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Slavey language

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Slavey language

Native to Canada
Region Northwest Territories
Ethnicity Slavey people
Native speakers
760  (2011 census)[1]
Official status
Official language in
North and South Slavey both official in  Northwest Territories (Canada)[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-2 den
ISO 639-3 deninclusive code
Individual codes:
scs – North Slavey
xsl – South Slavey
Sahtu (North Slavey) communities in the Northwest Territories

Slavey (;[3] also Slave, Slavé) is an Athabaskan language spoken among the Slavey First Nations of Canada in the Northwest Territories where it also has official status.[4] The language is written using Canadian Aboriginal syllabics or the Latin script.

Slavey was the native language spoken by the fictional band in the Canadian television series North of 60. Nick Sibbeston, a former Premier of the Northwest Territories, was a Slavey language and culture consultant for the show.

North Slavey language and South Slavey language

North Slavey language (or Sahtúot’ı̨nę Yatı̨́), is spoken by the Sahtu (North Slavey) people in the Mackenzie District along the middle Mackenzie River from Tulita (Fort Norman) north, around Great Bear Lake, and in the Mackenzie Mountains of the Canadian territory of Northwest Territories.

Statistics: Speakers: 1,235 (2006 Statistics Canada)

Alternate names: Slavi, Dené, Mackenzian, Slave

Northern Slavey is an amalgamation of three separate dialects:

  • ᑲᑊᗱᑯᑎᑊᓀ K’áshogot’ıne (Hare, spoken by the Gahwié gotinè - “Rabbitskin People” or K’áshogot’ıne - “Great Hare People”, referring to their dependence on the varying hare for food and clothing, also called Peaux de Lievre or Locheaux)
  • ᓴᑋᕲᒼᑯᑎᑊᓀ Sahtúgot’ıne (Bear Lake, spoken by the Sahtu Dene or Sahtú gotine - “Bear Lake People”, also known as Gens du Lac d'Ours)
  • ᗰᑋᑯᑎᑊᓀ Shıhgot’ıne (Mountain, spoken by the Shıhgot’ıne, Shuhtaot'ine or Shotah Dene - “Mountain People” or Mountain Indians, also called Nahagot’ine, Nahaa or Nahane Dene - “People of the west”, so called because they lived in the mountains west of the other Slavey groups, between the Mackenzie Mountains and the Mackenzie River, from the Redstone River to the Mountain River)

South Slavey language (ᑌᓀ ᒐ Dene-thah, Dené Dháh or Dene Zhatıé), is spoken by the Slavey (South Slavey) people, which were also known as Dehghaot'ine, Deh Cho, Etchareottine - “People Dwelling in the Shelter”, in the region of Great Slave Lake, upper Mackenzie River (Deh Cho - “Big River”) and its drainage, in the District of Mackenzie, northeast Alberta, northwest British Columbia.

Statistics: Speakers: 2,310 (2006 Statistics Canada)

Some communities are bilingual, with the children learning Slavey at home and English when they enter school. Still other communities are monolingual in Slavey [5]

Alternate names: Slavi, Slave, Dené, Mackenzian

The division of Slavey dialects is based largely on the way each one pronounces the old Proto-Athapaskan sounds *dz *ts *ts’ *s and *z.



Labial Alveolar Lateral Postalveolar Velar /
Plosive plain p t k ʔ
Affricate plain ts
aspirated tsʰ tɬʰ tʃʰ
ejective tsʼ tɬʼ tʃʼ
Fricative voiceless s ɬ ʃ x h
voiced z ɮ ʒ ɣ
Nasal m n
Approximant w j

The consonant inventories in the dialects of Slavey differ considerably. The table above lists the 30 consonants common to most or all varieties. Hare lacks aspirated affricates (on red background), which have merged into fricatives, whereas Mountain lacks /w/ (on blue). In addition, for some speakers of Hare, an alveolar flap /ɾ/ has developed into a separate phoneme.

The most pronounced difference is however the realization of a series of consonants that varies greatly in their place of articulation:
Slavey proper Mountain Bearlake Hare
Plain stop/affricate t̪θ p
Aspirated t̪θʰ kʷʰ f
Ejective t̪θʼ kʷʼ ʔw
Voiceless fricative θ f f
Voiced fricative / semivowel ð v w w

In Slavey proper, these are dental affricates and fricatives; comparative Athabaskan work reveals this to be the oldest sound value. Mountain has labials, with the voiceless stop coinciding with pre-existing /p/. Bearlake has labialized velars, but has lenited the voiced fricative to coincide with pre-existing /w/. The most complicated situation is found in Hare, where the plain stop is (as in Bearlake) a labialized velar, the ejective member is replaced by a /ʔw/ sequence, the voiceless fricative is (as in Mountain) /f/, into which the aspirated affricate has collapsed, and the voiced fricative has (again as in Bearlake) been lenited to /w/.

