Overview

Communities where Aboriginal languages are spoken are found in all regions of Canada. There are around 60 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, falling into 10 separate language families. While in many places there has been decreased transmission of languages from one generation to the next, recognition of this has led to efforts by Aboriginal peoples in many communities across the country to revitalize and sustain their languages. Canada, and North America more generally, represent a highly complex linguistic region, with a large number of languages and great linguistic diversity. Aboriginal languages are spoken widely, and are official languages in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, while the Yukon recognizes the significance of Aboriginal languages of the territory.

Geographic Distribution

The distribution of language families, or languages with a common ancestor, is quite varied across Canada. Languages from two families, Algonquian and Iroquoian, are traditionally found east of Lake Winnipeg. In the Prairies, there are speakers of Algonquian, Siouan, and Dene (Athapaskan/Athabaskan/Athabascan and Tlingit) languages, while speakers of Dene, Inuit and Algonquian languages inhabit the Subarctic. The province of British Columbia is linguistically highly diverse, with languages of the Salishan, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Dene (Athapaskan/Athabaskan/Athabascan and Tlingit) and Algonquian families spoken there as well as the isolates Haida/Xaad Kil and Kutenai/Ktunaxa. Related languages are found in other regions: Algonquian, Iroquoian, Dene, Siouan and Salishan languages are also spoken in the United States; and languages that are closely related to Inuit are spoken in the United States, as well as in Siberia and Greenland. The Dene languages are thought to be related to the Yeniseian languages of Siberia.

The concentration of language families in the Pacific Northwest suggests 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 with archaeological and ethnological findings. By contrast, central and eastern Canada are dominated by the Algonquian family and particularly by two languages, Cree and Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwa. This situation suggests more recent language spreads relative to the West.

Varieties

Languages generally have many varieties, or dialects, and the Aboriginal languages in Canada are no exception. Many of these languages have several more or less mutually intelligible dialects, particularly when the language is distributed over a large area. For instance, Cree is considered to be a single language with eight or more variants spoken in dozens of communities and reserves from the Rockies well into Québec and Labrador; and Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwa, with a number of dialect variants, is found in many communities throughout central Canada. While not all speakers understand all varieties of a language, the varieties are identified as a single language on the basis of linguistic characteristics. If speakers of a language use that language infrequently for communication with speakers of a related variety of the language, mutual intelligibility might diminish, with dialects then coming to be recognized as different languages rather than different varieties of a single language.

Linguistic Diversity

Aboriginal languages in Canada show great diversity in their structures. In terms of sounds, they range from a very small number to a large number of sounds. Cayuga (Iroquoian family) has a small number of distinct sounds, with 10 consonants and six vowels. Nishnaabemwin, a variety of Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwa, has around 18 consonants, three short vowels and four long vowels. At the other extreme, Witsuwit’en, a Dene language, has 35 consonants and six vowels. Lilloet/St’át’imcets/Lil’wat (Salishan family) has 44 consonants and eight vowels; and Oowekyala (Wakashan family) has 45 consonants, four plain vowels, three glottalized vowels and three long vowels.

Words in many of the Aboriginal languages are typically complex, often expressing in a word what is contained in a sentence in languages like English and French. Such languages are often called polysynthetic, with words composed of a string of meaningful parts. Examples from Inuktitut (South Baffin variety) and Nuu-chah-nulth (Wakashan family) illustrate this. The meaningful parts (morphemes) are separated by hyphens in the words shown here, with translations of those morphemes included.

Inuktitut (South Baffin variety)

taqa-ju-mmari-alu-u-junga

fatigue-participle-genuine-a lot-be-1 person singular participle

‘I’m really tired’

Nuu-chah-nulth

ʔaapinis-ʔiic-mah.sa-ʔiiʃ-ʔaɬ

apple-consume-want to-3 person subject. indicative mood-plural

‘They want to eat apples’

Many Aboriginal languages mark distinctions that are not found in languages such as English and French. For instance, Passamaquoddy-Maliseet (Algonquian) and other Algonquian languages distinguish two types of first person plural, one called inclusive and the other exclusive. The inclusive includes the speaker and the hearer (we — you and I — leave early tomorrow), while the exclusive does not include the hearer (we – my family and you are not part of my family — leave early tomorrow). Passamaquoddy-Maliseet uses the pronoun nilun for the inclusive and the pronoun kilun for the exclusive.

