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THE CHIPEWYAN LANGUAGE

The Chipewyan language is a traditional language in the Northwest Territories and in the northern parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. According to the 1996 Census, there are 1,305 people in Canada who list Chipewyan as their mother tongue. Of these, 515 live in the Northwest Territories. The majority of the NWT Chipewyan speakers live in the communities of Dene text image 1 (Fort Resolution), and Dene text image 2 (Fort Smith), which are relatively isolated from one another. Chipewyan is indigenous to all three of these communities.

The two main dialects of Chipewyan are the "k" and "t" dialects. Dene text image 3 is connected through the "k" dialect to the Chipewyan people of northern Saskatchewan. The communities of Dene text image 4 and Dene text image 5 tend to use the "t" dialect, which is more common in northern Alberta.

It is difficult to determine how many Chipewyan people (or people of Chipewyan heritage) actually live in Canada or the NWT because the Canada Census does not record this information.

According to the 1996 Canada Census, only 44% (or approximately four out of ten) people in the NWT who learned Chipewyan as their mother tongue now use it as the main language at home. This means that the number of children hearing and learning the Chipewyan language at home is less than half of the previous generation. Use of the language is obviously declining fairly rapidly.

This trend was also identified in Part 2 of the Language Report (1992). This study involved Chipewyan respondents from the communities of Dene text image 6. According to this study:

  • over 80% of the respondents age 45 or over were very fluent in Chipewyan;
  • approximately 50% of the respondents between the ages of 25 to 44 were very fluent; and
  • less than 10% of the respondents between the ages of 5 to 24 were very fluent.

Clearly, there has been a dramatic shift in Chipewyan language fluency within the three living generations – grandparents to grandchildren.

Two issues that must be addressed in relation to retention and revitalization of the Chipewyan language are:

  • the small population base of speakers, spread out over a very large geographic area, which makes it harder to coordinate programs and services; and
  • the existence of two relatively distinct dialects, which means that two sets of language materials must be produced with the limited language budgets available.

graph: Chipeyan Language Fluency


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