Phonological processes

The following phonological and phonetic statements apply to all four dialects of Slavey.

  • Unaspirated obstruents are either voiceless or weakly voiced, e.g.
    • /k/[k] or [k̬]
  • Aspirated obstruents are strongly aspirated.
  • Ejectives are strongly ejective.
  • When occurring between vowels, ejectives are often voiced, e.g.
    • /kʼ/[ɡˀ] or [kʼ]
  • /t͡sʰ/ is usually strongly velarized, i.e. [tˣ].
  • Velar obstruents are palatalized before front vowels, e.g.
    • /kɛ/[cɛ]
    • /xɛ/[çɛ]
    • /ɣɛ/[ʝɛ]
  • Velar fricatives may be labialized before round vowels.
    • The voiceless fricative is usually labialized, e.g.
      • /xo/[xʷo]
    • The voiced fricative is optionally labialized and may additionally be defricated e.g.
      • /ɣo/[ɣo] or [ɣʷo] or [wo]
  • Velar stops are also labialized before round vowels. These labialized velars are not as heavily rounded as labial velars (which occur in Bearlake and Hare), e.g.
    • /ko/[kʷo]
    • /kʷo/[k̹ʷwo]
  • Lateral affricates are generally alveolar, but sometimes velar, i.e.
    • /tɬ/[tɬ] or [kɬ]
    • /tɬʰ/[tɬʰ] or [kɬʰ]
    • /tɬʼ/[tɬʼ] or [kɬʼ]
  • /x/ may be velar or glottal, i.e.
    • /x/[x] or [h]


  • a [a]
  • e [ɛ]
  • ə [e] or [ie]
  • i [i]
  • o [o]
  • u [u]
  • nasal vowels are marked with an ogonek accent, e.g., ą [ã]
  • South Slavey does not have the ə vowel.


Slavey has two tones:

  • high
  • low

In Slavey orthography, high tone is marked with an acute accent, and low tone is unmarked.

Tones are both lexical and grammatical.

Lexical: /ɡáh/ 'along' vs. /ɡàh/ 'rabbit'

Syllable structure

Slavey morphemes have underlying syllable structures in the stems: CV, CVC, CVnC, V, and VC. The prefixes of the stem occur as Cv, CVC, VC, CV, and C.

Stem structure Example English gloss
CV tu "water"
CVC ʔah "snowshoe"
CVnC mi̜̒ h "net"
V -e Postposition
VC -éh "with"
Prefix structure Example English gloss
CV de- inceptive
CVC teh- "into water"
V í- seriative
VC ah- second person singular subject
C h- classifier (voice element)


Slavey, like many Athabascan languages, has a very specific morpheme order in the verb in which the stem must come last. The morpheme order is shown in the following chart.

Position Description
Position 000 Adverb
Position 00 Object of incorporated posposition
Position 0 Incorporated postposition
Position 1 Adverbial
Position 2 Distributive (yá-)
Position 3 Customary (na-)
Position 4 Incorporated stem
Position 5 Number
Position 6 Direct Object
Position 7 Deictic
Position 8 Theme/derivation
Position 9 Aspect/derivation
Position 10 Conjugation
Position 11 Mode
Position 12 Subject
Position 13 Classifier
Position 14 Stem

A Slavey verb must minimally have positions 13 and 14 to be proper. Here are some examples:



Yahtí "S/he speaks" (basic form)


1- 1- 9-13-13-14

Xayadedhtí "S/he prayed"



Godee "S/he talks"



dagodee "S/he stutters" [5]

Person, number and gender


Slavey has three different genders, one of which is unmarked. The other two are marked by go- and de-. These prefixes are added to verb themes. Only some verb themes, however, allow gender prefixes.

