Our Language

Notes on Wıı̀lıı̀deh and Tetsǫ́t’ıné

The Yellowknives Dene First Nation has two traditional languages, Wıı̀lıı̀deh Yatıı̀, which is a dialect of the Tłı̨chǫ (Dogrib) language, and Tetsǫ́t’ıné Yatıé, which is a dialect of the Dëne Sųłıné (Chipewyan) language. The term ‘dialect’ does not mean ‘less correct’; rather this means that when people speak different dialects of the same language, they are still able to understand each other. Thus, Wıı̀lıı̀deh speakers can understand Tłı̨chǫ speakers, and Tetsǫ́t’ıné speakers can understand Dëne Sųłıné speakers, and vice versa.

The Wıı̀lıı̀deh dialect arose historically when Tetsǫ́t’ıné speakers began to learn the Tłı̨chǫ language, after the peace agreement of 1829. In doing so, they brought with them many words and grammatical forms from the Tetsǫ́t’ıné language, which are preserved in Wıı̀lıı̀deh. For example, the optative of ‘sing’ in Wıı̀lıı̀deh is ıhjı̨ ‘I will sing’, ı̨jı̨ ‘you (sg) will sing’, ıjı̨ ‘he/she will sing’, which is borrowed from the Tetsǫ́t’ıné husjën, hųjën, hujën (with an u to ı sound change). In other Tłı̨chǫ dialects, this would be wehjı̨, wı̨jı̨, wejı̨. Similarly, the Wıı̀lıı̀deh words for ‘apple’ and ‘mosquito’ are madzaà and dejı̀ı, which come from Tetsǫ́t’ıné bądzaghé and dejúle (in Tłı̨chǫ, these would be jı̀e cho and kw’ı). The Wıı̀lıı̀deh dialect also tends to preserve the palatal consonants in words such as jǫ ‘here’ and nechà ‘big’, as well as the prenasalized consonants in words such as mbò ‘meat’ and endà ‘Cree’. Even so, Wıı̀lıı̀deh speakers can still understand Tłı̨chǫ speakers from other communities, and vice versa.

Tetsǫ́t’ıné Yatıé (also spelled Tatsǫ́t’ıné), literally ‘Copper People’s Language’, is the Dene language which is indigenous to the area north and east of Great Slave Lake, and is the language of ɁEkécho (Akaitcho)’s people and their descandants. One very conservative feature of Tetsǫ́t’ıné it preserves the original Proto-Dene vowel system almost unchanged: there are five full vowels in stems a, e, ı, o, u and three reduced vowels ä, ë, ü (Jaker 2018). On the other hand, Tetsǫ́t’ıné also shows evidence of language contact with both Tłı̨chǫ and North Slavey. Tetsǫ́t’ıné has many words with double vowels and contour tones, in the same places that Tłı̨chǫ has them—for example, ɂeneékuı ‘old man’, which is eneèko in Tłı̨chǫ; similarly with łoóną ‘ten’, which has the same tones the Tłı̨chǫ word hoònǫ, only reversed. Although Tetsǫ́t’ıné speakers and Dëne Sųłıné speakers can understand each other, the dialect is different enough that it requires its own separate writing system and teaching materials, in order to represent the language accurately.