There are around 70 distinct Indigenous languages in Canada, falling into 12 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 Indigenous peoples to revitalize and sustain their languages. Canada, and North America more generally, represent a highly complex linguistic region, with numerous languages and great linguistic diversity. Indigenous languages are spoken widely and are official languages in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, while the Yukon recognizes the significance of the Indigenous languages of the territory. On 5 February 2019, the Canadian government tabled the Indigenous Languages Act, which seeks to protect and revitalize Indigenous languages in Canada.
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.On the Prairies, there are speakers of Algonquian, Siouan, and Dene (Athapaskan/Athabaskan/Athabascan and Tlingit) languages, while speakers of Dene, Inuit andAlgonquian 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 languagesare 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 migrationsof speakers to the south and east, a view supported by archaeological and ethnological findings. By contrast, central and eastern Canada are dominated by the Algonquian familyand particularly by two languages, Cree and Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwe. Thissituation suggests more recent language spreads relative to the West.
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 ofthe languages. Families are sometimes classified into larger groupings called "stocks." Researchers John Wesley Powell and Edward Sapir did early classifications. Sapir wasinfluential in grouping language families together into stocks.
Indigenous languages in Canada are generally grouped into 12 families. The families given below have been well recognized by linguists for some time. Contemporary linguistsincreasingly use Indigenous 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 manyplaces, Indigenous language names are replacing English language names. Alternative names and spellings are shown with slashes between the names; dialects are in parentheses.
There are many Algonquian languages in the United States as well as in Canada, with Algonquian-language communities found across both countries. Some of these languages in Canada include:
- 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 (dialects: Algonquin, Central, Eastern, Nipissing Algonquin, Northwestern, Odawa, Oji-Cree/Severn Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Western Saulteaux), Potawatomi/Neshnabémowen, Western Abenaki
Michifis a creole, based on Cree and French.
DID YOU KNOW?
In April 2019, a video of Cape Breton Mi’kmaq teenager Emma Stevens singing “Blackbird” inMi’kmaq went viral. The cover of The Beatles’ classic was produced by Emma’s teacher Carter Chiasson, translated by teacher Katani Julian and her father Albert “Golydada”Julian, and recorded by Emma and fellow students at Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Eskasoni First Nation, Cape Breton. They translated the song into Mi’kmaqto bring awareness to the consequences of the endangerment of Indigenous languages during the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages, 2019. The videotook off around the world, receiving high praise from public figures, including the original songwriter, Sir Paul McCartney, as well as a tweet from the Prime Minister of Canada,Justin Trudeau.
Dene (Athapaskan/Athabaskan/Athabascan + Tlingit)
Dene languages include those classified as Tlingit and Athapaskan/Athabaskan/Athabascan (often now called Dene). In addition to Tlingit, the Dene languages spoken in Canada and the United States:
- Dene Su̜ɬiné/Chipewyan
- South Slavey/Dene Zhatié/Dene Dhah
- Tɬi̜cho̜ Yatìi/Dogrib
- Hän/Han (Dawson dialect)
- Dene/North Slavey (dialects Bearlake/Déli̜ne, Hare/K’ásho, Mountain/Shúhta/Shíhta)
- Northern Tutchone
- Southern Tutchone
- Upper Tanana
Languages of this family are spoken in Canada, the United States, Greenland and Siberia. Some of these languages in Canada include:
- Western Canadian Inuktun (dialects Siglitun, Inuinnaqtun, Natsilingmiutut)
- Eastern Canadian Inuktitut (dialects Kivalliq, Aivilik, North Baffin, South Baffin, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut) (see Inuktitut)
Xaad Kil/Xaaydaa Kil/Haida (isolate)
Haida is spoken in Alaska as well as in British Columbia. Dialects in Canada include Skidegate and Masset.
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 include Cayuga (two dialects), Mohawk (several dialects), Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Tuscarora and Wendat.
Ktunaxa is spoken in Canada, with some speakers in the United States as well.
Salishan languages are found in Canada and the United States. Some of these include:
- Nuxalk/Bella Coola
- Éy7á7juuthem/ʔayʔjuθəm-Saɬuɬtxw(dialects Comox, Sliammon, Homalco, Klahoose),
- Halkomelem (Halq’eméylem, Hul’q’umi’num’, Halq’eméylem),
- SENĆOTEN/Saanich/Northern Straits Salish),
- Okanagan-Colville (several dialects),
- Straits (several dialects)
Siouan languages are spoken in the United States as well as in Canada, including Nakoda/Stoney, Assiniboine/Nakota, Lakota (Teton) and Dakota/Sioux (Yankton, Santee).