Go- is used for nouns that mark location in either time or space. The gender pronoun can be a direct object, an oblique object or a possessor. Here are examples of each [5]

kú̜e̒ godetl’e̒h

house 3 paints area

“S/he is painting the house”

ko̜̒e̒ gocha

house shelter

“in the shelter of the house”

ko̜̒e̒ godeshi̜te̒ee

house area.floor

“floor of the house”

Some examples of these areal nouns are house (ko̜̒e̒), land (de̒h), river (deh), and winder (xay). [5]

De- marks wood, leaves and branches. This gender is optional: some speakers use it and others do not. Examples of its use follows[5]

Tse de̜la


“wood is located”

ʔo̜̒k’ay t’oge de̒ʔo̜

Bird nest wooden O is located

“A bird’s nest is located”

Tse ts’edehdla̒

Wood 3split wood

“S/he is splitting wood”


Slavey marks number in the subject prefixes in position 12. The dual is marked by the prefix łe̒h- (Sl)/łe- (Bl)/le- (Hr). [5]


“They two got stuck in a narrow passage"

The plural is marked with the prefix go-. [5] Dahgogehthe

They dance


“we go for meat”


Slavey has first, second, third, and fourth person. When in position 12, acting as a subject, first person singular is /h-/, second person singular is /ne-/, first person dual/plural is /i̒d-/, and second person plural is marked by /ah-/. Third person is not marked in this position When occurring as a direct or indirect object, the pronoun prefixes change and fourth person becomes relevant. First person singluar takes se-. Second person singular takes ne- Thirs person is marked by be-/me- Fourth person is marked by ye-[5]


Like most Athabaskan languages, Slavey has a multitude of classifications. There are five basic categories that describe the nature of an object. Some of these categories are broken up further. [5]

Class Description Locative prefix Active Prefix Examples
1a One dimensional slender, rigid and elogated objects Ø-to ∅-tí͔,-tǫ, -tǫ́ gun,canoe, pencil
1b One directions flexible objects, ropelike; plurals ∅-ɫa ∅-ɫee, -ɫa, -ɫee thread, snowshoes, rope
2a two dimensional flexible h-chú h-chuh, -chú, -chu open blanket, open tent, paper
2b Two dimensional rigid objects N/A N/A no specific lexical item
3 Solid roundish objects; chunky objects ∅-ʔǫ ∅-ʔáh, -ʔǫ, -ʔá ball, rock, stove, loaf of bread
4a Small containerful ∅-kǫ ∅-káh, -kǫ, -kah pot of coffee, puppies in a basket, cup of tea
4b Large containerful h-tǫ h-tí͔h, -tǫ, tǫ́ full gas tank, bucket of water, bag of flour
5 Animate ∅-tí͔ ∅-téh, -tí͔, -té, h-téh, -tį Any living thing



Water classifier

"A clothlike object is in the water" [5]

Tense and Aspect


Slavey has only one structural tense: future. Other tenses can be indicated periphrastically.[5]

An immediate future can be formed by de- inceptive in position 9 plus y-


3 fut.start out

“s/he is just ready to go”


3 fut.start to heal

“it is just starting to heal”


Slavey has two semantic aspects: perfective and imperfective.

Perfective is represented in position 11.



3 pf.start off

"S/he started off."

whá goyįdee

long 3

"S/he talked for a long time."

The perfective can also be used with a past tense marker to indicate that at the point of reference, which is sometime in the past, the event was completed [5]

Kǫ́e gohtsį

hose 3 area PAST

“He had built a house”

Imperfective indicates that the reference time precedes the end of the event time.


3 imp.sing

“s/he sing, s/he is singing”

Kǫ́e gohtsį begháyeyidá

house 3 area 1sg. pf.see 3

“I saw him building a house”

Word Order

Slavey is a verb-final language. The basic word order is SOV. [5]


Dene ʔelá thehtsi̜̒

Man boat made

"The man made the boat"

tli̜ ts’ǫ̀dani káyi̜̒ta

dog child bit

"The dog bit the child"

Oblique objects precede the Direct object. [5]


T’eere denǫ gha ʔerákeeʔee wihsi̜

girl REFL.mother for parka made.

"The girl made a parka for her mother."


Slavey has no case markings. To differentiate between subject, direct object, and oblique objects, word order is used. The subject will be the first noun phrase, and the direct object will occur right before the verb. The oblique objects are controlled by postpositions.[5]

Possessives [5]

Possessive pronoun prefixes are found in Slavey. These pronouns have the same forms as the direct and oblique object pronouns. The prefixes are listed below with examples.

se- first person singular



“my mitts”




“my knife

ne- second person singular




“your sg. hat”




“your sg. rope”

be-/me- third person singular

melįé nátla possessive 3 is fast

“His/her dog is fast.”

bekée whihtsį

3.slippers.possessive 1sg. Made

“I made his/her slippers.”

ye- fourth person

yekée whehtsį

4. slippers.possessive 3 made

“S/he made his/her slippers.”

ʔe- unspecified possessor


“someone's dog”

naxe-/raxe- first person plural, second person plural.




