From Two Languages Comes One

Michif is a language traditionally spoken by the Métis of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, across Canada, and even in North Dakota. The language has been the subject of intense discussions in linguistics because of its unique creation.

Professor Nicole Rosen of the University of Manitoba has studied Michif since she was a grad student, and has worked on an online dictionary to try to document and preserve the language. For all that makes Michif interesting and special, it has not received the attention from documentarians and revitalization efforts that it needs. It, unfortunately like so many of North America’s Indigenous languages, is on the brink of extinction. At stake is a language represents the two sides of Canadian history: the ancient history of Canada pre-contact, and the history of the settlers who arrived from Europe and moved west.

I had the great privilege to speak with Professor Rosen about this fascinating language.

[An Android App for learning the Michif language]

[An Android App for learning the Michif language]

Michael Iannozzi : So what is Michif?

Nicole Rosen : Well, Michif is a language that is spoken by a subgroup of the Métis people, and it is a mixture of French and Plains Cree, but also a little English and Ojibwe too.

MI : Where did Michif come from?

NR : Near as we can tell, it was formed at the beginning of the 19th century. It was spoken by the 1820s or 1830s, and it was formed in the Red River Valley (Which is around Winnipeg). It was formed largely by French settlers marrying Indigenous women; who created a new culture—the Métis culture—and who also created a new language.

MI : That’s much earlier than I had thought it would be, had the French settlers been in that area before the 1820s, and just not started to create this culture until then?

NR : There may have been a group before then, but the earliest records we have of the language is from that time. There were certainly traces of this language and culture before then, but it wasn’t until about the 1820s that this group was referred to collectively as a community called the Metis, or the Red River Metis. It wasn’t until then that we have a clear record of the Métis creating their own culture, and their own identity; that may not started start until the 1820s when settlers started coming this far west.

MI : And so today where would we find speakers of Michif?

NR : There are speakers in Manitoba in a few communities like Camperville, San Clara, and around Binscarth. There are other Métis communities with speakers in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and North Dakota. In the 1870s and 1880s the Métis were dispersed—or it may be more appropriate to say they fled the Red River Valley due to rebellions and battles. So they dispersed across the Prairies. The battle of 1885 is really the one that marked the end of the Métis settlements in the Red River Valley, Louis Riel was hanged, and the Michif language and Métis culture went into hiding after that.

Before that the Métis actually had a pretty good place in society because they were bi-cultural, multilingual, they knew their way around the land, and they often attended school, so they could trade between the groups of settlers and Indigenous peoples. Because of their dual heritage, they could often get along with either community : the First Nations or the settlers.

MI : So before 1885 they could be a part of both communities, and then after 1885 they weren’t really a part of either one?

NR : Yes, unfortunately then they really went into hiding, and it is really from that point that the Métis really begin to be marginalized. Also at that time, more and more French Quebecois were being recruited to settle the west: Quebecois who weren’t of “mixed blood”, and these new settlers really contributed to the marginalization of these “mixed” people.

MI : If the language went “underground” in a sense, that makes it all the more interesting that it was able to survive. The speakers were dispersed across the Prairies, and yet the language was able to survive.

NR : The Michif language really went into hiding. It was only spoken at home, it was not the language the Métis tended to use elsewhere. And there were some Métis communities that, after they spread out, they really just tried not to mix with the other communities to keep their culture alive. Part of the other side of their persecution and isolation is that their underground culture, and marginalized status, meant that they sometimes avoided being sent to residential schools. The residential schools tended to target the reservations, and a lot of Métis just lived out in the bush, off the land, and so some were able to keep their language, and avoid bringing attention to themselves. Certainly not all, or even most, but some were able to do this because they were so dispersed and remote.

MI : So would you say that that is part of the reason they were able to keep their language alive? Because they did keep themselves to themselves, and did try to avoid being a part of too many other communities?

NR : I think so. I mean, this is kind of a huge generalization. Because of the dispersed and multicultural nature of the Métis people, they are very diverse in their histories and experiences. This makes it very hard to generalize, or even say that something usually happened a certain way. Especially because Michif is just one of the languages of the Métis. They also speak a Métis variety of French, and a Métis variety of Cree, among other languages, and so when you try to describe this thing called Michif, it is somewhat ambiguous. Linguists know Michif as this “mixed” language [A creole is a language developed between two groups who develop a pidgin or simplified way of communicating, and eventually develops into a language. A mixed language develops thorough two languages intertwining because the groups are almost completely bilingual]. However, the Métis people see Michif as any one of several languages.

