2011 Canada Prize in the Humanities: An interview with Louis-Jacques Dorais

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Canada Prize in the Humanities and the Canada Prize in the Social Sciences recognize scholarly manuscripts that are vital to the growth of humanity's knowledge, and enrich the social, cultural and intellectual life of Canada and the world. Four prizes - two in English and two in French - worth $2,500 each are awarded each year. Eligible titles have been supported by the Federation's Aid to Scholarly Publications Program and the winners selected by a cross-Canada jury of scholars.

Louis-Jacques Dorais is winner of the 2011 Canada Prize in the Humanities. Professor Dorais’ book The Language of the Inuit: Syntax, Semantics, and Society in the Arctic (McGill-Queen’s University Press) is the fruit of four decades of engagement. The vast area of the north occupied by the Inuit—spanning four countries—is home to a rich variety of Eskaleut and Inuit dialects and to a corresponding diversity of culture. As the language undergoes change and challenge that have already seen some dialects become extinct, Professor Dorais presents a book that not only traces linguistic trajectories, but, in its publisher’s words, is “a history of the language's speakers.”

1. You have been working with Inuit communities for the better part of four decades, and have clearly seen the impact of time on their language and culture. What would you say has effected the most heartening change in these things, and what the most worrying change?

The most heartening change is that Inuit have now become full participants in the contemporary world. In Canada, all Inuit regional groups enjoy a good measure of self-governance, there are programs to improve their participation in the labour market through formal education and job-creation, and their language and culture are now publicly recognized as valuable and worth developing. But on the other hand, this participation is the result of very rapid cultural change, which has entailed a lot of social and other problems.

Moreover, despite the fact that Inuit language and culture are now appreciated on the surface, the governments and the general public don’t realize all the extent of cultural differences between the Inuit (and other Aboriginals) and majority society, nor do they measure the depth of Inuit, and Aboriginal, identity.

2. We know that languages are living things, and that just as they change, they can also die. Should people always be alarmed at the notion of the death of dialects or languages and actively work against that?

Each language encodes knowledge in a way that is unique to it. This means that when a language dies, a whole original worldview risks disappearing too. But this once said, it is up to the speakers of a language to decide if they find it worthwhile to preserve it or not. People who lose their language do not necessarily lose their identity, though the nature and quality of this identity is at variance between speakers and non-speakers. Moreover, as minority languages are concerned, the unequal power relationships that existed – and are still existing for a good part - between the majority language and culture, and those of the Aboriginal (or other) minorities, cast a serious doubt on the liberty that speakers have had in preserving their language or ceasing to speak it. In any case, experience shows that most, if not all, Aboriginal communities who have lost, or are in the way of losing, their ancestral language are now making efforts to preserve or reclaim it, which shows that they consider it essential to their identity.

3. When researchers document at-risk languages, they are doing more than recording grammar and syntax; what are some of the things that can be preserved in this kind of linguistic work?

Grammar and lexicon are the tools with which a language encodes knowledge within a semantic structure, i.e. within an organized cognitive system that enables speakers to make sense, in their own specific way, of the world in which they live. This means that the ultimate goal of preserving at-risk languages (besides helping people to use their language in order to strengthen their cultural identity) is to prevent this semantic structure from disappearing.

4. How much influence do you feel researchers can have in shaping policy that may affect the communities with which you work and their linguistic heritage? Or is their role primarily a post-hoc one, in which they document and gauge what has happened?

I am rather dubious about the influence researchers can really have in shaping policies, unless they belong to the governing political party, whatever it may be. Ideally, policies should be based on well-informed analyses of linguistic, cultural and social phenomena, but actually, they rather appear to be motivated by party politics and electoral considerations. Which means that the researcher’s role is primarily a post-hoc one. The researchers’ influence can rather be felt when he or she works directly with an Aboriginal organization that wants to revitalize their language. For example, I was approached in 2006 by the Huron-Wendat Nation Council (from Wendake, QC, near Quebec City), that wanted to revive their language which had stopped being used over 100 years ago (but had been thoroughly documented in writing in the 17th and 18th centuries). Together, we applied for a SSHRC CURA grant, which we obtained. Thanks to this five-year grant (2007-2012), we have been able to start reconstructing the language, training teachers (who must themselves learn to speak in Wendat), and producing teaching curricula and didactic materials, with the result that this dormant language has been taught to adults since March 2010, and will start being taught to elementary schoolchildren at the end of this month. This is not shaping policy, but generating concrete results out of research.

5. Do Canadian researchers have unique or particular things to offer the rest of the world in terms of Canada’s experience with indigenous languages?

The experience of researchers with indigenous languages is quite the same in Canada as it is in other new-world countries with a sizeable indigenous population: the US, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand. I would say that Canadian specialists of Aboriginal languages are, scientifically speaking and in terms of their involvement with language documentation and revitalization, on a par with American researchers.

6. What do distinctions like the Canada Prize do for researchers and their books?

I really don’t know! I’ve never received that kind of distinction before. Ideally, it should show the importance of research in humanities and social sciences and, perhaps, the mere fact that such research is in existence.


Canada Prizes