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LETTER: What’s in a name: definitions needed for First Nations language

Victoria’s Trutch Street has been renamed Su’it (say-EET), “truth” street. Born in Victoria. Raised in Esquimalt. I never questioned how to pronounce the anglicized spellings of Sooke, Songhees, Comox and Cowichan or even Esquimalt. Although it is with some embarrassment I acknowledge that only recently I found out that Esquimalt means “place of gradually shoaling waters.”

Three things have prompted this letter. First, a tourist asked me how to pronounce sxwen’xwen tan’exw (some characters changed due to newspaper formatting), over the doors of the James Bay library. I didn’t know, nor did I know what it meant. Second, I made what I thought would be my last visit to the First Nations gallery at the Royal BC Museum. I then realized that we colonizers had forced our orthography on the spoken languages of the peoples who have lived here for thousands of years. Finally, I read an article on the renaming of Trutch Street.

My plea to all Island publishers and sign makers is to please provide a pronunciation guide and a meaning whenever words from the languages of our many First Nations are used. Not only will it help to preserve the languages and history, it will educate those of us who are guests on their ancestral lands. A Victoria News article or a tourist information brochure on how the orthography of the “strange” spellings came about, might also be of interest. What does a 7 or a ? in the middle of a word, or an upside down e or superscript w mean?

By the way, according to the City of Victoria website, sxwen’xwen tan’exw means “people who talk through their nose” and is pronounced s-hweng hw-ung tongue-oo-hw. I can’t quite get my tongue around that.

Stephen Sullivan