Algonquian languages also have two classes of nouns, called animate and inanimate. The Blackfoot examples show animate and inanimate nouns. The singular and plural suffixes that are used depend on whether the noun is animate or inanimate.

Blackfoot

Singular animate

plural animate

nínaa-wa

‘man’

nína-iksi

‘men’

natáyo-wa

‘lynx’

natáyo-iksi

‘lynx’ (plural)

om-wa

‘that one’ (animate)

om-iksi

‘those’ (animate)

singular inanimate

plural inanimate

owáa-yi

‘egg’

owá-ístsi

‘eggs’

aohkíí-yi

‘water’

aohkí-ístsi

‘waters’

om-i

‘that one’ (inanimate)

om-istsi

‘those’ (inanimate)

In Dakelh/Carrier (Dene family), the form of numerals differs depending on what is being counted. This is illustrated for the numbers two and three.

Dakelh

humans

times

places

abstract

generic

2

nane

nat

nadʌn

naxw

nanki

3

tane

tat

tadʌn

taxw

ta

Many languages have what are called classificatory verbs, with different verb stems depending on the nature of the object under consideration. Dene languages are well known for these. The following items are what are called verb stems in Witsuwit’en (Dene family). These forms do not represent full words.

Witsuwit’en

singular object

plural object

animate (living)

-təy

-tɛz

animate (dead, comatose)

-ɬ-təy

-le

clothlike (unfolded)

-ɬ-coz

n-l-dəw

fluffy

n-l-dəw

n-l-dəw

mushy

-tlɛɣ

-ɬ-zəɣ

liquid

-ɬ-zəɣ

-ɬ-zəɣ

granular

-ʔay

-dzec

compact, abstract, food

-ʔay

-le

ropelike

-le

-le

rigid

-tan

-le

deep container

-ɬ-tan

-le

shallow container

-qay

-le, -qat

Many Aboriginal languages have affixes that indicate control on the part of the agent. The following examples are from Halkomelem, a Salishan language, where the suffix -namət indicates that the action is reflexive and accidental, or not controlled.

Halkomelem

q’waqw-əθət ‘club self’

club-reflexive

q’waqw-namət ‘club self accidentally’

club-limited control reflexive

Some languages have words that indicate different degrees of proximity, as in Blackfoot (Algonquian).

Blackfoot

amo

proximity to speaker but not to addressee

om

proximity to neither speaker nor addressee

anno

proximity to speaker and proximity or familiarity to addressee

ann

proximity or familiarity to addressee but no proximity to speaker

am

proximity and familiarity to speaker

Many languages have words that express the nature of the evidence on which a statement is based, known as evidentials. Gitksan, a Tsimshianic language, has a number of these.

Gitksan

direct evidence, observed by the speaker

-t

sihon-t John

‘John is doing up (processing, cleaning, smoking, canning) fish.’

indirect evidence (hearsay)

-kat

sihon-kat-t John

‘I heard that John is doing up fish.’

indirect evidence, based on knowledge of what generally happens

-ima

sihon-ima-t John

‘John might/must be doing up fish.’

The variety and diversity of Aboriginal languages in Canada help to contribute to the understanding of the ways in which languages are similar and how they can differ.

Language Endangerment and Language (Re)vitalization

Statistics Canada (2011 census report) has estimated that only Cree, Ojibwa and the Inuit languages have sufficient numbers to continue to be spoken well into the future. In many cases, Aboriginal languages are not being adequately transmitted to younger generations. Statistics Canada estimated in the 1996 census that there were about 233,900 persons with a speaking knowledge of at least one Aboriginal language; in 2011 this number was estimated at 240,815 (2011 National Household Survey — Aboriginal Language Knowledge); this represents an increase from 1996 to 2011 of three per cent. At the same time, the Assembly of First Nations reports based on a 2011 survey that approximately 88 per cent of First Nations schools offered Indigenous language programming, with 58 First Nations schools offering immersion programs. Over 31,500 First Nations children, aged 5–14, reported speaking their First Nations language at home in 2011, 19 per cent more than in 2006.

