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'Michif'ious language

By Angela Brown, Central Plains Herald Leader

Friday, February 25, 2011 8:32:38 CST PM

Mervin Fleury (Staff photo by Angela Brown).

Watching a group of adults grapple with learning Michif is a lot like watching children on
their first day of school learning a new language.

There is plenty of giggling as some try to pronounce the words wondering if they have
got it right. Others are a little more timid, waiting for their neighbour to sound the words
before they dare.

"Can you slow it down, man," says Jason Pratt, laughing, as he fumbles his way around
speaking one of the words aloud.

I try my way around "tawnshi," meaning "hello," and feel embarrassed at my

awkwardness with these new words.

It should sound like "taanshi."

I think I need to first make an attempt to forget English to better open my mind to
learning Michif.

There are about 15 gathered for the first day of the six-lesson course of an introduction to
the Michif language of the Metis people held at Herman Prior Centre in Portage la
Prairie. The course is offered through Manitoba Metis Federation Southwest Region, with
support from the federal government's department of Canadian Heritage.

Many like Kathleen Quinlan are of Metis ancestry and want to learn some of the Michif
language since it is part of their culture.

"I was curious to know the mechanics of the language," said Quinlan, who is seventh
generation Metis. "It's part of our heritage."

She said when she was growing up she remembers her grandmother speaking another
language and she had wondered if it was Michif.

On the first night Mervin Fleury is instructing the class. Usually it is Mervin's cousin
Norman Fleury giving the class, but he is not able to attend tonight.

Mervin smiles as he delights in seeing everyone's excitement at discovering the look and
sound of this new language. Of course, it is really an old language, but it is new to many
of our ears.

He explains Michif is a combination of Cree and French and says the words were written
from the oral.

"It's important for me to teach the classes because our Michif language is dying out," he
says. "Not very many young people speak it. Even the older people don't even speak it.
So, we're trying to revive it, because we don't want to lose it."

Sometimes the same word can be written in different ways, depending on who is
transcribing it.

"There is no standard way of writing it down," said Mervin.

Mervin says Michif is his first language where he grew up beside the Assiniboine Valley.
He didn't learn English until the age of six when he started school.

I sit next to Johnny Dietrich, who seems to be a step ahead in the class.

"Tawnshi eyishinikawshoyan," he says, meaning "What is your name?"

This is not easy.

I defer to Johnny's better judgement at getting this one right.

Portage's local troubadour previously took a class in Michif that was offered in the past in
the city.

"It's two languages put together; that's why it's so hard," he says. "It's totally off the wall."

In Michif, the verbs are in Cree and the nouns are in French, with some borrowed words
from the English language.
Mervin now has a Michif song he wants us to sing. It's called "Kispin Kisakahin."

The English translation of some of the words are: "If you love me, kiss me right away.
Get into the car, we will go to Edmonton."

It sounds like a love ballad for realists.

Many are howling with laughter now and make their best attempt to sing along.

As the night starts to wrap up, we are left with a handful of basic Michif words to go
home with and try to memorize for the next class.

"See you next time," we say, wondering what the Michif word for that would be.

Instructor Norman Fleury has written a dictionary of Michif, The Canadian Language
Michif dictionary. He says, from his home near Virden, he hopes the language will one
day be taught in the schools.

"This is a Canadian Heritage language," he says. "My dream is I would like to see this
language documented, the history and legends, and part of the curriculum in the schools,
especially that are predominantly Metis."

A school in St. Lazare has more than 50 per cent Metis students.

But in all of the world, says Norman, there are only about 500 people who speak Michif.

While Norman knows the Portage group won't be able to learn a language in the half a
dozen weeks of the class, he says he hopes those who take the classes learn a little about
Michif, the culture and the stories, from their experience.

"The Metis speak many languages, but this is the only language that actually belongs to
the Metis people."

"To this day, it's a mysterious language," he says.