Aboriginal People, Languages

Approximately 51 or 52 distinct indigenous languages are spoken in Canada. These languages fall into 11 separate families. Three of the families consist of only a single language, for which the term isolate is used. Of the remaining eight families, some are groupings of languages as closely related as those comprising the Romance, Germanic or Slavic families of Indo-European, while others are more ramified groupings on the order of Indo-European as a whole. In a few cases the Aboriginal language families of Canada and the rest of North America have been found to be distantly related, although many more proposals of relationship have been advanced than have actually been proven. In the light of present knowledge the majority of Aboriginal language families in North America appear to be as independent from one another as Indo-European is from Uralic, Sino-Tibetan or Japanese. North America is unquestionably one of the most complex linguistic regions in the world.

Many of the Aboriginal languages of Canada are spoken in several more or less mutually intelligible dialects, particularly when the language is distributed over a large area. Thus, CREE is a single language spoken in six recognized dialectal variants in dozens of communities and reserves from the Rockies well into Québec; and Ojibwa, with at least seven dialectical variants, is found in many communities throughout central Canada (see CREE SYLLABICS). Such dialects grade into one another to form chains whose members may approach mutual unintelligibility at the geographic extremes, but the chains themselves are regarded as single languages for purposes of classification. Cree and OJIBWA are two of the 10 Algonquian family languages spoken in Canada; some of these and still others are spoken in the US.

Condition of Canada's Aboriginal Languages

Statistics Canada estimated in the 1991 census that there were about 223 000 persons with a speaking knowledge of at least one Aboriginal language. Assuming that most of these speakers were also persons who reported having at least some INDIAN, MÉTIS or INUIT ancestry, approximately one Aboriginal person in five in Canada had a speaking knowledge of an Aboriginal language at the time. In the late 20th century the majority of native people, particularly younger persons, did not speak an Aboriginal language.

Of the 51 or 52 Aboriginal languages, only Cree, Ojibwa and the languages comprising the Inuit Inupiaq branch of the Eskimo-Aleut family have sufficient numbers of speakers to give them excellent chances of long-term survival. A few of the remaining languages have at least reasonable chances of surviving in the near future, but the majority are endangered, and at least seven were approaching extinction in the mid-1990s, with only a handful of elderly speakers of these still living at the time. Undoubtedly, the number of Aboriginal languages once spoken in Canada considerably exceeded the present number. Nicola (see NICOLA-SIMILKAMEEN) and TSETSAUT (Athapaskan), Pentlatch (Salishan) (see INTERIOR SALISH), and SENECA and Tuscarora (Iroquoian) (see IROQUOIS) were all spoken in Canada in relatively recent times but are now extinct there; some of these are still spoken by small numbers of elderly persons in the US. Other languages that disappeared during the early stages of European contact include: BEOTHUK (isolate), HURON, St. Lawrence Iroquoian, NEUTRAL, and PETUN (all Iroquoian).

Geographic Distribution of Canadian Aboriginal Language Families

Not one of Canada's Aboriginal language families falls exclusively within Canada, and most straddle the US-Canadian border. Eskimo-Aleut extends not only into Alaska, but also into Siberia on the west and Greenland on the east. Within Canada, the Aboriginal language families concentrate in the West. Except for Eskimo-Aleut, whose Inuit Inupiaq branch stretches across the entire Canadian Arctic, only two language families, Algonquian and Iroquoian, are found east of Lake Winnipeg, and only Iroquoian is found exclusively beyond this point. Siouan (see SIOUX), Algonquian and Athapaskan are present in the prairies, although the latter two belong primarily to the Boreal Forest (Subarctic) area; and Athapaskan and Tlingit (see INLAND TLINGIT) are spoken in a number of communities in the BC interior. Along the West Coast and its inland waterways are found large numbers of Salishan, TSIMSHIAN, Wakashan (see NOOTKA) and HAIDA communities. The isolate Kutenai (see KOOTENAY) is located in southeastern BC near the lake and river of that name (Kootenay). Eight of the 11 families are found in BC alone.

This concentration of families has suggested to students of Aboriginal history that the West is a linguistically old area and the most likely staging area for successive migrations of speakers to the south and east, a view which accords quite well with archaeological and ethnological findings. By contrast, central and eastern Canada are dominated by the Algonquian family and particularly by the two languages Cree and Ojibwa. This situation suggests more recent language spreads relative to the West.

Classification of Canada's Aboriginal Languages

Linguistic classification involves both the question of the internal relationships among members of the same family and the question of the external links between families in still larger groupings, termed stocks or superstocks, depending on how comprehensive they are. The membership within families of all of the 50 Aboriginal languages is well established, higher-order groupings far less so.

