Our Languages

The Yinka Déné Language Institute deals with the Athabaskan languages of Northern British Columbia, with a focus on Dakelh (Carrier), Babine-Witsuwit'en, and Sekani.

Dakelh in the narrow sense, is spoken from Fraser Lake to the East, including Stuart Lake and Trembleur Lake, as far as the Fraser River and beyond, and to the south, in the Blackwater region from around Quesnel and the Bowron Lakes to Anahim Lake in the West. Dakelh in the narrow sense consists of three main dialects: the Stuart-Trembleur Lake dialect, spoken by members of the Tl'azt'en, Nak'azdli, and Yekooche bands, the Nechakoh dialect, spoken by members of the Saik'uz (Stoney Creek), Nadleh, Stellakoh, Lheidli T'enneh and Cheslatta bands, and the Blackwater dialect, spoken by members of the Ulkatcho, Kluskus, Nazkoh, and Red Bluff bands.

Sekani is spoken over a large area to the North of Dakelh territory including what were originally the Finlay and Parsnip River drainages, in the communities of McLeod Lake, Fort Ware, and Ingenika, as well as by some members of the Takla, Tl'azt'en, and Nak'azdli bands. Although related, Sekani and Dakelh are not mutually intelligible. However, Sekani and Dakelh people have close links through shared used of territory and intermarriage.

You can see the location of our languages on this map of the native languages of British Columbia.

Map of BC Native Languages

The Athabaskan language family has three geographic branches. (For details of the classification of the Athabaskan languages, see the Classified List of BC Native Languages.) All of our languages belong to the Northern Athabaskan branch. Many members of this branch are spoken in North-Western Canada. Most of the languages of the northern interior of British Columbia are Athabaskan. These are:

Two Athabaskan languages of British Columbia are considered extinct: Tsetsaut, once spoken on the coast of northern British Columbia along the Portland Channel, and Nicola, once spoken in the Nicola Valley.

With the exception of Tlingit, the native languages of the Yukon are also Athabaskan. These are:

Slave has several dialects: Bear Lake, Hare or Hareskin, Mountain, and Slavey. Some people, especially speakers of these dialects, will refer specifically to the dialect and do not use the more general term Slave.

For a map of the languages of the Yukon as well as other information, you may consult the web site of the Yukon Native Language Centre.

Most of the Northwest Territories is also Athabaskan territory. The Athabaskan languages of the Northwest Territories are:

Three Athabaskan languages are spoken in Alberta:

Chippewyan also extends into Sasketchewan.

Most of the languages of southern and eastern Alaska are also Athabaskan, including:

For additional information on the native languages of Alaska, including a map, you may consult the web site of the Alaska Native Language Center.

The second branch is the Pacific Coast Branch, whose members are located along the Pacific coast from northern California to southern Washingston. These are:

These languages are all extinct except for Hupa (about 20 speakers) and Tolowa (three speakers) in northern California, and Tututni (two speakers) in Oregon. The Pacific Coast Athabaskans are believed to have migrated from British Columbia about 1400 years ago. Some information about these languages is available on the California Athapascan Home Page.

The third branch is the Apachean branch, consisting of Navajo and the five Apache languages: Western, Jicarilla, Mescalero-Chiricahua, Lipan and Plains (also known as Kiowa-Apache). The Apachean peoples are believed to have migrated to the American South-west about 1000 years ago. These languages appear to be most closely related to Tsuut'ina (Sarcee), in the vicinity of Calgary.

The nearly extinct Eyak language, spoken in southern Alaska, is a sister of the Athabaskan family as a whole. Tlingit, spoken in northern British Columbia, the Yukon, and southern Alaska, is a sister of Athabaskan-Eyak.

The entire language family is known by the cumbersome name Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit (AET). The term Na-Dene is sometimes used, but strictly speaking this refers to a proposed language family that includes Haida, the relationship of which to the other languages is generally considered to be unproven.

AET languages are spoken over a large part of North America, including large parts of British Columbia, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Alberta and Alaska, as well as parts of the American Southwest and the coast of the American Northwest.

Our Athabaskan languages have neighbors belonging to other language families. To the East of Dakelh, there is Cree, an Algonquian language, and to the South-east, Shuswap, a Salishan language. To the West are Gitksan and Nisga'a, both Tsimshianic languages, Haisla, a Wakashan language, and Nuxalk, a Salishan language. To the South of Chilcotin lie Shuswap and Lilloet, both Salishan languages.

Our languages are closely tied to the culture and to the land. Every place of significance has a name. These names often describe the place or record an event associated with it. For example, Tachie River is known as Duzdlikoh. ``the river in which driftwood flows''. Burns Lake is called Dzilh Ggiz Bin ``the lake betweeen the mountains''. Mouse Mountain, opposite Fraser Lake, is called Neyilasts'ah ``cannibal's pinkie'' because the bluff highup on the mountain looks like a crooked little finger and a family of cannibals is said to have lived in a cave in its side. Chinlac, the site of a large village on the Stuart River near its confluence with the Nechako destroyed around 1745, is a contraction of duchun nidulak ``wood floats to a terminus'', which describes the way in which driftwood accumulates on the sandbar in the river.

The places that are named include not only obvious geographical features such as mountains, lakes, and rivers, but also many places that are important because of their use by Dakelh people. For example, Ts'alk'et ``Diaper Moss Place'' is the name of a boggy area along the old trail from Saik'uz to Nadleh, now Telegraph Road. It is named after the ts'al (Diaper Moss) that grows there in abundance. Diaper moss is important because it is used for diapers, menstrual pads, and the like. The information that Diaper Moss grows there conveys to a Dakelh person the fact that 'uyak'unulh'a (Labrador Tea) also grows there since they grow in the same environment. Labrador Tea is used as a drink and as a medicine. An island in Stuart Lake is known as Tsinteltehnoola ``the island where there are ling cod underwater'' because people spear ling cod on the reef surrounding it.


Yinka Déné Language Institute © 2006