The conservation of conversation in Dene

Published April 26, 2011

The University of Toronto’s Dr. Keren Rice was instrumental in standardizing the format for the Slavey language. Photo: Courtesy of the University of Toronto

Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries may have started the job of writing down Slavey (the Great Slave Lake region language) in the 1800s, but it was the University of Toronto’s Dr. Keren Rice who was instrumental in standardizing the format in the 1980s.

Slavey is an ancient and complex Athabaskan tongue spoken by several thousand Dene in the Mackenzie River Valley of the Northwest Territories. Rice, a linguistics professor, recently won a Killam prize for her part in keeping Slavey alive, especially through her landmark book, A Grammar of Slave, published in 1989 and still used.

Rice first became acquainted with the language as a graduate student in the early 1970s, when by chance she was introduced to a native Slavey speaker visiting a Dene patient in a Toronto hospital. The encounter sparked an intense study of Slavey with the visitor as her teacher, and in 1973 she headed for Fort Good Hope, south of the Arctic Circle, to work on transcribing the nuances of the oral language into a standard written form.

Slavey has tonal components similar to those in Chinese and long, agglutinated words similar to those in Turkish. “For instance, the sentence ‘I walk around singing,’ would be spoken as one long word: ‘I go around on land singing words’ (k’inashinedehda).”

Over the years, committees of native Slavey speakers and their linguist advisers settled differences over the written form of various sounds, and the results morphed into a dictionary and other materials used today to teach the language to pupils in the school system. “Understandably, the Anglican missionaries based their written system on English, and the Catholic missionaries-mainly Oblates-based it on French,” says Rice. “So if you want to write a sound like sssh, for example, in the English-based system you’d write it with ‘sh’ in English, and in the French with ‘ch.’ ”

Although there are few differences between the Oblate and Anglican systems, she says, “in more recent times, people are not coming into literacy speaking French; they’re coming in speaking English, so it’s easier to have a system that’s more English-based.”

Rice has been involved for the past 15 years with U of T’s Aboriginal Studies program, whose introductory course now attracts about 120 students each year.

Rice will add some of the Killam prize money to match funds from the Volkswagen Foundation for a project in the community of Deline, N.W.T., on Great Bear Lake, which has negotiated the right to establish self-government. ‘The goal is to understand the communities’ foundations of government, what principles are core, and the moral and ethical values on which to base their government,” she says.

“One of the best ways to do this is through their stories.” To this end, the project, which will begin in the 2012, will bring together groups to record and analyze the communities’ traditional stories in different dialects. “The project is tied in with issues of self-government and how we can use stories to tell us about what was important to people, as the community seeks to define its own governance strategy.”

Every year the Killam Program offers awards to outstanding Canadian scholars working in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences and engineering. Recipients are chosen by a committee of 15 eminent Canadian scholars appointed by the Canada Council. This year, five scholars received $100,000 each.


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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