Common English spelling ‘Wolastoq’ is misleading, leads to mispronunciation, says Maliseet scholar
Maliseet people in New Brunswick want to see the name of the St. John River changed back to “Wolastoq,” its original Indigenous name.
But one Maliseet scholar said before that happens, there needs to be a consensus on the proper spelling and pronunciation of the word, which is also used to describe the nation itself.
Andrea Bear Nicholas, a former chair in native studies at St. Thomas University from Tobique First Nation, said the common English spelling “Wolastoq” is misleading because it often leads to non-Maliseet speakers mispronouncing the word.
“I have a huge objection to ‘Wolastoq’ as the actual spelling of the river,” she said.
‘Grating to the ears’
The spelling should reflect the pronunciation, she said: “Wələstəq” in the phonetic alphabet used in dictionaries, with the “ə” making the “uh” sound.
“It’s not a strange sound to English speakers, whereas ‘Wolastoq’ has been pronounced by non-speakers as ‘wall-ostock’ and that is so grating to the ears of speakers of our language, and so counter to the intention of this project of returning to our original name,” Bear Nicholas said.
“It’s fine enough to go back to an original name, but if no one can pronounce it correctly, we’re going two steps backward.”
The push was launched by the Wolastoq Grand Council to support an idea that came from Maliseet youth. They circulated a petition supporting the idea at Treaty Day celebrations in Fredericton last weekend.
The river was named after John the Baptist in 1604 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who reached the mouth of the river on June 24, the Catholic feast day of the saint.
‘It’s fine enough to go back to an original name, but if no one can pronounce it correctly, we’re going two steps backward.’– Andrea Bear Nicholas, former chair of native studies at St. Thomas University
“Wolastoq” means “Beautiful River” and the Maliseet call themselves Wolastoqiyik, which can mean “People of the River” or “People at the River.”
Wolastoq Grand Chief Ron Tremblay, one of the leaders of the renaming campaign, couldn’t be reached to comment Wednesday.
Bear Nicholas, who has been working on a Maliseet language immersion program for the provincial government, said she supports the renaming.
“This would be part of announcing our presence, that we’re still here, and that somebody took it upon themselves to change these names as a kind of a colonial act of claiming territory that didn’t belong to them,” she said.
Pronunciation needs correcting
The renaming may be complicated by the fact a long stretch of the St. John River is in Maine.
“It would become another issue of course to have the state of Maine change the name too,” Bear Nicholas said.
No one from the New Brunswick government’s toponymy services office, which oversees the naming of places and geographic features in the province, would comment Wednesday to describe what process would be needed to change the river’s name.
Bear Nicholas said she hopes elders who speak Maliseet, community members who are learning the language, and those lobbying for the name change can gather this summer to settle on a pronunciation and spelling.
“In my mind this is a really important one that should not go out to the public until our people have had a chance to reach a consensus around the spelling and even the pronunciation,” she said.
She said she has heard “Wolastoq” mispronounced often, including by government officials.
And with only a few dozen people still speaking the language, she said the mispronunciation could become the permanent, accepted version if it’s not corrected now.
“That’s really counter to what I think this group wants to achieve,” she said.