吳實錄

Annals of Wu

漢藏緬語々言研究ㄟ博客
a sinotibetoburman linguistics blog
2015-04-06

Name Changes And Challenging Orthographies discussion - orthography

A recent Article in the New York Times, Tribes See Name on Oregon Maps as Being Out of Bounds which addressed efforts by local native groups to replace certain toponyms in the area. Specifically the term "squaw" was targeted as being offensive. As a solution, the groups provided a number of alternatives that would better reflect their culture as the indigenous peoples. From the article:

“I really didn’t think it would be this hard,” said Teara Farrow Ferman, manager of cultural resource programs for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “I didn’t think that we would still be disputing this after so much time.”

The county agreed to change most of the names, but it would not accept the Indian names proposed by the tribes.

The reason given being that they are seen as too difficult to pronounce. "United States Board on Geographic Names… will not accept new ones without a consensus among interested local groups and state and local officials" the article goes on to say.

Officials protested that some of the name changes proposed by Native Americans — like Sáykiptatpa and Nikéemex — were too hard to pronounce, prompting the tribes to create an interactive pronunciation guide.
“Seriously, can you pronounce them?” asked Mr. Britton, the county commissioner. “It’s a safety issue. Someone making a 911 call has to say the location, and the dispatcher has to understand and repeat it to the sheriff.”

Setting aside the fact that people will probably still say "Squaw Lake" when making a panicked 911 call (just like people tended to dial the more familiar 411 instead), I think there's a different issue here and one which is much easier to address. The issue, I believe, is ultimately with orthography. Or maybe racism, but then racism and orthography. I'll stick to orthography for now.

An example I brought up earlier is the proposed name Weelikéecet Creek. In recordings provided by the supporters of the name changes, this sounds to me like /wɛlikætsɪt/. Without trying to dictate orthographies since this is an incredibly sensitive topic, I would like to argue that there must be some middle ground since /wɛlikætsɪt/ is actually not particularly difficult for the average resident. I think instead people are getting thrown off by the unfamiliar orthography.

I don't know if this is a standard orthography for the language, but if this were happening in the not-too-distant past, I have no doubt that would have been rendered as and no one living there today would think twice about the name of their town, having grown up with it being as familiar a word as Chicago or Topeka or Biloxi.

It seems to me, understanding full well my position as an uninformed outsider, that the issue may not be the names themselves as much as it is about how people are seeing them for the first time.

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    A semi-academic linguistics blog about Sinotibetan, previously focused primarily on Wú, a Sinitic language spoken in the Yangtze Delta region. Topics now include historical linguistics, documentation, language rights, sociolinguistics and learning materials, as well as acting as the dev blog for Phonemica from time to time.

    I'm a linguist based in Asia, working on documentation and historical development of Sinotibetan. In addition to academic research, I'm heavily involved in Phonemica, an organisation that promotes crowd-sourced preservation of local languages.

    I'm currently in the field, so getting in touch isn't easy. However you can try to email me at the following address and I'll respond as soon as I'm able:

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