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A Language of Our Own

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A Language of Our Own

The Problem of Michif

By Peter Bakker

The Michif language is spoken by Metis, the descendants of European fur traders (often French Canadians) and Cree-speaking Amerindian women. It is spoken in scattered Metis communities in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada and in North Dakota and Montana in the United States. There are also pockets of speakers in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories in Canada and in Minnesota and Oregon in the United States. It is spoken outside the French-speaking part of Canada and the Cree-speaking areas of North America. At present, the number of speakers is estimated at fewer than 1,000. It was probably double or triple this number around the turn of the century but never much higher. Michif is a rather peculiar language. It is half Cree (an Amerindian language) and half French. It is a mixed language, drawing its nouns from a European language and its verbs from an Amerindian language. It has been called the "nec plus ultra of grammars in contact" (Papen 1987c). Michif speakers, however, rarely know both Cree and French. No such mixture of two languages has been reported from any other part of the world. There are some other mixed languages, but these are all of a different type, dissimilar to Michif. Michif is unusual, if not unique, in several respects among the languages of the world. It poses challenges for all theories of language and of language contact.

First, it is a problem for the "family tree" model of language. In this model, every language has one parent language, from which it differs slightly. One "parent" can have different "daughter" languages. These daughter languages and the parent language are said to be "genetically related": they belong to the same "branch" of a "language family". Michif cannot be classified by this model. Being a mixture of Cree and French, it cannot be classified as an Algonquian (Amerindian) language or as an Indo-European (or Romance) language. Therefore, Michif is a problem for classification and a challenge to this model.
(Orser 1984).

Second, Michif is a problem for theories of language contact. A number of processes of contact- induced change and a number of types of contact languages have been formulated by scholars in this field, but Michif appears to be different from all these, as I show. Mixed languages are rare, but Michif appears to differ strikingly even from those.

Third, Michif challenges all theoretical models of language. It is a language with two completely different components, with separate sound systems, morphological endings, and syntactic rules. For psycholinguists this is a challenge: how does this work in the brain? For language theoreticians it is also a problem: how can one make a grammatical model that combines two grammatical systems in one language? How can one construct a model that accounts for different phrase structures in one language depending on the source language from which the morphemes are drawn? How can one account for the presence of two phonological systems in one language?

In many respects, Michif is an impossible language. I know several professional linguists who contest its existence since it does not fit into their model of how a language, or a mixed language, should look. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we study, describe, and preserve this unique language. In this book I do not deal with all the challenges just formulated. I limit myself to the question of the genesis of Michif: how, why, and when did this language come into being? Although my background in linguistics is obvious throughout the book, this study is interdisciplinary in its approach. There are historical, anthropological, and psychological aspects to the genesis of this language. I hope to show that Michif came about as the result of a process of language mixture I call "language intertwining", which has led to this peculiar case because of the typological properties of the languages in contact. The impetus for its emergence was the fact that the bilingual Metis were no longer accepted as Indians or as French, and they formulated their own ethnic identity, which was mixed and in which a mixed "language of our own" was considered part of their ethnicity.

Used with permission from Peter Bakker
A Language of Our Own
ISBN 0-19-509711-4; 0-19-509712-2 (PBK.)