Saturday, March 17, 2007

Discriminatory etymology

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John Steckley, a professor of anthropology here at Humber College, has just released a book entitled, Full Circle: Canada's First Nations, from which he was kind enough to send me the chapter on Aboriginal languages. In the chapter he points out how ridiculous it would be to simply specify that a word is of European background. Yet that, he claims, is essentially what many dictionaries do when they give the etymology of, for example, moccasin as N. Amer. Ind.

My first reaction was "how true!" followed very closely by "really?" All of the dictionaries that I could find in the house and online gave reasonable etymologies for moccasin. For example, gives, "Origin: 1605-15, Americanism; - Virginia Algonquian - Proto-Algonquian *maxkeseni." Steckley gives sources, but since I only had chapter 4, I didn't have the bibliography and couldn't follow them up. I was suspicious.

This afternoon, we were down at the bookstore with the kids, so I decided to check out some other dictionaries. Sure enough, two or three had etymologies as general as "Amerind". Most Oxford dictionaries were fine, but the Oxford School Dictionary, marketed to children, had the trivialising etymology--this, despite having Greek and Dutch elsewhere. Surprisingly, it wasn't just dictionaries for the junior linguist that were at fault. The Collins Canadian Paperback Dictionary was fine, but the Collins Canadian Dictionary and Thesaurus, a big, seriously adult-looking hardcover wasn't.

Steckley does a good job clearing up the ridiculous notion, inexplicably propagated by these dictionaries, that there is but a single American Indian language, and then goes on to take apart a number of other common misconceptions about the languages of Canada's First Nations.

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