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Nine

Eung-Do Cook
Darin Flynn

Aboriginal languages
o(Canada
He who studies only one Indian language and
learns its manifold curious grammatical devices,
its wealth ofwords, its capacity ofexpression, is
speedily convinced ofits superiority to all other
Indian tongues, and not infrequently to all
languages by whomsoever spoken.
l.W.

POWELL, INDIAN LINGUISTIC FAMILIES OF AMERICA NORTH OF MEXICO

(1891)

he study of languages spoken by the descendants of the original inhabitants of North


America has made a number of significant contributions to the development of linguistics.
In practically every book that the student of linguistics reads, the impact of work in this area is
evident. It would be no exaggeration to say that the lasting and profound influence of such
eminent pioneers of linguistics as Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield is due in
large part to the seminal work they did on structurally diverse Aboriginal languages in North
America, especially in Canada.
The value of current research on North American Aboriginal languages stems primarily
from the light that it can shed on the nature of human linguistic competence. Besides refuting
the popular misconception that these languages are somehow primitive, this work has also
uncovered certain structural and semantic phenomena that are not found in more widely
studied languages such as English, French, Mandarin, and so on. Another compelling reason
for the study of Aboriginal languages is that it can yield clues (sometimes the only ones
available) to help resolve problems in archaeology and anthropology (especially ethnohistory)
relating to the origin and migration of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It is also
important to recognize that Aboriginal languages in North America are in a grave state of
decline, so that an urgency underlies their study, whether theoretical or historical.

PJ:I Ethnolinguistic overview


How many Aboriginal languages are there? How are they related genetically? How are
they distributed? Although definitive answers cannot yet be given to any of these
questions, the current tentative consensus is briefly outlined in the next two sections
prior to a comment on the decline of Aboriginal languages in Canada. A discussion of the
structural characteristics of Canadian aboriginal languages then follows.
318

Aboriginal languages of Canada

9.1.1

319

Genetic classification
John Wesley Powell's work of 1891, which represents the first attempt at a comprehensive
genetic classification of the indigenous languages of North America, recognizes fifty-eight
families. Although this classification was preceded by and indebted to many other classifications, it is considered one of the most valuable works in Native American linguistics. Powell's
classification of hundreds of different languages into fewer than sixty families was a
remarkable achievement, but really only a first step toward a final genetic classification.
In the years folloWing Powell's work, many linguists came to assume that all of the
indigenous languages of North America ultimately originated from a small number of
mother languages. Consequently, they began trying to place the known language families
into larger stocks and still larger phyla. The best-known classification from this perspective
was proposed by Edward Sapir in 1929. In this far-reaching analysis, which owes a great deal
to earlier work by Alfred Kroeber and Ronald Dixon, among others, all language families of
Aboriginal America were grouped into stocks that, in turn, were organized into six
superstocks or phyla. Although not adequately substantiated in all details, this proposal
stimulated a great deal of research aimed at the further classification of Aboriginal languages.
A more realistic classification was proposed in 1964. FolloWing Sapir's scheme, 221
languages were grouped into 42 families and 31 isolates, which were then classified into
9 phyla. A great deal more has been learned since this proposal was made, and some aspects
of this work are now out of date. Certain languages that were earlier treated as isolates have
since been proven to be related. For example, Yurok and Wiyot of California, originally
considered isolates, have not only been found to be related to each other, but have been
placed in the Algonquian family (as claimed by Sapir as early as 1913). Similarly, studies of
Tlingit prove it to be not an isolate but distantly related to Athabaskan languages and Eyak.
On the other hand, there is also strong evidence that what were formerly considered
dialects of one language should be treated as separate languages. For example, the Klallam
language has recently been recognized as distinct from Straits Salish. Similarly, DOgrib, Bear
Lake, and Hare of the Athabaskan family were once believed to be dialects of the same language,
but their status has since been reconsidered. The identity of Dogrib as a separate language is
now well established and the possibility that Bear Lake and Hare are separate languages is under
consideration. Several of the proposed phyla also remain in question; in fact, many linguists
have chosen to retreat from such large-scale classification until the histories of the individual
families are better understood. (A more up-to-date "Consensus Classification" appeared in the
latest Vol. 17 of the Smithsonian's Handbook of North American Indians; see Recommended
reading at the end of this chapter.)

Language Matters The Amerind Hypothesis


A new and daring classification has been widely enterta.ined in popular media and in interdisciplinary
research. Highly controversial, this classification recognizes the Eskimo-Aleut family 'and Na-Dene-a
stock consisting of the Athabaskan family, llingit. Eyak, and perhaps Haida-but places all other~
indigenous languagesof the Americas into ~.single ia~ grOup; labelled Amerlnd. 80th the:~
methOdology and the dataundertying this propo$af hiWe been subjected to severe criticism, and thej
Amerind hypothesis Is not currentlyaecepted by most specialists in the field.
.

320

Chapter Nine

9.1.2

Canada's languages
Canada's Aboriginal peoples fall into three distinct political groupings: First Nations, Inuit,
and Metis. Although there is no agreement on the details of genetic classification, there is
some consensus that Canada's First Nations represent no less than nine language families
and isolates, that the Inuit represent a separate language family, and that the Metis represent
a unique mixed language.
The map in figure 9.1 shows the geographic distribution of the widely accepted
Aboriginal language families and isolates of Canada discussed in this chapter. Of course, the
political border between Canada and the United States is not a linguistic boundary; the
traditional homeland of many Aboriginal groups includes portions of both countries.

Figure 9.1 ,
Distribution of.
Aboriginallanguage '
families in Canada

...
~
",*fI!c

~ **
~,f *
0.<

...

~t. *",\~
f1'
'"
",* ***-

......
*.\'

W$.
*'" *1CI- :1l ,,;~**~ ...
*J'"~ "'Illc"
lt

~ "':E ~ ~*k. ;1
/'"

~JrX
XX xXi! x Ie X
Iex~.lJlx
x~*
)x x
.:x

- ' "x'f,/f
.......
,
XX

,.x

............

X Algonquian
Athabaskan
Z Haida
lroquoian
Kutenai
A Salish

II

llL

-...:it'

Iff
Ie

II

..:.

It

t X ~,

Xx

~-~~.....JiQi~*
-., Ie
lCtc
x
Siouan
0 Tlingit
Tsimshian
_ Wakashan
.. Eskimo-Aleut

'\c

Languages and affiliations are introduced in descending order of size (in Canada) as
follows. Slashes (/) indicate alternative names for languages or dialects. Although some of the
names provided may appear exotic, they are in fact the ones preferred by First Nations to
identify themselves. Note, too, that there are no exact figures on speaker populations. Figures
suggested here are informed current estimates but only approximate, based loosely on Foster
(1982), Kinkade (1991), Krauss (1997), Cook (1998), Grime (2000), Mithun (2001), Statistics

Aboriginal languages ofCanada

321

Canada's 2001 Census, our own surveys, and personal inquiries to specialists of individual
languages or language families and to organizations such as the Saskatchewan Indian
Cultural Centre, the Yinka Dene Language Institute (especially Bill Poser), and Aboriginal
Languages of Manitoba (especially Carol Beaulieu). The symbol < means 'fewer than'.

Algonquian
Canada's most Widely spoken Aboriginal languages, Cree and Ojibwe, belong to the
AlgonqUian family (see table 9.1). Dialects of both languages are spoken in British Columbia,
Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec. Cree is also represented in Labrador
by the Innu dialects. Malecite-Passamaquoddy and Mi'kmaq are spoken further east, in the
Maritime Provinces. (Here and elsewhere, speaker populations outside Canada are proVided
to give an idea of the overall size of the various Aboriginal linguistic communities. Of the
Algonquian languages, only Ojibwe is Widely spoken outside Canada.)

Table 9.1

The Algonquian languages of Canada

Language
Cree
(Dialects: Plains, Swampy,
Woods, Moose, At(t)ikamek(w),
Montagnais and Naskapi Innu)
OJibwe/Anishinaabemowin
(Dialects: Odawa, Saulteau(x),
Ojibwa/Chippewa, AlgonqUin,
Severn/Oji-Cree)
Mi'kmaq/Micmac
Blackfoot
Malecite-Passamaquoddy
Potawatomi/Neshnabemwen
Munsee Delaware
Western Abenaki

Estimated number
of speakers in
Canada

Estimated number of
speakers in the
United States

80000

1000

45 000

5000

7 000
3 000
750
< 50
<8
<5

1200
500
850
100

Eskimo-Aleut
The Inuktitut language (of the Eskimo-Aleut family) is spoken by about two-thirds of the 44 ()()()
Inuit who largely populate Canada's Arctic, from the northwestern part of the Northwest
Territories (lnuvialuit) to northern Labrador (see table 9.2). Of those with Inuktitut as mother
tongue, almost a third live in northern Quebec (Nunavik) and almost two-thirds live in
Nunavut, Canada's newest and largest territory. A syllabary for writing Inuktitut is now in wide
use, especially in Nunavut (it is adapted from the Cree syllabary; see chapter 15, section 15.4.4).

322

Chapter Nine

Table 9.2

The Eskimo-Aleut family in Canada


Estimated number
of speakers in
Canada

Inuktitut
Eastern Canadian dialects

24000

Western Canadian dialects

4 000

Estimated number
of speakers outside
Canada
Greenland/Denmark
(Kalaallisut): 46 000
Alaska (Inupiaq): 3 000

Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit
This family exhibits the greatest internal diversity, with seventeen distinct languages in this
country alone (see table 9.3). They are spoken in British Columbia, the Yukon, the Northwest
Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. All except Tlingit belong to the
Athabaskan subfamily, which is more closely related to Eyak. The last remaining speaker of
Eyak died in 2008.
Table 9.3

The Tlingit and Athabaskan languages of Canada

Language

Estimated number
of speakers in
Canada

Estimated number
of speakers in the
United States

TIingit

< 100

<400

Athabaskan:

Dene SiVimYChipewyan
Slave(y), including Hare
Dogrib
TSinlhqot'in/Chilcotin
Dakelh/Carrier
Tutchone (Northern, Southern)
Kaska
Gwich'in/Kutchin
Beaver
Witsuwit'en-Babine/Nedut'en
Sekani
Tsuut'ina/Sarcee
Tahltan
Upper Tanana
Han
Tagish

15 000
3850
1900
1200
1250
450
400
350
200
185

300

SO
<40
<40
10

<S

105
12

Siouan-Catawban
The Siouan-Catawban language family is represented by three Dakotan languages in Canada:
(1) Stoney or Nakoda, spoken exclusively in Alberta; (2) 'Sioux', a now-disfavoured cover term

Aboriginal languages ofCanada

323

for three dialects spoken in Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba: Yankton-Nakota/Dakota


or Ihal1ktol1wal1 Damta, Santee-Dakota or Isal1ti Damta, and Teton Lakota or tit0l1wal1 Lamta;
and (3) Assiniboine-Nakoda (Hohe Namda), spoken in Saskatchewan (see table 9.4). (Separate
figures are not available for Yankton and Santee; these are commonly grouped together
as 'Dakota'.)

Table 9.4

The Siouan-Catawban family in Canada

Dakota/Sioux

Estimated number
of speakers in
Canada

Estimated number of
speakers in the
United States

1500
< 400

Stoney (Nakoda)
'Sioux': - Yankton and Santee (Dakota)
- Teton (Lakota)
Assiniboine (Nakota)

<10

34

15000

6000
Assiniboin: 75

Salish
The Salish family has ten languages centred in British Columbia, but its total speaker
population is estimated at fewer than 2000 (see table 9.S).
Table 9.5

The Salish languages of Canada

Language
Okanagan/Nsilxcin
Nlaka'pmx/Thompson
Comox-Sliammon
Secwepemctsin/Shuswap
Lillooet/St'at'imcets
Halkomelem (Halq'emeylem,
Hul'q'umin'um', h;m'q'Jmin'Jm')
Nuxalk/Bella Coola
Northern Straits: Saanich/SENCO:rEN
Squamish/Skw~.wu 7mesh
Sechelt/Shashishalhem

Estimated number
of speakers in
Canada

500
400
400
300
200
125

Estimated number
of speakers in the
United States

200

20
20
15
10

Tsimshianic
Tsimshianic languages are located in northwestern British Columbia (see table 9.6). This
family is believed to be distantly related to a dozen other language families of the American
Pacific Coast, under a proposed phylum called Penutian.

324

Chapter Nine

The Tsimshianic languages of Canada

Table 9.6

Estimated number
of speakers in the
United States

Estimated number
of speakers in
Canada

Language

Gitksan/Gitsenimx: 900
Nisga'a: 500
Sm'algyf!x/Coast Tsimshian: 430
Klemtu/South Tsimshian: 1

Nass-Gitksan
Tsimshian

200

70

Iroquoian
Another major group of Aboriginal languages represented in Canada is the Iroquoian family,
which is found in southwestern Quebec and southern Ontario, as well as in adjoining parts
of the United States (see table 9.7).
Table 9.7

The Iroquoian languages of Canada


Estimated number
of speakers in the
United States

Estimated number
of speakers in
Canada

Language

< 2000

Mohawk
Oneida
Cayuga
Onondaga
Seneca
Tuscarora

2000
< 15
10
< 15
100
30

150
SO
<SO
<25

<7

Wakashan
The Wakashan family, which is spoken principally on Vancouver Island and the adjacent
British Columbia coast, consists of five languages in Canada (see table 9.8). (A sixth Wakashan
language, Makah, has about 20 speakers in Washington State, opposite Vancouver Island.)
Table 9.8

The Wakashan languages of Canada

Language
Nuu-chah-nulth/Nootka

Kwakw'ala/Kwaldutl
Haisla-Henaksiala
Heiltsuk-Oowekyala
Ditidaht/Nitinat

Estimated number of speakers


200
200
200
Heiltsuk: 200
Oowekyala: 2
<10

Aboriginal languages o(Canada

325

Isolates
Two language isolates are spoken in Canada: Haida, spoken in the Queen Charlotte Islands
off the northern coast of British Columbia, and Ktunaxa, spoken in the Canadian Rockies in
southeastern British Columbia (see table 9.9).

Tabfe9.9

Language isolates of Canada

Language
Haida
Ktunaxa/Kootenay-Kinbasket

Estimated number
of speakers in
Canada

Estimated number
of speakers in the
United States

35
6

15
<6

Contact languages
Contact languages resist genetic classification in terms of language families or isolates,
because they do not descend from a single parent language. Michif is a fascinating example
of a contact language unique to Canada's Metis, who are (mostly) descendants from Cree or
Ojibwe women and French-Canadian fur trappers. This language uses Plains Cree words and
grammar for its verbs, and French words and grammar for its nouns. Still, Michif is not
mutually intelligible with either Cree or French. There are five hundred or so speakers of
Michif in the Canadian Prairies, and another couple of hundred in North Dakota and
Montana in the United States. Crucially, many of these speakers do not know Cree or French.
Here is an example of a Michif sentence (words in italics derive from Cree; the others derive
from French).
(1) e:gwanI-gi

they

li:
the

sava:z ki:pa:famwak la
Natives
dried
the

vjM
meat

Historically, Canada also had its share of trade jargons or pidgins, characterized by
rudimentary grammars and limited vocabularies (see chapter 14). For example, at one time
or another Inuktitut was mixed with Basque, French, and Montagnais in Labrador-Eskimo
Pidgin; with Cree and Montagnais in Hudson Strait Pidgin Inuktitut; with English in
Inuktitut-English Pidgin (which was used until the mid-twentieth century); and with
Athabaskan languages in Loucheux Jargon.
Chinook Jargon, which originated as a lingua franca in the Pacific Northwest, drew
many basic words from Canada's Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) and from Canadian French. Its
use peaked in the nineteenth century with an estimated 100 000 speakers representing more
than 100 mother tongues. There are now probably no more than a dozen speakers of
Chinook Jargon in Canada, mostly in British Columbia.
A form of communication using the hands, Plains Sign Talk, was more commonly
used as a lingua franca in the Plains area; its use also appears to have peaked in the
nineteenth century in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. It is still known by a few
Cree, Blackfoot, and Dakota-some deaf, and others hearing, who use it to accompany
their oral narratives.

326

Chapter Nine

Language Matters Confusing Signs


The Plains sign for 'big belly' involves moving the right hand outward and down, fingers pointing
left. The sign for 'waterfall' i.s similar but with fingers pointing forward. Eighteenth-century Cree and
, French apparently mixed these signs and began referring to the 'Falls Indians', Whom they
, encountered ali, the Canadian Prairies, as 'Big-bellied Indians'. The Algonquian~speakingGros
Ventres-'Big BellieS' in French-,- now l'eside in Montana.
"'.,'
,
"

9.1.3

Decline of Aboriginal languages


Epidemics (especially smallpox), famines, and innumerable wars reduced the Aboriginal
population of North America from over five million at the time of Columbus (the late
fifteenth century) to fewer than half a million at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Fortunately, Aboriginal peoples are now recovering rapidly from these historical disasters;
Canada's Aboriginal population grew from 120000 in 1925 to a million today.
Nonetheless, many Canadian Aboriginal languages became extinct when their last
speakers died, including Laurentian (Iroquoian, Quebec) in the late 1500s; Beothuk
(isolate, Newfoundland) in 1829; Nicola (Athabaskan, British Columbia) in the late 1800s;
Huron-Wendat (Iroquoian, Quebec) and Tsetsaut/Ts'ets'aut (Athabaskan, British Columbia)
in the early 1900s; and Pentlatch (Salish, British Columbia) around 1940. Note that
Beothuk appears to have been an isolate; as such, it represents an eleventh language
lineage in Canada.
Of the languages that remain, many face imminent extinction. For instance, less than
a dozen (elderly) speakers remain for Munsee Delaware (AlgonqUian), Western Abenaki
(Algonquian), min (Athabaskan), Tagish (Athabaskan), Squamish (Salish), Sechelt (Salish),
Tuscarora (Iroquoian), Ditidaht (Wakashan), Ktunaxa (isolate), and Chinook Jargon.
Dialects, too, are disappearing, such as the Ts'ooke and Songish dialects of Northern
Straits Salish. Klallam, a closely related Salish language, has no more Canadian speakers;
only three remain in Washington State. This state of affairs resulted in part from
deliberate action: Aboriginal language use was generally forbidden in church and
government-run residential schools to which Aboriginal children were sent from the
1880s to the 1970s.
Other Aboriginal languages with more speakers are nonetheless rapidly becoming
obsolete under the influence of English and French, which have become the languages of
the nursery and the liVing-room in most of Canada due in part to the influence of mass
media. Recently, however, many Aboriginal communities have sought to counteract the
loss of their ancestral languages. With the help of government agenCies, museums, and
universities, they have launched programs to retain and promote their languages and
cultures. As a result of this Renaissance movement, some languages (such as Tsilhqot'in,
Ktunaxa, and Secwepemctsin) have seen the establishment of an orthography for the first
time, and others have become part of school curricula or even a medium of instruction in
lower grades. The long-term effect of this effort on the survival of Aboriginal languages
remains to be seen. In the meantime, linguists can assist Aboriginal communities who wish

Aboriginal languages ofCanada

327

to preserve their languages by becoming involved in the development of sociolinguistic


surveys, of curriculum material, and of resource materials such as dictionaries, grammars,
and texts.
To end on a positive note: it is remarkable that in spite of the difficulties confronting
them, several of Canada's Aboriginal languages-notably Cree, Ojibwe, Inuktitut,
and Dene SuJ'ine-remain relatively healthy. For instance, over 90 percent of Quebec's
5000 Attikamekw speak their dialect of Cree as mother tongue. Two-thirds of the 15000
Innu in Quebec and Labrador speak their own dialect of Cree as mother tongue, and
about a third of them are monolingual in it. Dene SuJ'ine continues to be acquired by
children as their first language in many northern Saskatchewan communities, including
Fond du Lac, Black Lake, and La Loche. The number of Aboriginal youth learning their
heritage tongue as a second language also continues to grow, which may significantly improve the long-term viability of languages otherwise considered endangered or
near-extinct.

m Structural features
Since there are so many apparently unrelated languages in Canada, it is not surprising to find
a great deal of typological variation. Although it is impossible to present even a synopsis of
the structural characteristics of these languages, a small selection of what the reader might
consider strikingly different and interesting will be given.

9.2.1

Phonology
The Algonquian languages (such as Cree and Blackfoot) and the Athabaskan languages (such
as Tsuut'ina and Dene SuJ'ine) have long been in contact in the Prairie provinces of Canada.
However, the phonological differences between these two language families are striking
because Algonquian has one of the simplest phonemic inventories in the world, while
Athabaskan has one of the most complex.
Cree vowels may be either short or long, except for le:/, which is always long. The Cree
consonantal system is also simple and straightforward, with no aspiration or glottalization.
Consonant clusters are rare, and the most common syllable types are CV; CVC, and V. The
vocalic and consonant systems of Cree are given in table 9.10.

Table 9.10

Vowel and consonant phonemes in Cree

Vowel phonemes

Consonant phonemes

i, i:

0,0:

Bilabial
Obstruents
p

e:

a, a:
Sonorants

Alveolar
t
ts
s
n

Velar
k

Glottal

h
w

328

Chapter Nine

In Dene Sutine, on the other hand, there are five tense vowels, each of which may be
either oral or nasal, as well as a lax vowel, which has no nasal counterpart. The Dene Stine
consonant system has four times more phonemes than does Cree. It is characterized by a
large and symmetrical class of obstruents, particularly affricates, as shown in table 9.11.
Another characteristic of Dene Sutine phonology is the presence of tone, which, along with
nasality, makes for many more syllable types in Dene Sutine than in Cree.

Table 9.11

Vowel and consonant phonemes in Dene Sqline

Vowel phonemes
Oral

Nasal

i
e

t1

a
Consonant phonemes
Labial

Interdental

Alveolar

Alveolar

te
te h
te'

t
th
t'

ts
ts h
ts'
z
s
r

Plain
Aspirated
Glottalized

I)

e
m

Plain
Aspirated
Glottalized

Lateral

Alveopalatal

Velar

Labiovelar

ti
ti h
ti'

tI
tI h

(k W)

kh

tf

k'

(kWh)
(kW')

Y
x

w
(xW)

Glottal

Note: i is a voiceless, alveolar lateral fricative.

Putting aside the elements in parentheses (whose phonemic status is questionable), there are
thirty-five consonantal phonemes in Dene Stine, most of which are obstruents. Several sets
of stops, affricates, and fricatives constitute the core system. There are two very conspiCUOUS
phonological characteristics: a three-way contrast (plain versus aspirated versus glottalized)
involving six sets of stops and affricates, and a large inventory of affricates in four series
(interdental, alveolar, lateral, and alveopalatal). Particularly worthy of note here are the
interdental and lateral affricates, which are seldom found in other language families, as well
as the paucity of bilabial stops. The syllable structure is either CV or CVe.

Aboriginal languages of Canada

329

The examples in table 9.12 illustrate CV and CVC syllable types as well as a contrast
between oral and nasal vowels and between high tone (marked by the diacritic ') and
low tone.
Table 9.12

Vowel and tone contrasts in Dene

St.ine

Low tone/high tone

iu
khue
tesk h08

'fish'
'house'
'I cough'

ill
khue
teskh68

'white fish'
'town'
'I am wide'

Oral/nasal

ti
tsha
si

'prairie chicken'
'beaver'
'I'

ti(yi)
tsh~

'four'
'excrement'
(emphatic
particle)

si

In Dene SuJ'ine, consonant clusters are avoided in syllable margins, and every syllable
has a vowel; as already noted, syllables are maximally CVe. Some consonant clusters are
allowed in Cree syllables, e.g., amisk 'beaver', ospwa:kan 'pipe'. Much more complex clusters
are tolerated in other Canadian Aboriginal languages. In particular, Blackfoot (Algonquian)
allows words like niltssksksfnitaksini 'one minute', and Oowekyala (Wakashan) and Nuxalk
(Salish) are notorious for allowing all-obstruent utterances, as in (2) and (3).
(2) thxspstikts (Oowekyala)
'This (here with me, not visible) will be a nice thwart:
(3) ts'ktskWts' (Nuxalk)
'He arrived.'

9.2.2 Morphology
Equally interesting characteristics of North American Aboriginal languages are seen in their
morphology, whose complexity has fascinated linguists for a long time. We can illustrate
some of these intricacies with the help of several Aboriginal languages spoken in Canada.

Polysynthesis
The term polysynthetic (see chapter 8, section 8.2.2) is often used to underscore the morphological compleXities that are easily observable in many Aboriginal languages. Polysynthetic
languages are characterized by morphologically complex words whose component morphemes often express meanings that would be expressed by separate words in such languages
as English and Mandarin. In the Inuktitut language, for instance, a typical word consisting of
a root followed by one or more suffixes can be the equivalent of an entire sentence in English.
The following utterances are each considered to consist of a single word. (There is allomorphic
variation involVing the morpheme gik/rik meaning 'good'.)
(4) a. Iglu-gik-tuq.

house-good-he-has.3sG
'He has a good house.'

no

Chapter Nine

b. Qayaq-rik-tuq.

kayak-good-he-has.3sG
'He has a good kayak.'
The following words further illustrate polysynthesis in Slave, an Athabaskan language,
and Blackfoot, an Algonquian language.
(5) Ts'ekhu- nT- wa (Slave)
preverb them you wake
'You woke them.'
(6) Ma:t- ja:k- wa:xkaji- wa:tsiksi (Blackfoot)
not
will go home he
'He is not going home.'

Person and number


Most English speakers are familiar with a three-way contrast involving person (first personspeaker; second person-addressee; third person-other party) and a two-way contrast
involving number (unmarked singular versus marked plural). In many Canadian Aboriginal
languages, however, a much more elaborate system of contrasts is encountered. As noted in the
chapter on morphology, for instance, the Inuit language has three subcategories of numbersingular (one), dual (two), and plural (three or more). The follOWing two sets of examples
illustrate how these subcategories are marked in nouns and verbs. (In the transcription
employed here, the symbol y represents a phoneme with the allophones [j) and [3].)
(7) iglu
iglu-k
iglu-t

'an igloo (house)'


'igloos (twa)'
'igloos (three or more)'

niriyu-q
niriyu-k
niriyu-t

'he ate'
'they (two) ate'
'they (three or more) ate'

The Algonquian languages have an especially elaborate system of person and number
marking, as the verb paradigm from Cree in table 9.13 illustrates.

Table 9.13

Person and number marking in Cree

pimisin 'to lie down'


1st singular
2nd singular
3rd singular (proximate)
4th singular (obviative)
1st plural (inclusive)
1st plural (exclusive)
2nd plural
3rd plural

ni-pimisin-in
ki-pimisin-in
pimisin
pimisin-ijiwa
ki-pimisin-inaw
ni-pimisin-ina:n
ki-pimisin-ina:wa:w
pimisin-wak

'I lie down'


'you lie down'
'he or she lies down'
'the other lies down'
'we (you and I) lie down'
'we (I and other) lie down'
'you (pI) lie down'
'they lie down'

These examples exhibit a contrast in the first person plural between the so-called inclusive
and exclusive. This contrast is found not only in AlgonqUian, but also in Iroquoian, Siouan,
and Wakashan. The inclusive indicates that the addressee is to be included in the interpretation

Aboriginal languages ofCanada

331

of the morpheme corresponding to English we. Thus, ki-pimisin-inaw, the inclusive first person
plural form, means either 'you and I lie down' or 'you, I, and someone else lie down'. In contrast,
the exclusive form (ni-pimisin-ina.71) indicates that the addressee is to be excluded. In English, the
phrase 'we lie down' is potentially ambiguous because the grammatical distinctions observed in
Cree are not made.
The grammatical distinction between proximate and obviative (sometimes called
third person and fourth person, respectively) is made in all Algonquian languages, as well
as in the isolate Ktunaxa. It is difficult to describe, but an example may help illustrate its
function. Suppose we are talking about two people (two 'third persons') and that the
sentence He lay down is used. In English it is unclear which of the two people lay down.
Cree speakers avoid this ambiguity by choosing one 'third person' as the focus of the
conversation and marking this choice grammatically. One of the ways that this choice can
be signalled is by using the focused person's name as subject of a proximate form of the
verb. Subsequent references to that person can then be made by means of a proximate verb
form. Thus, when a Cree speaker uses the proximate form pimisin to express the meaning
'he lay down', listeners know that he or she is talking about the person chosen as the focus
of the conversation. Reference to any other person requires use of the obviative form
pimisin-ijiwa.

Gender
Several lroquoian languages (Mohawk, Oneida, and Onondaga) divide third-person
pronominals into masculine, feminine, and neuter, in the manner of English (he, she,
it) and other Indo-European languages.
(8) Walli!.hneki:ra? (Mohawk)
'Hf. drank it.'
Wa?~hneki:ra?

(Mohawk)
'She drank it.' (This can also be used for unspecified sex: 'someone drank it'.)
Wa?kahneki:ra? (Mohawk)
'11 drank it.' (This can also be used for some female persons: 'she drank it'.)
In contrast, grammatical gender in Cree and other Algonquian languages distinguishes
between animate and inanimate. This contrast can be seen in the two different forms of
the plural suffix: -ak for animate nouns and -a for inanimate ones (see table 9.14).
Table 9.14

Animate and inanimate nouns in Cree

Singular

Plural

Animate

si:si:p
na:pe:w
ospwa:kan

'duck'
'man'
'pipe'

si:si:p-ak
na:pe:w-ak
ospwa:kan-ak

'ducks'
'men'
'pipes'

Inanimate

rni:nis
astotin
a:tsimo:win

'berry'
'cap'
'story'

rni:nis-a
astotin-a
a:tsimo:win-a

'berries'
'caps'
'stories'

JJ2

Chapter Nine

Assignment of Cree words to a noun class sometimes seems to lack any natural
motivation. The word ospwa:kan 'pipe', for instance, belongs to the animate class even
though it does not denote a living thing. This practice is somewhat reminiscent of what is
found in the gender classification system of English, which can place a few inanimate words
(such as those referring to ships and countries) in the feminine class.

9.2.3

Syntax
Canada's Aboriginal languages show great diversity in word order (see chapter 8). For
example, Wakashan languages such as Oowekyala have a strict VSO order. Salish languages
and Ktunaxa are also verb-initial. By contrast, Siouan languages such as Dakota are rigidly
SOY. Athabaskan languages are also verb-final.
(9) DaduqWla wism-axi w'ats'-iaXi. (Oowekyala)
saw
man-the/a dog-the/a
'The/a man saw the/a dog.'
(10) ThathaI]ka ph e3 i jutapi (Dakota)
oxen
grass eat
'oxen eat grass'

K'ot'ini?i mit!adikodi iyala (Tsuut'ina)


man
beaver
kill
'The man killed a beaver.'

On the other hand, the word order in many other Canadian languages is not fixed. This
is the case in Eskimo-Aleut Inuktitut, in lroquoian languages such as Mohawk, in AlgonqUian
languages such as Cree, and in Michif. (All six orderings in each of (11) and (12) are grammatical and the literal meaning does not change.)
(11) 'The children killed the ducks' (Cree)
SVO Awa:sisak nipahe:wak si:si:pa
SOY Awa:sisak si:si:pa nipahe:wak
VSO Nipahe:wak awa:sisak si:si:pa
VOS Nipahe:wak si:si:pa awa:sisak
OVS Si:si:pa nipahe:wak awa:sisak
OSV Si:si:pa awa:sisak nipahe:wak

'children killed ducks'


'children ducks killed'
'killed children ducks'
'killed ducks children'
'ducks killed children'
'ducks children killed'

(12) 'Sak likes her dress' (Mohawk)


SVO Sak ra-nuhwe?-s ako-atya?tawi
SOY Sak ako-atya?tawi ra-nuhwe?-s
VSO Ra-nuhwe?-s Sak ako-atya?tawi
VOS Ra-nuhwe?-s ako-atya?tawi ne Sak
OVS Ako-atya?tawi ra-nuhwe?-s ne Sak
OSV Ako-atya?tawi Sak ra-nuhwe?-s

'Sak likes her-dress'


'Sak her-dress likes'
'likes Sak her-dress'
'likes her-dress Sak'
'her-dress likes Sak'
'her-dress Sak likes'

Also of interest is the oft-repeated claim that many of Canada's Aboriginal languagesSalishan, Wakashan, lroquoian, and Inuktitut-lack a distinction between 'noun' and 'verb'.
This claim is controversial, but most linguists agree that the noun/verb distinction is weak in
the syntax of these languages. For example, in Nuu-chah-nulth (Tseshaht dialect) qu:2as
'man' not only has the noun-like use in (13a), but also the verb-like use in (l3b). (Verbs come
at the beginning of the sentence in Nuu-chah-nulth.)

Aboriginal languages of Canada

(13) a. Noun-like use of qu:?as

Mamu:k-ma qu:?as-?i
work-3sG
man-the
'The man is working.'

333

b. Verb-like use of qu:?as

Qu:?as-ma mamu:k-?i
man-3sG work-the
'The working one is a man.'

Sumrning Up
This chapter outlines genetic classifications, geographic distributions, and speaker
populations of Canada's Aboriginal languages, and presents a selection of phonological and
grammatical characteristics of these languages. Even this brief discussion should illustrate
just how much languages can differ from each other. Although it has sometimes been
claimed that languages may differ in unpredictable ways, it should be remembered that there
are striking similarities that underlie surface differences and that these differences can be
described in terms of universal categories and processes (phonemes, morphemes, inflection,
derivation, phrase structure, and so on). For this reason, the structural diversity of Canadian
Aboriginal languages offers the linguist opportunities to reaffirm familiar principles, as well
as to discover new insights into the nature of human language.

Recommended reading
Campbell, Lyle. 1997. American [ndian Languages: The Historical Linguistics of Native America.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Foster, Michael K. 1982. "Canada's Indigenous Languages: Past and Present." Language and
Society 7 :3-16. Ottawa: Commissioner of Official Languages.
Goddard, Ives, ed. 1996. Languages, Vol. 17 of the Handbook of North American Indians.
Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.
Mithun, Marianne. 2001. The Languages ofNative North America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge
University Press.
Voegelin, eE, and EM. Voegelin. 1965. "Classification of American Indian Languages."
Languages of the World, Native America Fascicle 2, section 1.6, Anthropological Linguistics
7:121-50.