to sing) with Michif “nakamouw”.] These fea­tures are among the most puz­zling in the lan­guage, since they don’t fol­low the pat­tern found in oth­er mixed lan­guages, and cre­oles. Michif is def­i­nite­ly a true lan­guage, not a pid­gin (a pid­gin is nev­er used domes­ti­cal­ly, can­not express a full range of ideas and feel­ings, and is lim­it­ed to for­mal exchanges between dif­fer­ent lan­guage com­mu­ni­ties). It’s sta­tus as a liv­ing lan­guage, no mat­ter how small the num­ber of speak­ers, is exem­pli­fied by the expres­sion “Táp­we­sa miy­onák­wan” for “wow, this is cool” [from Cree: “Tap­we miy­on­akwan” (“tru­ly beau­ti­ful”)] and by words bor­rowed from Zati­lyeañ (Ital­ian) such as “piz­za” and “spaghette”, or from Shén­we (Chi­nese).

The flag they are talk­ing about first appeared in 1815, when it was tak­en up by Métis who worked for the North­west Com­pa­ny. It is assumed to be the “infin­i­ty” sym­bol, which is open to all sorts of abstract inter­pre­ta­tions, though there is no way of know­ing exact­ly what peo­ple meant by it at the time. Some claim that it incor­po­rates the Scot­tish flag of St. Andrew’s Cross, with the bars fold­ed around each oth­er. Scot­tish names were more com­mon among Michif speak­ers than French ones. A vari­ant with the same sym­bol on a red, rather than a blue field, was some­times flown by Métis who worked for the rival Hudson’s Bay Com­pa­ny. The blue one, which was car­ried at the Bat­tle of Sev­en Oaks in 1816, seems to have always been more pop­u­lar. It was not used dur­ing the upris­ings of 1869–70 and 1885, where Louis Riel’s “buf­fa­lo” flag was employed. But it remained in folk mem­o­ry until revived in the mod­ern resur­gence of Métis culture. 

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