Slavey language

Slavey language
ᑌᓀ ᒐ Dene Tha (South Slavey)
ᑲᑊᗱᑯᑎᑊᓀ K’áshogot’ine;
ᓴᑋᕲᒼᑯᑎᑊᓀ Sahtúgot’ine;
ᗰᑋᑯᑎᑊᓀ Shihgot’ine
(North Slavey)
Spoken in Canada
Region Northwest Territories
Ethnicity Slavey people
Native speakers 3,545  (2006)[1]
North Slavey 1,235,
South Slavey 2,310
Language family
Official status
Regulated by No official regulation
Language codes
ISO 639-2 den
ISO 639-3 den – Macrolanguage
individual codes:
scs – North Slavey
xsl – South Slavey

Slavey (play /ˈslvi/; 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.[2]

In older literature, the name of the language was spelt and pronounced Slave; however, in order to dissociate the name from the word slave, first the pronunciation was changed[citation needed] by pronouncing the e, and then the spelling was changed to Slavé and later Slavey.

The language is written using Canadian Aboriginal syllabics or the Latin alphabet.

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 is spoken by the Sahtu people in the Mackenzie District along the middle Mackenzie River from 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

Dialects: Hare, Bearlake, Mountain

South Slavey language or Dene-thah, is spoken in the region of Great Slave Lake, upper Mackenzie River and drainage in Mackenzie District, northeast Alberta, northwest British Columbia.

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

Alternate names: Slavi, Slave, Dené, Mackenzian



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), while 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:[verification needed]

Slavey proper Mountain Bearlake Hare
Plain stop/affricate t̪θ p
Aspirated t̪θʰ kʷʰ -
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 aspirated member is missing, the ejective member is replaced by a /ʔw/ sequence, the voiceless fricative is (as in Mountain) /f/, 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'

See also

Further reading

  • Howard, Philip G. A Dictionary of the Verbs of South Slavey. Yellowknife: Dept. of Culture and Communications, Govt. of the Northwest Territories, 1990. ISBN 0770838685
  • Isaiah, Stanley, et al. Golqah Gondie = Animal Stories - in Slavey. Yellowknife: Programme Development Division, Government of the Northwest Territories, 1974.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521232287 (hbk); ISBN 052129875X.
  • Monus, Vic, and Stanley Isaiah. 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?], 1977.
  • Northwest Territories. South Slavey Legal Terminology. [Yellowknife, N.W.T.]: Dept. of Justice, Govt. of the Northwest Territories, 1993.
  • Northwest Territories. Alphabet Posters in the Wrigley Dialect of the Slavey Language. [Yellowknife?]: Dept. of Education, Programs and Evaluation Branch, 1981.
  • Tatti, Fibbie, and Philip G. Howard. A Slavey Language Pre-Primer in the Speech of Fort Franklin. [Yellowknife]: Linguistic Programmes Division, Dept. of Education, Northwest Territories, 1978.
  • Pranav Anand and Andrew Nevins. 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. Readers: Slavey Language. Yellowknife: Dept. of Education, Programme Development Division, 1975.


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