“our blanket, your pl. blanket”

ku-/ki-/go- third person plural

kulí̜é rała 3 is fast

“Their dog is fast.”

goyúé k'enáʔeniihtse

3pl.clothes.possessive 1sg. washed

“I washed their clothes.”



There are both coordinating and subordinating conjunctions in Slavey.


gots'éh "and, and then"

tse tádiihtth į gots'ę goyíi naehddhí

wood 1sg. cut and 1sg. warmed

“I cut some wood and then I warmed myself up inside.”

dene ʔéhdá jíye kanįwę gots'ę ʔéhdá daʔuʔa

people some berry 3 picks and some 3

“Some people will pick berries and some will fish.”

kúlú, kólí, kúú, kóó, ékóó, góa “but”

ʔekó͔ náohtlah nehthę góa nehji

there 1sg. opt.go 1sg. want but 1sg. be afraid

“I want to go there but I'm afraid.”

sine ts'ó͔dane gogháiidá kúlú dedine gołį ʔajá

1sg. child 1sg. saw 3pl. but 3sg. instead 3 became

“I was supposed to watch the children but he did it instead."

Subordinating Conjunctions

ʔenįdé, nįdé, ndé, néh “if, when, whenever”

ʔįts'é gehk'é nįdé segha máhsi

moose 3pl. shoot if 1sg.for thanks

“If they shoot a moose, I'll be grateful.”

dora bekwí ohts'í nįwę nįdé yehts'í

3. head 1sg.opt.comb 3 wants of 3 combs 4

“Whenever Dora wants to comb my hair, she combs it.”

-were “before”

shuruhté were selejée daderéʔ o͔ ʔagúlá

1sg. opt.go to sleep before woodbox 3 is full 1sg. made area

“Before I went to bed, I filled to woodbox.”

-ts'ę “since, from”

segó͔łį gots'ę jo͔ deneilé

1sg. was born area.from here 1sg. lived

“I lived here since I was born.”

- “because, so"

se wehse yihé godihk'o͔ yíle2

wood 3 is wet because 1sg. make fire NEG

“Because the wood is wet, I can't make fire.”


Relative Clauses

There are three important parts to a relative clause. There is the head, which is the noun that is modified or delimited. The second part is the restricting sentence. The sentence modifies the head noun. The last part is the complementizer. [5]

ʔeyi [dene] goyidee I híshá

The man 1sg. talked COMP 3 is tall

“the man whom I talked to is tall.”

lį gah hedéhfe I gháyeyidá

dog rabbit 3 chased COMP 1sg. saw

“I saw the dog that chased the rabbit.”

See also

Further reading

  • Howard, Philip G. 1990. A Dictionary of the Verbs of South Slavey. Yellowknife: Dept. of Culture and Communications, Govt. of the Northwest Territories, ISBN 0-7708-3868-5
  • Isaiah, Stanley, et al. 1974. Golqah Gondie = Animal Stories - in Slavey. Yellowknife: Programme Development Division, Government of the Northwest Territories, .
  • Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The Languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Monus, Vic, and Isaiah, Stanley. 1977. Slavey Topical Dictionary: A Topical List of Words and Phrases Reflecting the Dialect of the Slavey Language Spoken in the Fort Simpson Area. [Yellowknife: Government of the Northwest Territories, Canada?].
  • Northwest Territories. 1993. South Slavey Legal Terminology. [Yellowknife, N.W.T.]: Dept. of Justice, Govt. of the Northwest Territories.
  • Northwest Territories. 1981. Alphabet Posters in the Wrigley Dialect of the Slavey Language. [Yellowknife?]: Dept. of Education, Programs and Evaluation Branch.
  • Tatti, Fibbie, and Howard, Philip G.. 1978. A Slavey Language Pre-Primer in the Speech of Fort Franklin. [Yellowknife]: Linguistic Programmes Division, Dept. of Education, Northwest Territories.
  • Anand, Pranav and Nevins, Andrew. Shifty Operators in Changing Contexts. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Rice, Keren. 1989. A Grammar of Slave. Mouton Grammar Library (No. 5). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-010779-1.
  • Sabourin, Margaret. 1975. Readers: Slavey Language. Yellowknife: Dept. of Education, Programme Development Division.


  1. ^ Slavey at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    North Slavey at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
    South Slavey at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Official Languages of the Northwest Territories (map)
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  4. ^ Northwest Territories Official Languages Act, 1988 (as amended 1988, 1991-1992, 2003)
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u Rice, Keren (1989). A Grammar of Slave. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.  
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