MI : So if you were to estimate, how many speakers would you say there are today?

NR : Our best estimates are a few hundred; however, we don’t really know because a speaker can check Michif on the census, but, as I said, Michif means three different languages, and so we don’t know which language people who say they speak Michif necessarily mean. Even when Michif is included in the census (2011), the numbers it comes out with are kind of meaningless unless you also know which language the speakers are referring to—a speaker can check the Michif box, but what does that mean: Michif French, Michif Cree, or the mixed Michif [There were 640 respondents in 2011’s census who reported Michif as a Mother Language].

MI : So when a Romance language (French) and an Algonquian First Nations language (Plains Cree) mix, what does that end up looking like?

NR : Well, people have differing views on what it looks like, but overall, it does look like it has a heavy influence from French, but it is mostly Plains Cree. The nouns and adjectives tend to come from French, and most of the verbs tend to come from Plains Cree. That’s very broadly speaking: in reality it isn’t exactly that cleanly split.

MI : Would someone who speaks French understand Michif better or worse than someone who speaks Cree?

NR : Someone who speaks Cree will understand Michif a little better than someone who speaks French, but it would still be very difficult. However, I do think the language, as a whole, is more like an Algonquian (First Nations) language than a Romance language like French. However, there is a large number of French words incorporated into it, and even sounds that exist in French, but not in Plains Cree, have become a part of Michif.

MI : So how did you first begin studying Michif? How did you even first hear about it?

NR : I think in the past most people hadn’t even heard of Michif—even here in Winnipeg. I think that is less true now, but it is still not widely known about. It was actually during my Master’s in French linguistics at the University of Toronto that I first heard of Michif. I had always been interested in French in contact with other languages, such as when it creates Creoles [like in the Caribbean].

When one studies languages in contact, there is always a section that covers “mixed languages”, and it is always the same example for a mixed language: Michif. There are others, but that is the one that is most commonly used as the example of a mixed language. I thought to myself, “Really? This is spoken here, in Canada, by the Métis people? I’m from Winnipeg, they speak Michif around there? I’ve never heard of it—I have to go and find out what this thing is.” That was really what started it all. I found out about Michif, and then I called the Manitoba Métis Federation when I was doing my Master’s, and I just asked if anyone spoke Michif, or if they could tell me anything about the language. It turns out they had just begun developing a Michif Language Project, and I started collaborating with them, which I continue to do today. It just all worked out.

[Here is a video of a Michif speaker singing “oh where, oh where has my little dog gone”. Credit : Manitoba Métis Foundation]

Thank you sincerely to Professor Nicole Rosen for her time and fascinating insight into the Michif language. Professor Rosen has done significant work with Métis elders who speak Michif in creating an online dictionary, and making recordings available on a linguistic atlas of the Algonquian languages here [An amazing and fun website to see where the speakers are across Canada]. Importantly, her work has involved listening to the Métis communities’ needs and goals in helping to revitalize and document their own language…or, as we’ve learned, languages.

The Métis have had a very different path toward the formation of that culture and community than many other groups. Their language and culture is young, and it has already had more than its fair share of trials and strife, yet the Métis culture, and the Michif languages continue to be celebrated today. Hopefully this fascinating language, that played such an important role in Canada’s history, will survive long into the future.

Prof. Rosen has provided several resources so you can learn more about Métis culture and Michif languages:

The Gabriel Dumont Institute

Louis Riel Institute

The Michif Language Project

The Michif Language Dictionary

Learn Michif

Remember to be proud of the languages you speak. Your heritage has a language attached, and you should be proud of what makes you unique.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi


Language of the hands

This week’s post is an interview on a subject I have always wanted to learn more about, and Prof. Erin Wilkinson of the University of Manitoba helped me to learn so much.

Professor Wilkinson is a linguist who studies signed languages, and who grew up speaking one of them. This subject is of such interest to me because it is so understudied and underrepresented in research, yet it responds to an essential need for humans : no matter the barriers, humans will find a way to communicate. Professor Wilkinson played the role of the Canadian Language Museum’s resident Mythbuster as she communicated clearly all the misconceptions, that so many of us –myself included, I am embarrassed to admit—can fall subject to.