The high-water mark of Aboriginal language classification for North America was achieved by Edward SAPIR in a famous paper published in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1929, a paper which set the directions of Aboriginal language research for decades afterwards and which still provokes lively debate. In this classification, the numerous families of North America were first grouped into 12 middle-level stocks considered reasonably assured, and then - far more speculatively - into six far-reaching superstocks, considered possible though unproven. All but one of the Canadian Aboriginal families were subsumed under four superstock headings: Algonkin Wakashan (Algonquian, Kutenai, Wakashan, Salishan, plus three families in the US); Na-Dene (Athapaskan, Haida and Tlingit); Penutian (centered in California and Oregon, with Tsimshian the sole Canadian member); Hokan-Siouan (numerous families in the western US and some in Mexico, with the Siouan and Iroquoian families spilling over into Canada).

One family, Eskimo-Aleut, was regarded then, as it is today, as constituting a separate stock. In recent decades there has been a steady retreat among the majority of linguists from this and other massively integrative classificatory schemes, back at least to the middle-level stocks. In some cases, additional middle- and lower-level links have been proposed, even as the higher-order links have come undone through continuing research. Thus, Eyak, a language isolate in Alaska, has been joined to Athapaskan during the same period that saw the dismantling of the Na-Dene superstock as a whole; and the link between Siouan and Iroquoian, while problematic, is on firmer footing today than it was in 1929, although little remains of Sapir's Hokan-Siouan superstock, in which both families were originally placed.

Structural Diversity of Aboriginal Languages

Early descriptions of the Aboriginal languages of North America tended to cast them all in the same mold as "polysynthetic" or "holophrastic," in order to capture a tendency found in a number of them toward great complexity of the word, particularly the verb. It was often found that the formal elements expressed in the familiar European languages by separate words or word endings were, in many Aboriginal languages, combined in chains of prefixes or suffixes surrounding basic roots. Certainly there are families such as Eskimo-Aleut, Iroquoian and Algonquian where the term polysynthesis fairly characterizes the verb, but such general typological labels leave a spurious impression of structural uniformity for the whole continent and obscure differences sometimes found even among languages of the same family. Moreover, there are Amerindian languages that are as "analytic" as English, and others that are as "inflective" as Latin and Greek, so that it is impossible to speak of all the Aboriginal languages of the hemisphere as fitting a single structural type or set of types.

In addition, virtually every grammatical category known from the languages of the Old World (systems of person, case, number, gender, tense, mode, aspect, voice) is found among the languages of North America, and there are some unusual categories that have been the focus of considerable interest in Aboriginal language research: verb stems that denote categories of shape and motion, sets of demonstratives that indicate whether an object mentioned by the speaker is visible to him, verb modes that indicate whether what the speaker is saying can be verified from immediate experience, even different sets of numerals to count different classes of objects. One particular line of research which has developed around the so-called world view problem has attempted to determine if, and how, such categories influence habitual thought patterns and modes of perception among speakers.

Aboriginal languages also exhibit great diversity in their sound systems. In some families, such as Iroquoian and Eskimo Aleut, the inventory of basic sounds is fairly limited; in others, particularly those located in the Plateau and on the West Coast, the inventories of basic sounds, especially in consonant series, are quite large.

Aboriginal Language Families of Canada

Algonquian
*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
150 000

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
10 languages in Canada: Blackfoot (two dialects), Cree (Plains, Mitchif [Cree-French Creole], Woods, Moose-Eastern Swampy, Western Swampy, and Attikarnek dialects) and closely related Montagnais and Naskapi, Delaware (Munsee dialect), Mi'kmaq, Maliseet-Passamaquoddy, Ojibwa (Algonquin, Central, Eastern, Northwestern, Ottawa [Odawa], Saukeaux, and Sevem dialects), Potawatomi, ***Western Abenaki.

Athapaskan

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
27 500

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
13 languages in Canada: Babine, Beaver, Carrier, Chilcotin, Chipewyan, Dogrib, Gwich'in [Kutchin] (two dialects), ***Han (Dawson dialect), ***Sarsi [Sarcee], Sekani, Slavey-Hare (Bearlake, Hare, Mountain, and Slavey dialects), ***Tahltan-Kaska-***Tagish (three dialects of one language), Tutchone (Northern and Southern dialects).

Eskimo-Aleut

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
26 800

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
Two languages of the Inuit-lnupiaq branch in Canada: Eastern Canadian Inuit [Inuktitut] (Aivilik, South Baffin, Tarramiut, North Baffin-lglulik, Itivimmiut, and Labrador dialects), Western Canadian Inuit (Siglit, Copper, Caribou, and Netsilik dialects).

Haida

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
220

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
Language isolate (Skidegate and Masset dialects).