In addition to the growth of language programs in communities and the schools, programs for learning, teaching, documenting and revitalizing Aboriginal languages have been developed by communities, colleges and universities (e.g., CILLDI at the University of Alberta; certificate, bachelor’s and master’s Indigenous language revitalization programs at the University of Victoria; the First Nations Languages Program at the University of British Columbia; and the Yukon Native Language Centre at Yukon College). More in-depth documentation of languages has been carried out in many communities. Many organizations exist to support the health of Aboriginal languages, including First Voices and First Peoples’ Cultural Council and the Nunavut government. Many websites have been developed to encourage language learning; one example is the Michif Language Project.

Classification of Aboriginal Languages in Canada: Language Families and Linguistic Areas

Linguists classify languages into language families, or groups of languages that have a common ancestor, representing genealogical groups. These classifications are based on shared vocabulary, sound correspondences, word structure and other features of the languages. Families are sometimes classified into larger groupings called stocks. John Wesley Powell and Edward Sapir did early classifications. Sapir was influential in grouping language families together into stocks.

Aboriginal languages in Canada are generally grouped into 10 families. The families given below have been well recognized by linguists for some time. Contemporary linguists increasingly use Aboriginal names for languages, and have made increasingly fine divisions into different languages.

The languages listed here are based on the classification in Ethnologue and a variety of other sources. It is important to note that sources do not agree on what is considered a language and what is a dialect, nor on names or spellings. In many places, Aboriginal language names are replacing English language names. Alternative names and spellings are shown with slashes between the names; dialects are in parentheses.

Algonquian

There are many Algonquian languages in the United States as well as in Canada, with Algonquian-language communities found across both countries.

Languages in Canada:

Blackfoot (two dialects: Pikanii, Siksika); Cree (dialects: Plains Cree/Nehiyawewin/ ᓀᐦᐃᔭᐍᐏᐣ, Woods Cree/Nthithawīwin, Moose Cree, Swampy Cree, Northern East Cree, Southern East Cree) and closely related Montagnais (dialects Western Montagnais: Piyekwâkamî, Betsiamites; Eastern Montagnais: Innu-Aimûn) Naskapi, Atikamekw/Nēhinawēwin/Nehirâmowin); Delaware (dialect: Munsee); Mi'kmaq, Maliseet-Passamaquoddy; Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwe/Ojibwa (dialects: Algonquin, Central, Eastern, Nipissing Algonquin, Northwestern, Odawa, Oji-Cree/Severn Ojibwa, Saulteaux, Western Saulteaux), Potawatomi/Neshnabémowen, Western Abenaki.

Michif is a creole, based on Cree and French.

Dene (Athapaskan/Athabaskan/Athabascan + Tlingit)

Dene languages include those classified as Athapaskan/Athabaskan/Athabascan (often now called Dene) and Tlingit. These languages are spoken in Canada and the United States.

Languages Spoken in Canada:

Athapaskan/Athabaskan/Atahbascan: Dane-Zaa/Beaver, Dakelh/Carrier/ᑕᗸᒡ, Tsilhqot’in/Chilcotin, Witsuwit’en/Babine-Witsuwit’en, Dene Su̜ɬiné/Chipewyan, South Slavey/Dene Zhatié/Dene Dhah, Tɬi̜cho̜ Yatìi/Dogrib, Gwich'in, Hän/Han (Dawson dialect), Tsuut’ina/Sarcee/Sarsi, Tsek’ene/Tse’khene/Sekani, Dene/North Slavey (dialects Bearlake/Déli̜ne, Hare/K’ásho, Mountain/Shúhta/Shíhta), Tahltan/Tāɬtān], Kaska/Danezāgé’, Tagish, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Upper Tanana.

Tlingit/ɬingít

Eskimo-Aleut/Eskaleut

Languages of this family are spoken in Canada, the United States, Greenland and Siberia.

