The Kwak’wala language is a part of the Wakashan language group. Word lists and some documentation of Kwak’wala were created from the early period of contact with Europeans in the 18th century, but a systematic attempt to record the language did not occur before the work of Franz Boas in the late 19th and early 20th century. The use of Kwak’wala declined significantly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mainly due to the assimilationist policies of the Canadian government. Kwakwa’wakw children were forced to attend residential schools at which English was required to be used. Although Kwak’wala and Kwakwaka’wakw culture have been well-studied by linguists and anthropologists, these efforts did not reverse the trends leading to language loss. According to Guy Buchholtzer, “The anthropological discourse had too often become a long monologue, in which the Kwakwaka’wakw had nothing to say.”
As a result of these pressures, there are relatively few Kwak’wala speakers today. Most remaining speakers are past the age of child-rearing, which is considered a crucial stage for language transmission. As with many other Indigenous languages, there are significant barriers to language revitalization. Another barrier separating new learners from the native speaker is the presence of four separate orthographies; the young are taught U’mista or NAPA, while the older generations generally use Boaz, developed by the American anthropologist Franz Boas.
A number of revitalization efforts are underway. A 2005 proposal to build a Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations Centre for Language Culture has gained wide support. A review of revitalization efforts in the 1990s showed that the potential to fully revitalize Kwak’wala still remained, but serious hurdles also existed.
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