My home, Vancouver B.C., just announced new names for two public places: “šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square” and “šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn” . In contrast to just about every other name in this town, these names are not Scottish- or English-derived. Nor are they a Chinese phoneticisation of a Scottish-derived name. Instead, at long last our town asked the First Nations leaders, whose people have been here the longest by far, to contribute the names. I think it is awesome. It is a step towards reconciliation, tiny but real. I think these names will become Vancouver’s new shibboleths.

But names like these represent change, and change is unsettling. The characters are unfamiliar-looking! We don’t know how to pronounce them! There are rectangular boxes showing missing text! There is no ə key on our keyboards! Heh. We seem to have no problem expecting immigrants who grew up with Chinese or Ge’ez or Gujurati writing to learn how to write and pronounce “Granville”, but we are reluctant to step up when it’s our turn.

Never fear. I’m a software engineer specialising in internationalisation and Unicode. Let me explain how to read, type, and spell these names.  It’s really very interesting.

Definitely visit Vancouver’s City of Reconciliation page as your first stop in understanding these names.  They have illuminating videos explaining the meaning of the names, and the rationale for choosing them.  They have excellent audio guides to pronunciation (linked to below for your convenience). I hope the city will eventually find a more permanent URL for the explanation of the names. People will want to refer to these guides for a long time. And I certainly hope that so much reconciliation will be happening here that these names get displaced from the front City of Reconciliation page.

Let’s break down the names systematically. Each combines a word in hǝn̓q̓ǝmin̓ǝm̓ (the Musqueam language) and a word in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (the Squamish language)

šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square is the name of the plaza northeast of the Vancouver Art Gallery. It is bounded by Georgia Street, between Hornby and Howe Streets. OpenStreetMap has a nice map of it. This plaza is the best space this city has for rallies and demonstrations. The name means a “place of cultural gathering”.

How to pronounce it? These are the city’s audio guides: šxʷƛ̓ənəq pronunciation guide, Xwtl’e7énḵ pronunciation guide. (Click your browser’s back button to return here.)

šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn is the name of the plaza southwest of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.  It is bounded by Georgia Street, between Hamilton and Cambie Streets. OpenStreetMap has a nice map of it too. The Walk for Reconciliation starts here, and that played a role in the name. It means, “the place that you are invited to”.

šxʷƛ̓exən pronunciation guide, Xwtl’a7shn pronunciation guide.

You might ask, “what are those crazy letters? Can I have a phonetic spelling instead?” Those are phonetic spellings! It’s just spellings in a phonetic script which maybe you haven’t learned yet.  Both hǝn̓q̓ǝmin̓ǝm̓ and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh are written in variants of Americanist phonetic notation, also known as the North American Phonetic Alphabet or NAPA. What’s the deal with that “7″? It’s a symbol for glottal stop — the same pause that is in “uh-oh”. (I think it’s a simplification of ‘ʔ’, the Latin letter for glottal stop.)

Maybe you mean, “Can I have a spelling which is easy to type with the keyboard I normally use?” That is not a phonetic orthography, that is a practical orthography. Practicality is not a new issue. Each language community chooses what orthography suits their needs and makes the tradeoffs they prefer. The First People’s Cultural Council writes, in Orthographies,

“The Quw’utsun’ Hul’q’umi’num’ of Vancouver Island have chosen a practical alphabet which uses only letters found on an English keyboard, plus the apostrophe. This ensures that their language can be written, typed, and used in email with ease. In contrast, the speakers of χʷmθk̓ʷiʔəm Hən̓q̓əm̓inəm̓, whose traditional territory occupied what is now much of Greater Vancouver, have chosen a linguistic alphabet which emphasizes the distinctness of their language’s sounds. These two alphabets look very different, but both represent the sounds of the language accurately and systematically. “

So, I get it, a practical-orthography spelling of these place names would be helpful “training wheels” for English-speaking settlers who want to learn the names, and to type them without going through the keyboard installation steps I list below. We should respect the names, and the languages and cultures from which those names come, and the orthography they have chosen for their language. Even so, practical spellings would be a useful intermediate step. What I came up with were “shtlunuk Whootla’ANK”, and “shtlehken Whootla’shn”. Maybe someone will come up with something better. I think it would be helpful for adoption if Vancouver were to adopt a preferred practical spelling.

