Of Romeo Saganash and Absurdity

Posted June 22, 2017 11:48 pm by Steve Roney

Of Romeo Saganash and Absurdity
Front page of the missionary-produced Kamloops Wawa newspaper.

NDP MP Romeo Saganash is currently irate that the House of Commons could not provide simultaneous translation when he chose to speak to the House in Cree. Not, of course, as he ably demonstrated to eager reporters later, that he is incapable of expressing himself in English or French.

“Hearing this ruling from the Speaker,” he told the House, “was the most terrible thing I have heard in this chamber in the six years that I have been sitting in this place.” 

“This is frustrating, not to say insulting, because my language has been spoken for 7,000 years.”

Let us be clear on what Saganish is asking for here. But first, let us be clear that Cree as he understands it has not been spoken for 7,000 years. Were this relevant. Even English, with a fixed written form, is unrecognizable to modern speakers from as recently as 1,000 years ago. Have a go at this passage:

An. M.LXVI. On þyssum geare man halgode þet mynster æt Westmynstre on Cyldamæsse dæg 7 se cyng Eadward forðferde on Twelfts mæsse æfen 7 hine mann bebyrgede on Twelftan mæssedæg innan þære niwa halgodre circean on Westmyntre 7 Harold eorl feng to Englalandes cynerice swa swa se cyng hit him geuðe 7 eac men hine þærto gecuron 7 wæs gebletsod to cynge on Twelftan mæssedæg 7 þa ylcan geare þe he cyng wæs he for ut mid sciphere togeanes Willelme … 7 þa hwile com Willelm eorl upp æt Hestingan on Sce Michaeles mæssedæg 7 Harold com norðan 7 him wið gefeaht ear þan þe his here com eall 7 þær he feoll 7 his twægen gebroðra Gyrð 7 Leofwine and Willelm þis land geeode 7 com to Westmynstre 7 Ealdred arceb hine to cynge gehalgode 7 menn guldon him gyld 7 gislas sealdon 7 syððan heora land bohtan

How did that work out for you?

Having a written form prevents languages from changing. If entirely oral, they are untethered.

Cree had no written form until one was created by missionaries in the 9th century—1840s, if I recall correctly. Like any dialect, it would have been, up to that point, as fluid as mercury running through your fingers. It probably changed dramatically generation to generation, and would have been a different language three or four hundred years ago, incomprehensible to Saganish. But of course, we can really have little or no idea what it was like: no written records.

So that “7,000 years” is nonsense.

But that is not the real problem with Saganish’s demand. There is more than one aboriginal language in Canada. Although just about all Canadian Indians can speak English or French, most cannot speak Cree. Surely Saganish does not want simultaneous translation only for Cree. Why would Cree deserve some special privilege?

There are 54 Indian dialects in Canada today, plus 20 Inuit dialects. We are not speaking of minor variations: they are often linguistically unrelated, as different as Turkish and Chinese. That’s 76 official languages in the House of Commons, all requiring a simultaneous translator to be on duty at all times the House is sitting; the translators would almost crowd out the sitting members.

The Lord’s Prayer in Micmac, using the ideograms invented by Father LeClerq
This would still not quite be simultaneous translation. Everything would still have to be translated at least twice: first from X into English (or French), then from English into Y. Otherwise, the number of translators grows exponentially: it is 72 to the second power. If my math is right—a big if—that comes to 5,776 nice cushy government jobs for some lucky aboriginal speakers.

To benefit how many? Dividing the number of languages by the number of aboriginals, Indian languages in Canada have on average fewer than 4,000 speakers.

That’s not “native speakers,” mind you. That includes all those able to speak them. And virtually all Canadian Indians, and certainly any sitting in the Commons, probably also know English or French.

So there is, in sum, no actual benefit to anyone from this massive expense.

But then, it could not properly end there. How would that be fair to speakers of other languages? Are they all second-class citizens? How many of the languages or dialects spoken on Earth don’t have at least a few hundred speakers in Canada?

We would also need simultaneous translation for Maltese, Sinhalese, Punjabi, and Visayan.

Saganash cites the United Nations, and says, if the UN can do it, Canada can too. But in fact, they don’t do it. The UN recognizes only six official languages. That is nothing to what Saganash is demanding.

Are there really no more pressing needs for Canadian taxpayers’ money?

Are there really no more pressing needs among Canadian First Nations?

If so, they must be doing remarkably well.

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