The death of a language in B.C.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to speak a dying language? What if English became so prevalent in your community that it caused your native language to become more extinct than Latin? It seems impossible to imagine, but in the community of Anspayaxw, B.C., that is exactly what is occurring, as English is causing the Gitsxan language to die a rapid death. How did this come to be and how do the people of this remote community feel about this? John Wynne’s Anspayaxw is an audio and visual installation that not only answers both of these questions, but also shows us how we can save a language.

As you enter the installation the first thing that strikes you is the solitary nature of the photographs on display. One shows a signpost in the Gitsxan language, with no English translation provided anywhere in the room. Like most people in this remote community, you also have no idea what the sign is trying to communicate, and it is a strange feeling. But perhaps the most poignant aspect of the installation is the audio component that accompanies a number of the photos. In one of them, a lone woman sits in a recording studio recounting stories from her childhood, and her story is one of tragedy and happiness. It is tragic because she talks about her experiences at residential schools and how her native culture is dying, but on the other hand she speaks of feeling loved as a child (even by the employees of the residential school). Like all human experiences, hers is a complex one.

How can this language be saved? Wynne, either intentionally or unintentionally, provides the answer: through audio recordings. If these people’s stories can be recorded then surely we can record their knowledge of the Gitsxan language. It may not prevent English from being the dominant language in the community, but at least it will prevent this language from becoming extinct. Like the woman’s childhood stories, there is often happiness hidden within tragic events.

Anspayaxw: An Installation for Voice, Image, and Sound runs until October 26 at the Satellite Gallery at 560 Seymour Street (2nd Floor).

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