British Columbia

New dictionary published for Indigenous Vancouver Island language

The dictionary holds more than 12,000 entries, but a linguist says they are still discovering new words.

Dictionary represents decades of work to revitalize SENĆOŦEN language

A man with grey hair and black-framed glasses consults a thick book.
Louis Claxton reads through the new SENĆOŦEN dictionary he helped create. (Liz McArthur/CBC)

A brand new dictionary was published this past week after decades of work to preserve and translate an Indigenous language.

It contains more than 12,000 words in SENĆOŦEN, the language of the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nations on Vancouver Island's Saanich Peninsula.

SENĆOŦEN is one of the Coast Salish group of languages that is written in a mainly upper-case alphabet.

Now the dictionary will be used as a tool for people working to learn the language.

Louis Claxton, of the Tsawout First Nation, worked with a linguist and other elders from the Tsartlip, Tsawout, Tseycum, and Pauquachin communities to complete the project.

Claxton said people like his mother initially began language preservation and translations to English and he is proud to have helped complete their work.

"There was so much work put in there by a lot of our people that aren't here today. They're the ones that get the credit for doing this."

A close-up of a page of the SENĆOŦEN dictionary.
The dictionary represents contributions from many elders. (Liz McArthur/CBC)

Claxton's sister Belinda made hours of recordings of people speaking SENĆOŦEN and says helping others learn the language is vital for their culture.

"That's our whole philosophy, that's how we conduct ourselves, that's how we get our teachings and our culture."

She says she is starting to hear kids speaking SENĆOŦEN to each other.

"It was nice to hear because I only heard it from my mum and the older generation. It was just like listening to music."

John Elliott's late father, Dave Elliott, spent years writing down SENĆOŦEN words and eventually developed an alphabet specifically for the language.

"He was born in 1910 and he saw the loss of culture and language and it bothered him."

Elliott spent the last few years teaching children enrolled in a SENĆOŦEN immersion elementary school program and is glad to see new resources developed for the language.

"I'm really happy to see that the dictionary has been put together.

Work on a SENĆOŦEN grammar book is now underway.


Linguist Timothy Montler worked for 40 years with the Claxtons and their mother on the project.

Montler has also published a dictionary and grammar guide for the Klallam language, which is spoken on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.