Linguistics of the Athabaskan Languages

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[Woodcut of 3 fish]
Lhok   (Fish)
  ggïs   spring salmon, Chinook salmon
  talok   sockeye salmon, red salmon
  sdimon (G)   humpback salmon, pink salmon
  ggenïs   dog salmon, chum salmon
  dedzikh   coho salmon, silver salmon
  cel   spawning salmon
  ggïstl'ah   kokanee salmon
  tësdlï   steelhead
  tësdlï zïc   old, early spring steelhead
  dik'ay   rainbow trout
  lhdec   cutthroat trout, landlocked fish?
  bït   char, lake trout
  sabe   Dolly Varden
  tsentël   ling cod
  dilggï yez   white sucker
  ggusgï   large-scale sucker
  ts'iskw'akh   bullhead
  c'ilhmik   unidentified sculpin-like fish
  hisiy' kw'akw   spoonhead sculpin
  kwise'   squawfish
  lhokh   humpback whitefish
  lhots   round whitefish
  taltsiy   unidentied small fish, abundant in
Taltsiy Kwah (Decker Cr.)
  lhok'ahts'iy   different kinds of trout
  ts'abe tl'alok   unidentified small mountain fish
  dzilh lok   unidentified, slightly bigger mountain fish

UW linguistics professor Sharon Hargus has documented aspects of three languages of the Athabaskan language family which are spoken by native peoples in regions of Alaska and of British Columbia, Canada. Furthermore, she has created basic literacy manuals for these languages that may be used by native speakers or by those wishing to learn these nearly extinct native tongues.

The Athabaskan family is a large group of native languages; it includes such tongues as Navajo and Hupa, which are spoken in the southwestern U.S. and Pacific coast areas. Hargus and colleagues have focused on three languages of this large family: Sekani and Babine/Witsuwit'en, spoken in British Columbia, and Deg Hit'an, spoken in Alaska. Of these three, Sekani and Deg Hit'an are the most endangered: they have the fewest remaining speakers (less than 30 for each language, with no speaker under 55 years of age.)

Resource manuals produced by Hargus and colleagues are critical for preserving these ancient tongues. The manuals may be used, for example, by native speakers who want to learn how to read and write their own languages. Others, who only understand what they hear, may wish to learn how to speak, read, and write.

Witsuwit'en is one dialect of the Witsuwit'en-Babine language, currently spoken in several communities in the Fraser and Skeena River drainages in British Columbia--in and around such towns as New Hazelton, Moricetown, Smithers, Ft. Babine, Broman Lake, and Burns Lake. Hargus and colleagues have published a manual and audio tapes that present the basics of this language, showing how consonants and vowels are pronounced, and furnishing elaborate vocabularies relating to important aspects of life, such as fish, animals, the calendar, counting, features of the land, and legends and stories.

In Alaska, currently there are about 20 to 30 fluent speakers of Deg Hit'an, most of them elders who live in the communities of Shageluk, Anvik, and Grayling, near the confluence of the Yukon and Innoko Rivers. A few speakers also live in cities such as Fairbanks and Anchorage. Working with linguistics graduate student Alice Taff, Hargus has published an introduction to literacy in the language, providing detailed information about contrasting sounds.

The Sekani people live in McLeod Lake, Ingenika, and Ft. Ware, British Columbia. Hargus has prepared a noun dictionary based on her research in Ft. Ware and McLeod Lake. "This represents the only detailed documentation of the Sekani language," she emphasizes.

To support research and teaching in linguistics, Hargus has collaborated with Cecile McKee, Ellen Kaisse and Katharine Davis to establish a state-of-the-art laboratory at the UW for research and teaching in phonetics--measuring the properties of speech sounds. "At the time the project was proposed in 1992," says Hargus, "no UW course in linguistics offered students any exposure to acoustic or perceptual phonetics." With funds from the College of Arts and Sciences and the National Science Foundation, the researchers acquired speech analysis hardware and software, speech synthesis software, data collection equipment, data processing hardware and software, and sound projection equipment.

The phonetics laboratory is now used in several linguistics courses and has served as the classroom for several quarters of "Introduction to Linguistic Phonetics," the department's major course offering in the subject. That class covers all aspects of phonetics, including production of sounds, mathematical and statistical analysis of sound waveforms, and perception--how listeners perceive and classify sounds. The lab continues to serve as a focal point for research, not only on the native languages of the Pacific Northwest, but also on diverse topics that range from Iberian Portuguese to Swedish and Finnish.

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