Professor Erin Wilkinson (Photo: Clara Haimes Kusumoto)

Professor Erin Wilkinson (Photo: Clara Haimes Kusumoto)

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to study linguistics?

Erin Wilkinson : This is the second most common question asked after “Is sign language universal?” To which the answer is no, signed languages are not universal. I often reply: Are spoken languages universal? Imagine people’s reaction.

My fascination with languages started when I was young. I was born to a hearing family who did not know how to sign, and we all were introduced to the Deaf world as we chose to learn American Sign Language (ASL). Books introduced me to English. I constantly asked my parents how and why did English worked in specific ways. It was a sure sign that I was a bona fide linguist as I was asking all these questions about rules of English compared to ASL.

MI : I think to a lot of people sign language will be thought of as English. I think there is a perception that it is just English in a signed form. How is it different?

EW : Yes, there are two assumptions about signed languages. The first assumption is that signed languages in general are not de facto languages [not true languages]. There are many documents that debunk this assumption; however, this assumption prevails among laymen and scholars.

The second assumption is that the signed language is a visual representation of their surrounding spoken language (however it would be more appropriate to say that it’s a visual representation of their surrounding written languages, as deaf people do not have access to spoken languages) [Meaning people often think that American sign language is just English using your hands instead of your mouth/pen].

Now, if we compare signed languages with spoken languages, then we must be cautious when we go down this road. There are many aspects of signed languages that are found in spoken languages (and vice versa); however, there appear to be modality-specific properties that only can happen in signed languages (visual-gestural) or spoken languages (oral-auditory) [Meaning that even though there are many similarities between a Signed Language and a spoken one, there are certain things that only occur in languages that are visual, and others that only occur in languages that are spoken]. It is important to understand that research on signed languages is far more sparse and is (relatively) young compared to the long history of spoken language linguistics. Second, we need to consider: what makes signed language communities? Deaf people are unique in terms of linguistic–cultural minorities. There is no evidence of a signed language community that can be classified as language majority, let alone a signed language as language majority in a community that has members who speak [meaning that users of a signed language make up the majority of a given community]. Sure, deaf people cannot hear English, but the Deaf people go to school, work, shop, text and go on the Internet. They clearly use written language to function in many situations, and it is not surprising to see characteristics of language contact (e.g. code switching or language mixing). Thus deaf people are bilingual by default.

MI : I think many people assume there is one sign language for all the English-speaking countries. How do the signed languages differ in the English-speaking world, and why?

EW : Yes, that is true as this is one of some common misconceptions that many people have. We don’t find that to be true. The classic example is signed languages used in the UK and the USA. Both the UK and USA are English-speaking countries, but they do not have an identical signed language “British accent” or “American accent”, but instead signed languages used are very different. The mutual intelligibility between British and American signers is low (similar to English speakers trying to understand Russian). Furthermore, Irish Sign Language is also different from both British and American signed languages.

MI : What does the study of signed languages reveal about languages more broadly?

EW : Studying signed languages helps us (linguists and cognitive scientists) to understand more about how the mind works. Most studies revolve on examining how modality [how one conveys meaning, whether it be writing, speaking, or signing] shapes language structure, but there are other studies that examine language typology, language evolution, and much more—which helps us understand what defines language. We seek what defines language by understanding more about modality-independent and modality-dependent properties.

Signed language studies generally are more challenging to conduct compared to studies on major languages (e.g. English, Spanish, etc) for various reasons. First, there are few signed language linguists in the world. Second, recruiting signed language members for research is not that easy, and they are considered a highly vulnerable population. Third, it is extremely time-consuming to code signed language data (it is difficult to transfer visual materials into searchable codes since this would involve a lot of money, and of course time). There are so many things about signed languages we still don’t know much. Especially typological diversity in signed languages—how to discover more signed language variation.

MI : Are there “accents” in signed languages? And what does it “sound”/look like?

EW : Accents are conveyed in different ways—similar to spoken languages—with word choice (regional lexical variation) or phonological variation (e.g. some are more likely to move their hands lower whereas others would keep their hands higher in the signing space). Don’t forget this—everyone has an accent. What more is that we have a “hearing accent” – nondeaf signers have their own accent that is not seen in deaf signers because the nondeaf have learned it as a second language. Language proficiency also reflects different types of “accent”—deaf people who acquire signed language later in their life do not produce signed language similar to deaf people who acquired signed language at birth.

MI : What is the health, in terms of number of speakers, of signed languages in Canada?

