Daily Archives: March 4, 2012


I was over at the house of my friends Beth and Keith for a party last night, and at one juncture Keith brought out, fresh from the oven, a nice round hot bannock: a griddle-baked soda bread made with, in this case, oats and flour. It was duly served onto the table next to all the other snack-type items (including a quartet of cheeses that served further to prove that Quebec makes the best cheese in the world), and maple syrup was set out for dipping it in. A small crowd of small children materialized instantly around it, but I did manage to get a piece.

It reminded me of my childhood, sort of. Bannock was a staple when and where I grew up. Not that I relished it as these children did. But I still ate it, a fair amount of it.

Why did I not relish it? And where did I grow up? Regular readers may recall that I have on occasion adverted to my formation in southern Alberta. From that you may speculate that my exposure to bannock was due to the strong Scottish influence thereabouts. This is actually only indirectly true. And in fact I had no idea that bannock was originally Scottish. I assumed it was Indian. As in Canadian First Nations. Specifically Nakoda, also known as Stoney, a branch of the Sioux ethnic group.

My parents worked on the Stoney reserve at Morley, west of Calgary. My younger years were spent in the surrounds of the reserve, and many of the things I went to with my parents were functions on the reserve: tent meetings and house meetings (evangelical gatherings with preaching and prayers and hymns accompanied by electric guitar, bass, and drum – and maybe accordion – late into the evening) and pow-wows (gatherings for competitive and community dancing in ornate costumes to the beat of a central group of drummers and singers) and, on certain holidays, feasts.

At any one of these gatherings, after and before endless rounds of handshaking and greetings of “Âba wathtech” and so on, and washed down with enough strong black tea to float the British navy, and – at feasts – nestled next to turkey and good canned cranberry sauce (I love canned cranberry sauce, especially when it’s still in its cylindrical shape from the can), there would always be squares of bannock. Which in this case was a fairly plain wheat-based soda bread baked in pans, and if ever in my life I had it at any temperature other than room temperature I do not recall it.

Nor would there have been maple syrup for dipping it in. Maples don’t grow in Alberta, and maple syrup is even more expensive there than it is in Ontario. We put Roger’s Golden Syrup (lightly flavoured corn syrup) on our pancakes and corn bread, but not on bannock.

The Stoneys and other First Nations people across much of Canada apparently picked up the concept, recipe, and name of bannock from fur traders. The fur traders brought it from Scotland. The word bannock may come from Old English bannuc and/or may be related to Scots Gaelic bannach, which in turn was probably borrowed from Latin panicium, from panis “bread”.

In other words, like the food, this word also follows a trail of borrowings. Just as the bread is economical and easy to make, the word is not difficult – it would never cause a speaker any panic, in spite of the rhyme – and transfers easily from place to place. You can take it to the bank, as it were. It touches all three main points of articulation in the mouth – lips, tongue-tip, velum – and brings a voiced stop, a nasal, and a voiceless stop. And, true to English form, it uses seven letters to spell five phonemes. It occurs to me that the shape of the word could be seen as a bit like a pan of bannock, with the risers of the b and k the sides and the letters in between the bready contents (have an n, won’t you?).

So was the bannock my equivalent of Proust’s madeleine? Did it bring childhood memories flooding forth unbidden? Well, not the taste of it; as I say, it was somewhat different from the kind I grew up with. But that word bannock, well, now, it took me back to Alberta’s dusty foothills, to a community hall in the Bow Valley full of people mostly talking a language I didn’t understand, who called me by the name Ûpabi Daguscan, “Son of Rock” (to my ears it was “pobby dowscun”) and all commented to me in English on how big I was getting, and to tea and tea and tea and bannock and bannock and bannock.


This word looks architectural, doesn’t it? Or, in a way, like an epergne. Or a post with a basin on either side. Or something, anyway, with a central stem and two cups on the side. But when you say it, the lips don’t show symmetry at all; they show a simple steady rounding all the way through, and the tongue, in its hiding place behind, manifests the symmetry: the tip starting behind the teeth, then flipping up to touch the palate, then dropping back, sort of like the motion with which you remove the skin from, say, a chicken breast or a dead seal.

Not that this word seems symmetrical to everyone. We in English tend to think of the spelling first, and if we have some linguistic knowledge or understanding, we may think in terms of phonemes or phonetics. But what if you think first in terms of syllables? Then you have two: [u] and [lu]. So if you spell this word with a syllabic orthography, you have two characters, one of which may be, say, a triangle pointing to the right, and the other of which may be, let us say, a fish hook lying on its side with the bottom of the hook to the right and the top of the stem to the left. Letter forms are, after all, arbitrary, as transparent as they may seem to the native speaker.

In either case, mind you, I would be able to point at a semicircle in a letter form and say, “Look! A resemblance!” Pure coincidence, but there it is. And what does a semicircle have to do with this word? Well, it’s like this. I have a pizza knife that has a semicircular blade and, attached to it at the diameter, a straight wooden handle. I tend to think of it as an ulu. This is not quite accurate, but there is a resemblance. And ulus are something I saw in pictures and/or videos in school long before I ever saw a pizza knife.

Why would I see ulus, or have seen them? Because I live in Canada and we are taught about the Inuit. For non-Canadians, the Inuit are the people formerly called Eskimos – calling them Eskimos is like calling the Deutsch Germans, or the Saami Laplanders, or calling Magyarország Hungary, or Zhongguo China: it’s using someone else’s term. Obviously we do that a lot, but it happens that we are increasingly tending towards calling people what they call themselves, and that is the case now in Canada with the Inuit.

Which reminds me: one Inu, two or more Inuit; one ulu, two or more uluit. I have been calling them ulus, going by English morphology, but since we now like to keep plural morphology on loan words where we can, we might as well call an ulu and another ulu together uluit.

So, oh, yes, what is it? A knife with a curved blade (now steel, formerly slate) and a handle made of wood, bone, or whatnot. The handle is, like with my pizza cutter, parallel with the tangent of the peak of the blade, but it is attached at one or two points, rather than at full width, as with mine. The curve of the blade is like the curve in your tongue, downward between tip and tail, when you say [ulu] (which does give a new meaning to “cutting remarks”). The ulu is used among the Inuit by women (at least traditionally) for skinning, cutting food, and trimming blocks of snow and ice for igloos (I won’t say igluit, though I could).

And what does the word taste like? I get halo and hula (as in hoop) and lulu and similar curved things, plus uhuru, the widely borrowed Swahili word for “freedom”. And perhaps yoohoo!

Oh, and the interior jungle portion of Malaysia. Which, as the OED tells me, has a word: ulu. We can assume that it’s not what the Inuit have in mind.