Iroquoian

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
730

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
Four languages in Canada: Cayuga (two dialects), Mohawk (several dialects), Oneida, ***Onondaga.

Kutenai

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
170

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
Language isolate.

Salishan

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
3350

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
10 languages in Canada comprising the Coast and Interior divisions, each with further subdivisions: Bella Coola (three dialects), Comox (Sliammon dialect), Halkomelem (three to four dialects), Lillooet, Okanagan (several dialects), ***Sechelt, Shuswap (two dialects), ***Squamish, ***Straits (several dialects), Thompson.

Siouan

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
4540

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
Two languages in Canada belonging to the Dakotan branch of the family: Assiniboine, Stoney.

Tlingit

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
160

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
Language isolate (Inland dialect spoken in Canada).

Tsimshian

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada:
500

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
Two to three languages in Canada: Coast Tsimshian (two dialects, possibly languages), Nass-Gitksan (three dialects).

Wakashan

*Approximate Number of Speakers in Canada
3840

**Languages Spoken in Canada:
Four languages in Canada belonging to the Kwakiutlan and Nootkan branches of the family: Haisla, Heiksuk-Oowokyala (two dialects), Nootka (dialect chain).

Speakers of unidentified aboriginal languages:
5020

Total
222 830

*Data from the 1991 Canadian Census. The census resulted in different figures for the categories Mother Tongue (the language first learned at home and still understood), Home Language (the language spoken most often at home), and Knowledge of Languages (the language(s) spoken well enough to use in a conversation). The present figures, rounded off, are from the third category. While the figures are indicative of relative numbers of speakers, they cannot be taken as absolute, since a number of Aboriginal reserves were incompletely enumerated. The figure for Iroquoian speakers, for instance, is too low, since other sources indicate between 1000-2000 speakers in Canada for Mohawk alone.

**Principal dialects are in parentheses and alternate names of languages and dialects in square brackets.

***Near extinction, or recently extinct, in the mid-1990s. Languages known to be extinct are not listed.

The Status of Proposed Distant Genetic Relationships of Canadian Aboriginal Language Families

Algonquian Family

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Algonquian-Ritwan (Algic)

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
Algonquian + Ritwan (Wiyot and Yurok of NW California)

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
Widely accepted as established. Wiyok and Yurok may not form a separate subgroup as the term Ritwan implies.

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Algonkin-Wakashan

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
Algic (as above) + Mosan (Wakashan, Salishan and, in the US, Chimaknan) + Kutenai + possibly Beothuk (the extinct language of Newfoundland)

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
The overall hypothetical construct considered doubtful, some links (Kutenai with Salishan and/or Algonquian) considered possible. Link with Beothuk now discounted.

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Macro-Algonquian (Algonquian-Gulf)

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
Algic + Gulf grouping in SE US (Muskogean, Natchez, Tunica, Chitimacha, Atakapa)

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
The status of the Gulf grouping uncertain, that of the larger construct even more so.

Athapaskan Family

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Athapaskan-Eyak

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
Athapaskan (Northern Pacific and Southern) + Eyak (Alaska)

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
Widely accepted as established

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Na-Dene

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
Athapaskan-Eyak + Haida + Tlingit

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
Tlingit possibly remotely related to Athapaskan-Eyak, Haida now thought not to be. No relationship yet found between Haida and Tlingit.

Eskimo-Aleut

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
Eskimo-Aleut + Chukotan (Siberia)

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
The connection with Chukotan, now generally accepted, makes Eskimo-Aleut the only Aboriginal language family of North America with a proven Old World connection.

Haida

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Na-Dene

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
See Athapaskan.

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
See Athapaskan.

Iroquoian

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Macro-Siouan

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
Iroquoian + Siouan + Caddoan (central US)

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
The Iroquoian-Siouan link is firmer than the postulated Siouan-Caddoan and Iroquoian-Caddoan links.

Kutenai

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Algonkin-Wakashan

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
See Algonquian.

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
See Algonquian.

Salishan

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Mosan

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
See Algonquian.

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
See Algonquian.

Siouan

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Macro-Siouan

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
See Iroquoian.

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
See Iroquoian.

Tlingit

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Na-Dene

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
See Athapaskan.

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
See Athapaskan.

Tsimshian

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Penutian

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
15 families and isolates mostly found in California and Oregon

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
Penutian grouping postulated but not proven. The relationship with outliers such as Tsimshian is especially tenuous.

Wakashan

Proposed Larger Group Affiliations
Mosan

Stocks, Families or Isolates Included
See Algonquian.

Status of Groupings and Links in Current Research
See Algonquian.

See also COMMUNICATIONS IN THE NORTH; CREE SYLLABICS; NATIVE PEOPLE, EDUCATION.