The Tlingit Language
Tlingit is the language of our community, but, sadly, due to numerous factors, such as colonization and residential schools, many of our community members did not learn Tlingit as their first language and this pattern continues to this day. Recently, in 2014, our community conducted a language needs assessment, which indicated that only three of our community members are fluent mother-tongue speakers of Tlingit. We are encouraged that seven individuals understand or speak Tlingit somewhat and fifty-four individuals are currently learning Tlingit. Mary Jane Norris, who analyzed the 2001 Census data on Aboriginal Languages within Canada, writes that there are only 200 first language speakers of Tlingit in Canada (2007:22), and it can be considered endangered. However, she continues by stating that although:
…the Tlingit language family has one of the oldest mother tongue populations,… the index of second language acquisition and average age of speakers indicates that two people (usually younger) speak the language to every one person with a mother tongue. These indicators suggest that younger generations are more likely to learn Tlingit as a second language (2007: 22).
Many of our community members are the younger generations learning Tlingit as a second language in our community. Language revitalization, bringing life back to our language, therefore, is a goal of our community. We have developed Tlingit language programs at the Tlingit Family Learning Centre (which is a daycare), the Atlin School, and at the Tlingit Culture Camp.
The Tlingit language is part of the Na-Dene language family that includes Eyak, spoken in Alaska, and Athapaskan or Dene languages spoken throughout Alaska and the Yukon. Thornton, in his book Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú (Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land), writes that there are, “…four mutually intelligible dialects or speech areas: the gulf coast, inland, northern and southern (de Laguna 1972, 15ff.). It has a large vocabulary, and the phonology, or sound system, includes two dozen sounds not found in English” (Thornton 2012: xiii). The Tlingit spoken in our community is often categorized as part of the inland dialect, but our speech is quite close to the Tlingit spoken in Juneau, which is where the mouth of the Taku River and the heart of our homeland is located. The other Tlingit communities in the Yukon include Teslin Tlingit First Nation, who often use [m] sounds in their speech where Atlin speakers use the [w] sound, and the Carcross-Tagish First Nation.
The most thorough documentation of the Tlingit spoken in our community, as well as the history of one of our major clans (Yan Yeidí), is found in the book Gagiwdul.at, Brought Forth to Reconfirm: The Legacy of a Taku River Tlingit Clan co-written by our Elder, Mrs. Elizabeth Nyman and linguist Jeff Leer (1993). In this volume, Leer developed a revised writing system for Tlingit, which the Yukon Native Language Centre eventually started to use in their teaching materials as well. Many of our community members found the Leer writing system difficult to read, however, and, in January 2006, our Elders Council passed a resolution that all materials from the community must use the writing system popularized by Sealaska Heritage Institute, “as this was closer to the true Tlingit” (TRTFN Elders Council, January 2006). This has been beneficial to our community members since there resources available on the Sealaska Heritage Institute’s website (some links appear below) are diverse, numerous and use multi-media, including audio and animations. Also, the switch to the writing system used in Alaska further emphasizes the connection our community has to clans in Alaska. As Louise Gordon, stated about her Elders who are fluent Tlingit speakers, “she [Mary Anderson] had an oral relationship with the Alaskan people, and that’s why she spoke the same way, and so did Mrs. Nyman because they were on the river and talked to each other” (Louise Gordon, interview, 2006). As can be seen from this quote, the connection to our language, how we speak and how we choose to write, comes back to our connection to the land and the T’aakú (Taku River).
Learn Some Tlingit Phrases:
These may be useful when visiting Taku River Tlingit territory:
Hello (How are you): Wáa sá iyatee?
I'm fine: Xat yak’éi
Thank you: Gunalchéesh
It's good to see you (one of you): Yak’éi ixwsateení
It's good to see you all: Yak’éi yee xwsateení
I'll See you again: Tsu yéi ikkwasatéen
How's the weather: Wáa sá kuwatee?
Thank you for helping me: Gunalchéesh ax éet yidasheeyí.
Counting to 10:
Find more on the Tlingit Dictionary online: http://www.sealaskaheritage.org/programs/Language%20Resources/Tlingit_dictionary_web.pdf
To see and hear the Tlingit alphabet: http://www.sealaskaheritage.org/programs/Language%20Resources/alphabet_interactive/tlingit_alphabet.swf
To see and hear the Tlingit numbers: http://www.sealaskaheritage.org/flash/numbers.swf