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University of Saskatchewan receives grant to preserve Dene language

There has been recent news of new language programs to begin this fall to teach children Dene and Michif, as native languages are beginning to die out.
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There has been recent news of new language programs to begin this fall to teach children Dene and Michif, as native languages are beginning to die out. However, research has shown that the Dene language is beginning to evolve as the structure is changing with new generations. 

USask linguistic researcher Olga Lovick has recently received a $333,124 grant to work along a University of Zurich researcher and elders of Clearwater Dene Nation and La Loche to document, describe, and preserve the nuances of the language which is currently undergoing a major change to its structure. Lovick and a team of research assistants from the communities will record more than 100 hours of Dene speakers and transcribe texts to create bilingual stories and read-along books for classroom use. 

These two communities were chosen because they still have speakers who use Dene as a first language, which is somewhat unusual in a time where native languages are at risk of becoming obsolete.

“We know that across Canada and in fact across the world Indigenous languages are in trouble due to colonization,” said Lovick. 

“And so, their preservation and learning what they have to teach us is really important, simply because we’re faced with the possibility that they might not be around much longer. Now with Denesuline in Saskatchewan it is different because the language is still very vital and so we have a good chance, to be around, but still that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to work on it now while there are still lots of people who can be involved and while the language still has a really good chance.”

Earlier articles have talked a bit about the relationship between language and culture, and that language is actually a very big part of culture. Not only that, but language is also a big part of socializing which is important to humans as we are quite social by nature. Sure, we can socialize in any language, but Indigenous languages are important to Indigenous people in their culture and in their history as language can show how people taught their children or each other by looking at the structure of language and how much information is in one word.

“The linguistic part of this question is… it was developed under European languages, German, English, French, and they’re all really similar to each other because they’re all related,” Lovick said. “And then people started looking at Indigenous languages all over the world and discovered, “Oy! What we thought was true about language and the ability for humans to use language, that actually may not be true because some of these languages are really, really different. And the Indigenous languages of Canada are a really good example of that because they are really, really different from a language like English. Their word order is different. In English we typically have the subject, then the verb, then the object, so I eat cookies. In a language like Dene the word order is different, so it would be Mary cookies eats. And then the other thing that is really different is that a lot of information is packed into the verb. So the I in I eat cookies would be part of the verb, for example. And lots of other information would be packaged into the verb.”

These researchers will be preserving the Dene language the way the elders speak it, because it’s a complex language that takes many years to master and also because younger people are speaking the language with a different structure. The big question is why?

“That’s what we’re trying to look at,” Lovick says of why the structure of Dene is changing. “We’ve been working in that community (Clearwater and La Loche) for five years now on another research project and what we’ve noticed is that there is a big difference between how elders speak and how younger people speak. La Loche and Clearwater are unique because we have speakers of all ages, there’s little kids still learning Dene as their first language and then it goes all the way up to elders.”

Similar to how younger generations continue to shorten words and phrases in English, younger people are doing the same in Dene. Anyone who has attempted to read old English can tell that it’s a language that has evolved immensely, with native languages it’s unknown how much or if they’ve evolved as well.

“We noticed that younger speakers tend to use shorter forms, and many people use shorter forms when they’re just having a regular conversation,” said Lovick. “But then when you ask them, “what did you just say?” the form will become a little bit longer. And it’ll be a little more- I was telling you earlier that there’s lots of information packaged into words, so it’s easier to see all of the pieces that went in. Maybe a comparison, in English we say things like I can’t we aren’t, so these contractions, it’s similar to that except that it’s a lot more widespread.”

Lovick had also noticed that some young people are unable to make these short words longer. Why they aren’t able to use longer form isn’t quite known, though it may be because Dene is quite a complex language.

“What we’re thinking is this may be because of the complexity of the Dene language,” Lovick said. “It may simply be that people keep learning about the structure of the language until they’re actually elders. And this is something that speakers have been telling me for years, when young speakers they will say, ‘Oh yeah, I speak Dene, but I don’t speak it like an elder does.’ And I think that is what they’re trying to tell me, they’re fluent speakers, they can talk about everything under the sun, but there’s parts of the language that really only become accessible as you get older. And that’s really exciting for linguists because, if we look at how kids learn that language, generally by the age of five or so they have the structure of the language and from then on it’s only vocabulary that gets added.”

Lovick is beginning to believe that the structure of the Dene language is so complex that it really takes a lifetime to learn it.

The study will involve the community in a very active way. The recordings will be made by local recording assistance, who are fluent in Dene. And there will be trained transcription assistants with the plan to train more, so all of the recordings will be written down and translated. 

Not only will this research create jobs and build skills, but Lovick is hoping that younger people will get interested in research and choose that as a career option if they decide to go to university, and as Lovick stated, “maybe even study linguistics.”