EW : Maritimes SL : There are still a few descendants of Maritimes SL users in Canada, but they are not primary users of Maritimes SL.

Inuit SL : Fragile. Few language users in the North.

LSQ (Quebecois): Healthy. However it is much smaller compared to ASL population in Canada and the US.

ASL: Healthy. ASL may be considered as one of the largest signed language varieties in the world given the large population (of ASL signers, including both deaf and hearing signers. In the US, ASL is 4th most popular language taught in universities).

MI : What are some defining features of Canadian Sign Language?

EW : I will give you some ideas about what is the Canadian variety of ASL; however, this area is extremely poorly investigated. I’ll only talk about lexical variations [Choosing “supper” over “dinner”, for example].

Some lexical variation that clearly defines Canadians from Americans: government, plenty [Meaning that Canadians have a different way of signing these words]

There is also lexical variation within Canada that could identify the signer from a specific region: e.g. the words for committee (in Vancouver), or to talk-about something (in Ontario).

MI : How are new words formed in sign language? If a new concept or idea comes along, is the word “translated” from English, or is a completely different direction likely taken. For example, for a tweet?

EW : Borrowing is normal in languages. So, it’s not surprising to learn that there are English borrowings in ASL. ASL signers have different strategies when a new concept is introduced. Some may be fingerspelled or signed. A sign may be either developed in a “creative” sense of a completely new word, or a modified version of an already existing word [They may create a brand new sign, or they may instead modify an already existing sign, much as we did to repurpose the word “tweet”]. For instance, with “tweet” I have seen ASL signers modify the “bird” sign by moving from the mouth to the torso area with a specific movement.

MI : Are there any words/phrases/concepts that are unique to a sign language that you particularly like?

EW : I don’t have a specific thing in mind, but I am often amazed by how deaf signers seem to choose one sign out of the air to represent an event, a person, or a referent (where the event, person, or referent does not have a unique sign) without consulting each other. The sign they choose clearly conveys the most salient characteristic of the event or person. For instance, if we were talking about someone who we saw at a university function but we didn’t know his name, then I would choose a specific characteristic that would identify the guy out of 50 people. It just blows my mind how quickly they do that and choose one sign to represent a specific referent. (E.g. My friend and I went to a play and that play was unforgettable – for various reasons. At another time and place, my friend chose a sign “teeth-shine” (translation: gleaming teeth) to refer to that play we were at. I knew what he was referring to—the play where we saw lights bouncing from the disco ball that caused an actor’s teeth to “gleam” during the act.)

MI : Finally, is there a perception about signed languages or misunderstanding that you’d like to clarify?

EW : Is a signed language easy to learn? I find this to be a very common question from non-signers. I find this question curious, because it reflects their bias about signed languages. My reply often is asking them a question – do you find learning a new language to be easy? And I also have antecodental reports from family members, friends, students and others, who find learning a new signed language to be much harder than it seems. One of the hot areas in signed language linguistics is second-language learners who also have to learn a new modality (switching from a spoken to a signed language), which is not quite the same as those who are learning a new language in the same modality (a second spoken language).

Second, not only do speakers speak, they also harness their body to express concepts. Speakers in a way are not so different from signers, because they both use their face, hands, and bodies (defined as gestural components). What makes it harder for linguists is that signers combine both linguistic and gestural components in the same medium. The role of gesture in language is significant and merits a blog post by itself!

Finger spelling of American Sign Language Alphabet

Finger spelling of American Sign Language Alphabet

Finger spelling of British Sign Language alphabet

Finger spelling of British Sign Language alphabet










A deep and sincere thank you to Professor Erin Wilkinson for providing such fascinating (and enlightening) answers. Signed languages are, as she said, vastly understudied, and there are so many presumptions, assumptions, and ideas that the speaking world has about signed languages that are a huge oversimplification of the reality—or in many cases just plain wrong.

Learning about signed languages can teach us a lot about languages in general. In some ways it is very different from spoken languages, because it isn’t spoken, and in other ways it can inform us about the way all languages work. Signed languages are unique in that it isn’t often the parents will be the first to teach their child a signed language because in many cases the parents don’t know how to sign one. Instead, the child learns from peers and instructors, and not in the home.

Even if you will never learn a signed language, I thank Professor Wilkinson for busting a whole bunch of myths! Hopefully this will help shed some light on this incredible language for hearing people and the Deaf community alike.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi