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Speaking the language of reconciliation: U of T’s Keren Rice explores roots, helping to build a future for Dene languages

Professor Keren Rice talks about the role of language in reconciliation (photo by Johnny Guatto)

University Professor Keren Rice is the Canada Research Chair in Linguistics and Aboriginal Studies, a renowned expert on the grammar of Dene and a leading defender of Indigenous languages.

The 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) report calls on us to recognize that “Aboriginal languages are a fundamental and valued element of Canadian culture and society, and there is an urgency to preserve them.” From a Dene perspective, “In order to live, our Aboriginal language is essential.”

The TRC’s recognition of the fundamental importance of Indigenous languages is a culmination of decades of tireless work by people such as Rice. Along with producing invaluable research on various Dene dialects, Rice has helped develop training programs and language sustainability strategies for Indigenous teachers and students.

Rice has been honoured for her impact and profound insight with the Order of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts’ Molson Prize and Killam Prize and numerous other awards. As she notes, “You get a deeper understanding of an Indigenous culture by speaking the language. We can help keep Indigenous culture thriving by keeping these languages alive.”

Rice recently spoke with U of T News writer Jennifer Robinson about her passion for Indigenous languages as well as what the future holds for the role of language in promoting reconciliation in Canada.


Tell me about the nature of your research.

I've been involved in research in some of the Dene communities in the Northwest Territories for quite a long time.

I got interested in this area when, as a graduate student, I met someone from one of the Dene communities who was living in Toronto. A group of us began working with him and learning the language. Some of us then went to his community to work with people there, and my dissertation ended up being on the language there.

After that, I worked with people on writing a dictionary of one of the Dene varieties and grammar of the Dene (Slavey) language complex. I have been involved in various kinds of language work, especially with people from the Sahtú (Great Bear Lake area), including studying the structure of their language and talking about its importance.

Recently, we've been more involved in work that – broadly speaking – grows out of a move toward self-governance and an interest in language and cultural revitalization.

People are interested in what it means to be Dene. It’s sometimes called Dene ts’i̜li̜, or Dene ways of life. One way of understanding this comes from stories, as stories have lessons to tell about what the foundations of a civilization are. This work is being done by a team that includes people from the communities and academics – it is community-based research. 

One part of this project that is of particular interest to me at the moment is how the language has changed since the communities were formed. People didn’t really settle into communities until around 50 years ago although there were forts at the community locations for some time before that.

Some of the linguists and anthropologists who have worked with Dene people have said that the language of the Sahtú area was pretty uniform until the latter half of the 19th century, and then at that point split into distinct varieties.

This seems like an odd account of what happened because at the same time the anthropologists report that despite contact, ways of life continued until well after the Second World War.

I’ve been working with a wonderful dictionary that was compiled in the mid-19th century, and what we learn from that is that there were already distinct varieties of the language at that time.

For instance, in Radeyi̜li̜ Kó̜é̜ people say rákə for ‘two’ and fa for ‘carrot’ while in Déli̜ne̜, they say nákə ‘two’ and kwa ‘carrot.’ That was true in the mid-19th century as well as today, as we learn from the dictionary.

People from these two communities understand each other, but there are different sounds. 

A question that we are now asking is what happens as communities got settled in the latter half of the 20th century? Families in a community today came from different places and spoke different mutually intelligible varieties of the language.

Are community varieties of the language developing, or do we continue to be able to identify where someone comes from by the language? This is a fascinating question in linguistics – do the family varieties remain, or is there a shared way of speaking that develops?

What drew you to the Dene languages?

It was just an accidental meeting that led me to the Dene languages and peoples. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the Northwest Territories, working with people there.

I was drawn there first by the language, but I was drawn back by the people as well. Living in a very different place from where you were raised gives you a different view of the world and of yourself. 

The Dene languages are really fascinating, too. They're very, very different from English in many ways.

When we think about the Dene languages, one of the first things we talk about is the verb word. The verb word is like a whole sentence in and of itself. For instance, you can find verbs that mean something like ‘I used to go across by boat’ or ‘I turned a stick over and over in my hands.’ You can do all kinds of things inside the verb, like talk about the one that is to undertake doing the action, and you can tell when it takes place.

Meanings are fascinating too. For example, there's a verb that means to do something with an object like a stick. Depending on what prefixes you put with it, it can mean pick it up, put it down, give it away, throw it away, lose it, leave it behind somewhere, put it on shore and many others. There are also verbs that mean do something with a cloth-like object, do something with plural objects, do something with contained objects and others. 

The sounds in Dene languages are interesting too. It has sounds like k’ and t’ and ts’, and other sounds that we don't have in English. These sounds, written with a raised comma after them, are called ejectives. They’re not like the click sounds that you hear in some languages spoken in Africa – they are made in a different way. These ejectives are made in Dene by making a sound like k, for instance, and combining it with a catch in the throat like when you say ‘uh-oh.’

There are other sounds that are unfamiliar to most speakers of English. There are also tones where the pitch of the voice is important in differentiating the meaning of words. For instance, in Rádeyi̜li̜ Kó̜é̜, the word sa means ‘sun, month’ and the word sá means ‘beaver.’ They sound almost the same, but the pitch is higher in ‘beaver’ than in ‘sun’ (indicated by the accent in ‘beaver’). 

Linguists are interested in questions of what it is that defines languages (global) and what makes languages different (local). What kind of variation is there? What are the limits in variation? Part of what is fascinating about languages is the sounds, the words, the grammar and the meaning. And part of what is intriguing is how we actually use the language, how language varies over space and time and within an individual. This kind of variation is not random and understanding the linguistic, social and cognitive factors that underlie the variation is of interest.

Are the Dene languages similar to Inuit or other Indigenous languages?

Languages are divided into different language families. For example, English at one level is a Germanic language. Germanic is a subgroup of Indo-European, which also includes the Romance languages, Slavic languages and Celtic languages. This means that these languages all had a common ancestor at some point in time.

The Dene languages – the word ‘Dene’ is used in two ways now for particular languages, as well as for the language family, which is traditionally called Athabaskan. Dene languages are spoken in the northern parts of the western provinces, in the NWT and Yukon, in the American state of Alaska, as well as parts of California and Oregon and southwestern U.S. Navajo and Apache are perhaps the best known of the Dene languages. Dene languages are clearly related to a language called Tlingit, which is spoken in parts of Alaska and British Columbia and Eyak in Alaska, where the last speaker passed away a few years ago. 

More recently there’s been a hypothesis put forward called Dene-Yeniseian that says that the Dene languages, Tlingit, Eyak and Yeniseian languages all form a language family. Yeniseian is a family of languages in Siberia. There aren’t very many of them spoken anymore. The Dene-Yeniseian hypothesis is controversial, but there’s some good evidence for it. For those who accept this hypothesis, there is debate about whether the movement was from Siberia to North America or whether there was movement back from Beringia (the Bering Strait land bridge) to Siberia.

Even though both Dene languages and Inuit languages are spoken in northern regions of North America, there is no evidence that they are related to each other. They differ in many ways, including their sound systems, their vocabulary and how words are formed – all ways that linguists use to determine whether languages have a common ancestor.

Why are there differences between languages within a family?

Much of the reason that there are differences between languages in a family is time. People often talk about relationships between languages in terms of a tree. For instance, suppose that there is one language, and then people move apart from each other. Each of the groups will develop somewhat differently – language is dynamic and changes over time.

As groups are separated for longer time periods, the varieties that they speak are likely to become more distinct and might eventually become what we call different languages, without mutual intelligibility. In addition, people speak differently for social reasons – gender, age, audience, and so on.

Returning to the Dene languages, using the tools that linguists have available, there is no evidence that the Dene languages are related to any languages other than Tlingit, Eyak and perhaps Yeniseian, even though Dene people have been in contact with speakers of many other languages including Inuit over the decades.

There are some words that come from other languages, for instance, the word for ‘thank you’ is máhsi (from French merci) in the areas in which I have worked, and the word for ‘tea’ is lidí, also from French.

One of the questions within the Dene language family is how the migration from the north to the American southwest took place. Linguists, archaeologists, geneticists and others are interested in this question, and it is the topic of some debate. 

If I spoke, say an Athabaskan language like Navajo, would I understand Dene?

You would understand pieces of it. There would be lots of common vocabulary. For instance, the word for water would be something like tu (pronounced like the English word ‘too’). It might be ku (pronounced like ‘coo’), or chu (pronounced like ‘choo’) or tó (like in the ‘toe’), but it is quite similar across the language family. There are lots of shared words, and the way words are put together is remarkably similar across the family, especially given the complexity of the verbs.

Are the Dene languages in danger of being lost? Has that changed over time?

It depends a lot on the community. Even though the communities are not that far apart from each other, there are a lot of historical differences. 

In some communities, there are not many speakers under the age of 40.  In others, there are younger speakers although their speech tends to be somewhat different than the speech of the older ones.

In most of these communities today, there's a tremendous interest in language. How that is going to play itself out over time, well who knows? But there's something exciting going on with respect to language.

Across the country there are quite a few places where immersion programs are being developed in the Indigenous languages of the community. These programs are also about identity and showing pride in culture and civilization by speaking the language.

Is there something you would like to see the University of Toronto do in the future when it comes to sustaining and revitalizating Indigenous languages?

U of T hired two people this year in Indigenous Studies. One is teaching Mohawk (Kanien’keha), and he will teach a Linguistics course on language revitalization next term. The other is teaching a course on reconciliation this term. He’s also teaching a course about Indigenous languages. Anishinaabemowin has been offered almost since the inception of Indigenous Studies, and Oneida and Inuktitut have been taught in the past.

The importance of Indigenous languages figures prominently in the Calls for Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and prior to that in other works like the Report of the Royal Commission on Indigenous Peoples and the Task Force on Aboriginal Languages Towards a New Beginning.

The TRC also makes clear the responsibility of universities. The responsibility of the universities to help in sustaining and revitalizing Indigenous languages will, I suspect, figure prominently in the report by U of T’s Truth and Reconciliation Steering Committee.  

How important is language in reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous people?

If you look at the TRC report, we see several calls for action involving language, including reinforcing language rights and providing funds for sustaining and revitalizing languages. This is in recognition of what has happened to the languages over time, as a result of colonization, residential schools and so on. The surprising thing, perhaps, is how many of the languages continue to be spoken despite attempts to eliminate them – the resilience of people stands out.

The TRC calls upon universities to teach Indigenous languages. This means language, but also something more. Language and culture, as many have said, are part of identity, giving a sense of self-worth and value. Language and cultural revitalization are critical in Indigenous communities, and must be done in the communities. But Canada in general and its universities play a large role in educating people about these languages and cultures, and what we all have to learn from them. 

Keren Rice’s work with Indigenous languages is just one example of extraordinary innovation and impact at U of T. Learn more at utoronto.ca/uoft-world.