Languages in Canada:

Western Canadian Inuktun (dialects Siglitun, Inuinnaqtun, Natsilingmiutut), Eastern Canadian Inuktitut (dialects Kivalliq, Aivilik, North Baffin, South Baffin, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut)

Xaad Kil/Xaaydaa Kil/Haida (isolate)

Haida is spoken in Alaska as well as in British Columbia.

Dialects in Canada:

Skidegate, Masset

Iroquoian

Languages of the Iroquoian family are spoken in both Canada and the United States. The Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca and Tuscarora group form the Six Nations.

Languages in Canada:

Cayuga (two dialects), Mohawk (several dialects), Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora, Wendat

Ktunaxa/Kutenai/Kootenai (isolate)

Ktunaxa is spoken in Canada, with some speakers in the United States as well.

Salishan

Salishan languages are found in Canada and the United States.

Languages in Canada:

Nuxalk/Bella Coola, Éy7á7juuthem/ʔayʔjuθəm-Saɬuɬtxw (dialects Comox, Sliammon, Homalco, Klahoose), Halkomelem (Halq’eméylem, Hul’q’umi’num’, Halq’eméylem), Lushootseed, SENĆOTEN/Saanich/Northern Straits Salish), St’át’imcets/Lillooet, Okanagan-Colville (several dialects), Shashishalhem/Sechelt, Secwepemctsin/Shuswap, Squamish/Sqwxwumish/Skwxwu7mesh, Straits (several dialects), Nɬeʔkepmxcín/Thompson

Siouan

Siouan languages are spoken in the United States as well as in Canada.

Languages in Canada:

Nakoda/Stoney, Assiniboine/Nakota, Lakota (Teton), Dakota/Sioux (Yankton, Santee)

Tsimshianic

Tsimshianic languages are found primarily in British Columbia, with some speakers in Alaska.

Languages in Canada:

Sm’algyax./Coast Tsimshian, Ski:xs/Sgüüx.s/Southern Tsimshian, Gitsenimx./Gitxsan/Gitksan, Nisga’a/Nishga/Nass

Wakashan

Wakashan languages are found in Canada, with some speakers in the United States.

Languages in Canada:

Xenaksialak’ala/Haisla, Hailhzaqvla/Heiltsuk-Oowekyala (dialects Heiltsuk/Bella Bella, Oowekyala), Kwak’wala, Nuu-chah-nulth/Nootka, Diitiidʔaatx/Ditidaht/Nitinat/Nitinaht

There are also speakers of creole languages, or languages that arise as a result of contact between speakers of unrelated languages. Chinuk Wawa/Chinook Jargon originated as a trade language. It combines elements of Chinook, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Canadian French.

Some of the languages and dialects have very few first language speakers, and some have no known speakers. In many communities, people are working from written materials in and about the language to reclaim the language.

In addition to the genealogical groupings outlined above, languages can also bear similarities to each other due to contact between speakers of the languages. The Northwest Coast of North America has long been recognized as a linguistic area where the languages are similar in some ways, although they belong to different language families. In the Northwest Coast area of Canada, languages of the Wakashan and Salishan families, Tlingit, and Haida share many characteristics, together with languages of a number of languages of the United States (Chimakuan languages, Lower Chinook, Alsea, Siuslaw, Takelma, Kalapuya, Coos, some Pacific Coast Athabaskan) even though they are not genealogically related. For instance, languages of this area have large numbers of consonants and many of them have tones (a difference in meaning can be marked by differences in the pitch of a word; for instance in the Dene language Tɬi̜cho̜ Yatiì (Dogrib), jih means ‘mitts’ and jìh means ‘fishhook’ – the only difference between them is that in ‘fishhook’ the pitch is lower (marked with a grave accent) ‘than it is in ‘mitts’). Many exhibit reduplication (St’át’imcets/Lillooet: s-qwəm ‘mountain’, s-qwə́m-qwəm ‘mountain range’; cíʔiʕ’w ‘to bleed’, cíʔ-cʔiʕ’w ‘to bleed all over’).