Fighting for Aboriginal baby names in N.W.T.

map of languages in N.W.T.
Some of the official languages of N.W.T.

In early March, two First Nations mothers in Northwest Territories (N.W.T.), Canada, made headlines because they were not allowed to use the traditional character for a glottal stop, “?,” in their children’s names.

The first was Chipewyan mother Shene Catholique Valpy, whose daughter Sahai?a was born in February of 2014. Valpy was forced to change the “?” character to a hyphen in order to register her daughter’s name.

The second was South Slavey mother Andrea Heron, who had been forced to do the same thing six years earlier in order to register her daughter Sakae?ah’s name.

(Ironically, Sahai?a and Sakae?ah are the Chipewyan and South Slavey versions of the same name. The rough translation is: “as the sun breaks through the clouds or over the horizon.”)

Currently, N.W.T. only allows characters from the Roman alphabet on birth certificates.

Not long after the stories about Sahai?a and Sakae?ah surfaced, N.W.T. health minister Glen Abernethy said his department would start looking for a solution to the problem, but was concerned that allowing the characters regionally “could create problems down the road.” “We need to make sure that those individuals with the fonts in their names aren’t disadvantaged when they want to go to college outside the N.W.T. or travel abroad or get a social insurance number.”

But Dene languages expert Brent Kaulback notes that “Dene fonts are now unicode fonts” that work on any computer. And linguistics professor Arok Wolvengrey calls the refusal to allow the glottal stop character a “serious insult” to First Nations people. “For many people who no longer speak these languages, this is the only way they can preserve their ancestry.”

(For the record, neighbor territory Nunavut allows Inuit to “register traditional names, including the glottal stop, for government documents.”)

Sources: Chipewyan baby name not allowed on N.W.T. birth certificate, 2nd N.W.T. mother demands traditional name for daughter, N.W.T. Health minister seeks fix for aboriginal names, What’s in a name? A Chipewyan’s battle over her native tongue
Image: Official Languages of the Northwest Territories (pdf)

3 thoughts on “Fighting for Aboriginal baby names in N.W.T.

  1. Your use of the phrase “traditional character” makes it sound like this is a Native-only letter. In fact, it’s the usual symbol used in the IPA (international phonetic alphabet) for glottal stops in any language from any language family. In English transliteration the sound is often represented with an apostrophe, which is a close approximation of the Hawaiian ‘okina.

    A glottal stop, by the way, is the sound made in the middle of the word “uh-oh” in most English dialects. Glottal means it’s made by opening and closing the glottis, and stop means that when you make the sound, the airflow is stopped completely.

  2. I think most people realize that glottal stops are used in other languages, and that “traditional character” is meant to be read contextually here. :) Thanks for the info, though.

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