Points North: A Library by Any Other Name…

Points North

By James Fife

Last time, I mentioned one of my favourite Shakespeare lines. As often happens with the Bard’s musings, another of his famous sayings comes to mind for this topic as well: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” There’s a certain, raw logic to that concept—that names are just so much hot air. But a great wordsmith like Shakespeare was surely aware of the irony of Juliette’s remark: names do have power in themselves. After all, could you imagine so much poetic ink being spilt over roses if their English name were “glorgblucker”?

Reverting again to my old profession of a theoretical linguist, I can vouch for the fact that the shape of words and their meanings are well known to have a mysterious connection. Something explains why so many English words relating to liquidy smooth-moving start with the sequence <sl->, like slide, slippery, slither, sludge, etc.

So, it may not be entirely coincidental that beautiful things have ‘beautiful’ names. The power of our association of sounds with a certain mental image is clear from the trend for entertainers to change their stage names. It can be as simple as using a name audiences won’t trip over to pronounce (as Mladen Sekulovich becoming Karl Malden). But mostly the aim is conjuring up a desired image. Who would picture a manly, action hero by the name of Marion Morrison (John Wayne) or Roy Scherer (Rock Hudson), or a sultry femme fatale sporting the moniker Norma Jean Mortenson (Marilyn Monroe) or Betty Joan Perske (Lauren Bacall)? On the more serious side, some changes seem intended to ‘anglicize’ ethnic names that may have negative connotations to some people: George Burns (aka Nathan Birnbaum), Alan Alda (Alphonso D’Abruzzo), or Ben Kingsley (Krishna Banji). The trend continues today with singer pseudonyms: Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta), Coolio (Artis Ivey), or Bruno Mars (Peter Gene Hernandez).

All this shows that names do matter. The name we give something marks it with what it connotes in peoples’ minds. That is the great significance of the recent naming of the James Bay branch of the Greater Victoria Library with an indigenous term: sxweŋ’xwəŋ taŋ’exw. This is the native name of the James Bay area where the library is going up, according to Songhees elder Dr. Elmer Seniemten George. It was chosen in response to the most popular suggestion from the public, which was to name the library in honour of the First Nations. Very suitable that, hard on the heels of the Year of Reconciliation, a civic amenity is given a name to draw into the public eye the deep roots of our diverse community in Victoria. It’s a concrete example of a name being more than a label: a library by any other name would not have the effect of sxweŋ’xwəŋ taŋ’exw.

I was one of those 150+ people who suggested a native name of some sort for the new library. But my knowledge of SENĆOŦEN (the local dialect group of Coast Salish) is pretty near nil, so my suggestion was rather generic: Lekwungen, the anglicized version of the original name for the Victoria-area native people. I like the selected name much better, because it captures even more the connection of a land, its people, and its history—because it is more precise. I’m proud to have been part of the effort to use the naming of the new library for this purpose. It binds me that much more closely with my new, adopted Home North.

But the naming process needs to go one step farther, I think. It is honourable and respectful to continue/revive the use of original names for places. As a linguist, however, I know that original names, even when ‘maintained’ in use, get worn down and adapted to the regular speech of those using them. That is true for many native names in the Victoria area—they have all had their unfamiliar edges squared off to make them flow more readily off the tongues of English speakers. So, we still use names like Saanich, Cowichan, Malahat, and Metchosin, but, obviously, those names only approximate the native pronunciation. Even names that have few unfamiliar sounds, like Sooke (T’sou-ke), have to find a suitable transliteration. So, I made use of my linguistic training to propose an anglicized version of  the library’s name that will not be so visually off-putting as sxweŋ’xwəŋ taŋ’exw. 

My rendition for the common keyboard is: Shwenghwung Tanghoo. Now, that does not quite capture the true phonetic quality, such as I would transcribe it scientifically from Dr. George’s pronunciation on the City of Victoria website. Songhees sounds like [xw] and [ŋ’] are ones English does not use. But my version does come at least as close to the proper pronunciation as some names in regular use, such as Esquimalt (standing in for SXIMEȽEȽ). My spelling looks a little outlandish, I’ll admit. Still, that feeling should lessen over time, as the eye and the tongue get used to it. It’s a minor cost to gain something of true value: a name that genuinely fits the place and says more than just a name. It’s a rose that smells sweeter for the honour it does and reconciliation it offers.

[Because this article will appear in the March 1st issue, let me take this opportunity to wish all the Welsh Victorians a Happy St. David’s Day].

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