Opinion: Do you know the way to xwilkway?

Sunshine Coasters finally have a guide for how to say all of those ancient she shashishalhem names that appear on our new highway signs. The shíshálh Nation website – shishalh.com – now has a page that allows you to click on each name and listen to an audio recording of the correct pronunciation.

I expect it will get heavy traffic, based on the number of requests we’ve had to publish a phonetic guide since the new signs went up in March. The band office has obviously been getting those requests too, and the helpful online tool is the result.

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Some of the pronunciations – for salalus (Madeira Park), for instance – have been included on the B.C. Geographical Names website since the shíshálh Nation made the request earlier this year to change the official names of those places. Others – such as xwesam (Roberts Creek) and xwilkway (Halfmoon Bay) – are available for the first time.

Transcribing the traditional names phonetically is easier said than done. There is no conventional way to signify a throat-catch or a sound from the back of the mouth, and some of the vowels are not clear-cut A, E, I or U sounds, hard or soft. As I hear it, xwilkway sounds about halfway between WHALE-KWY and QUAIL-KWY. The almost whistling or whooshing opening sound is even more pronounced in xwesam. Allowing for a bad accent and a soft U, one could probably get away with WU-SAM.

The new guide doesn’t provide any information on the meaning of the place names, though again some details for the ones that have been requested for name changes can be found on the B.C. Geographical Names site. That task, however, is also easier said than done, as meaning can be as tied as sound is to a language. When CBC radio producer Imbert Orchard was interviewing Clarence Joe Sr. in 1965 and asked him to explain the meaning of “Sechelt,” clearly the elder struggled a bit to put it in English.

Clarence told him: “Sechelt means that from way, way back, way back, something like climbing over a log, they say I’m Sechelt – I’m climbing over something, Sechelt. That’s where the name originated from, the Sechelt Nation.” 

“And the Sechelt, before the white man came, they regarded themselves as the Sechelt Nation?” Imbert asked.

“That’s right.” 

With or without their meanings, the traditional names have intrinsic value – they are almost literally part of the landscape – and you should expect to hear them spoken with increasing frequency – if not fluency – in casual conversation up and down the Coast. Think of the fun you can have telling tourists how to get to xwilkway.

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