Tsimshianic languages are found primarily in British Columbia, with some speakers in Alaska. These include Sm’algyax./Coast Tsimshian, Ski:xs/Sgüüx.s/Southern Tsimshian, Gitsenimx./Gitxsan/Gitksan and Nisga’a/Nishga/Nass.
Wakashan languages are found in Canada, with some speakers in the United States. These include:
- Hailhzaqvla/Heiltsuk-Oowekyala (dialects Heiltsuk/Bella Bella, Oowekyala)
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 originatedas a trade language. It combines elements of Chinook, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Canadian French.
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 Coastof 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 notgenealogically 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 example, 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-q wəm‘mountain’, s-qwə́m-qwəm ‘mountain range’; cíʔiʕ’w‘to bleed’, cíʔ-cʔiʕ’w‘to bleed all over’).
Indigenous 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/Ojibwe, 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 Indigenous 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 (Wakashanfamily) 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)
- fatigue-participle-genuine-a lot-be-1 person singular participle
- ‘I’m really tired’
- apple-consume-want to-3 person subject. indicative mood-plural
- ‘They want to eat apples’
Many Indigenous 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 inclusiveand 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-Maliseetuses 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:
‘that one’ (animate)
‘that one’ (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:
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 (Denefamily). These forms do not represent full words:
animate (dead, comatose)
compact, abstract, food
Many Indigenous 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.
- q’waqw-əθət ‘club self’
- q’waqw-namət ‘club self accidentally’
- club-limited control reflexive
Some languages have words that indicate different degrees of proximity, as in Blackfoot (Algonquian):
proximity to speaker but not to addressee
proximity to neither speaker nor addressee
proximity to speaker and proximity or familiarity to addressee
proximity or familiarity to addressee but no proximity to speaker
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:
direct evidence, observed by the speaker
‘John is doing up (processing, cleaning, smoking, canning) fish.’
indirect evidence (hearsay)
‘I heard that John is doing up fish.’
indirect evidence, based on knowledge of what generally happens
‘John might/must be doing up fish.’
The variety and diversity of Indigenous languages in Canada help to contribute to the understanding of the ways in which languages are similar and how they can differ.
Languages generally have many varieties, or dialects, and Indigenous 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,Creeis considered to be a single language with eight or more variants spoken in dozens of communities and reservesfrom the Rockies well into Québec and Labrador;and Anishinaabemowin/Ojibwe, 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 arelated 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.
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.
Indigenous Sign Languages
In addition to the spoken word, some Indigenous cultures historically have used sign languages to communicate. Though a small number of people know Indigenous Sign Languages, American Sign Language and Quebec Sign Language have largely replaced Indigenoussign languages in Canada (see also Deaf Culture). Efforts are underway in a variety of Indigenous communities to revitalizethese lost systems of communication.
Did You Know?
The Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY) has partnered with an augmented and virtual reality company called Mammoth to create Thunder VR, an immersive Blackfootlanguage preservation and culture learning tool. The virtual reality game, based on a Blackfoot graphic novel called Thunder, tells the ancient Blackfoot story of a man who loses his wife and must travel a great distance to challenge the spiritof Thunder (Ksistsikoom) to get her back. Thunder was developed by USAY youth and Kainai elder Randy Bottle (Saakokoto). The high-tech game, narrated by Saakokoto,is designed to teach the endangered Blackfoot language to a new generation of learners and is being advertised as a “mash-up” of tradition and technology. USAY and Mammoth, two Calgary-based organizations, have received funding from the Government ofCanada and are planning to take Thunder VR, along with 27 Oculus Go headsets, to Calgary schools in fall 2019. Thunder VR is available as a free download on Oculus Go.
Many Indigenous languages in Canada are endangered because of a history of restrictive colonial policies such as the Indian Act and residential schools thatprohibited the speaking of these mother tongues. In 2016, Statistics Canada reported that for about 40 Indigenous languagesin Canada, there are only about 500 speakers or less. Indigenous communities and various educational institutions have taken measures to prevent more language loss and to preserve Indigenous languages. (See also Indigenous Language Revitalization in Canada.)