To learn more about hǝn̓q̓əm̓inəm̓, see LanguageGeek’s page on Halkomelem, Hul’q’umi’num’, Hǝn̓q̓ǝmin̓ǝm̓ and Halq’eméylem. There is a Wikipedia article on Halkomelem. These are related names for related languages. I am told that proper names aren’t capitalised in hǝn̓q̓əm̓inəm̓, and so I didn’t capitalise them here.

It turns out it’s not that hard to install fonts and keyboards to let all the characters in these names be displayed, and to type all the characters. And, it’s kind of a fun adventure, especially if you like languages. I have installed all the fonts and keyboards below, on my Mac, and I recommend them.

LanguageGeek’s Coast Salish Keyboards are simple to install.  There are variants, and clear instructions, for Mac OS X (10.6 or later), and for Windows. There are a number of keyboards to choose from. There are two variants for hǝn̓q̓əm̓inəm̓. One places the non-English characters on the number keys, and the other places them on punctuation keys. There is a single keyboard for Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish).

LanguageGeek’s Aboriginal Serif and Aboriginal Sans fonts cover all the non-English characters and accents needed to display these names properly. Each is a family of four: Regular, Italic, Bold, and Bold Italic. They are free to download and use.

The UBC First Nations and Endangered Languages Program offers a First Nations Unicode Keyboard and Font. The font is one weight only. The FNEL_uni keyboard places the non-English characters on letter keys via the Option key, on the Mac. This works fine, but I find I type more easily on the LanguageGeek keyboards. The FNEL_uni keyboard has more non-English characters, and covers more languages, than do the more focussed LanguageGeek keyboards.

Both make typing words like “šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ” pretty straightforward. Pro tip: learn how to display a preview of the keyboard. The preview makes it easy to see which key has the character you want.

Also,  the Google Noto Fonts are a wonderful resource to have on the language enthusiast’s computer. They provide serviceable legibility for pretty much every character in Unicode, which is to say pretty much every character ordinarily usable on computers today. They are free to download.

I am an engineer, specialising in text encodings. When I saw the names, “šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square” and “šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn”, my first thought was: what characters are those?  Wonder no more. They are:

šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square

š U+0161 Latin Small Letter S with caron
x U+0078 Latin Small Letter X
ʷ U+02B7 Modifier Letter Small W
ƛ U+019B Latin Small Letter Lambda with stroke
̓ U+0313 combining comma above
ə U+0259 latin small letter schwa
n U+006E Latin Small Letter N
ə U+0259 latin small letter schwa
q U+0071 Latin Small Letter Q
U+0020 Space
X U+0058 Latin Capital letter X
w U+0077 Latin Small Letter W
t U+0074 Latin Small Letter T
l U+006C Latin Small Letter L
U+2019 Right single quotation mark
e U+0065 Latin Small Letter E
7 U+0037 Digit Seven
é U+00E9 Latin Small Letter E with acute
n U+006E Latin Small Letter N
U+1E35 LATIN SMALL LETTER K WITH LINE BELOW
U+0020 Space
S U+0053 LATIN CAPITAL LETTER S
q U+0071 Latin Small Letter Q
u U+0075 Latin Small Letter U
a U+0061 Latin Small Letter A
r U+0072 Latin Small Letter R
e U+0065 Latin Small Letter E

šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn

š U+0161 Latin Small Letter S with caron
x U+0078 Latin Small Letter X
ʷ U+02B7 Modifier Letter Small W
ƛ U+019B Latin Small Letter Lambda with stroke
̓ U+0313 combining comma above
e U+0065 Latin Small Letter E
x U+0078 Latin Small Letter X
ə U+0259 latin small letter schwa
n U+006E Latin Small Letter N
U+0020 Space
X U+0058 Latin Capital letter X
w U+0077 Latin Small Letter W
t U+0074 Latin Small Letter T
l U+006C Latin Small Letter L
U+2019 Right single quotation mark
a U+0061 Latin Small Letter A
7 U+0037 Digit Seven
s U+0073 Latin Small Letter S
h U+0068 Latin Small Letter H
n U+006E Latin Small Letter N

I look forward to seeing you sometime at (and I’m typing this, not cutting and pasting it) šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square or šxʷƛ̓exən Xwtl’a7shn!

[Update 2018-07-01: corrected typo in name of U+0068. Improved display of combining character placeholder. —ed.]