Learning Lushootseed

Wind blowing through treetops, the snap of a dry twig, water rushing along a rocky streambed, these are among the many sounds of nature replicated by Lushootseed, the language of the Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest. It bears no relation to languages born in Europe, Africa, or Asia. Although it has existed for thousands of years in an oral tradition, it had always been expressed in art and songs and stories rather than by a written alphabet. That all changed in the 1950’s as Native speakers, determined to save their language from extinction, used the characters of the English alphabet to express the sounds of Lushootseed in a way that could be shared and saved for posterity. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that the written language of Lushootseed was reimagined in its entirety using the alphabet, raised letters, and other diacritical markings to recreate sounds unknown to western ears, but that are often heard in Native tribal languages throughout North America. There are currently 43 letters in the Lushootseed language, each with its own specific pronunciation. There are no capital letters, and question marks are used as guttural stops rather than an indication of a raised voice at the end of a sentence.

Today there are instructional courses online and at various physical locations in the Pacific Northwest. Here is a very good site with which to begin, a jumping off point that will lead the seeker to multiple ways to learn about the language and culture online:

Still, the pronunciation required takes thoughtful work and hours of focused listening time. Because the character of Imogene in the first book of my newest series, “The Cutout,” is discovering her Native heritage, Lushootseed, with its unusual sounds and pronunciations, is quite new and somewhat strange to her. Because I’m not Native myself, nor have I ever encountered this culture before moving to Washington State, the language is new to me as well. But how can one understand a people, their culture, their ways of thinking and moving through the world, without understanding the language that gave birth to those very ways?

Consequently, as Imogene dedicates herself to learning the language of her people, I am also attempting to learn this beautiful language, a form of communication based on recreating the sounds of nature rather than finding its roots in the speech of distant cultures. I imagine that Imogene is doing better than I am, but she has a great teacher in Auntie Henry. So far, I myself, the writer who created her, can only count to six and name a few animals. I can’t ask for directions or order a hamburger, but if someone needs to know how to say “squirrel” in Lushootseed, I’m golden.

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