Slavey language

Slavey is an Athabaskan language spoken among the Slavey and Sahtu people of Canada in the Northwest Territories where it also has official status. The language is written using Canadian Aboriginal syllabics or the Latin script.

North Slavey and South Slavey

North Slavey is spoken by the Sahtu people in the Mackenzie District along the middle Mackenzie River from Tulita north, around Great Bear Lake, and in the Mackenzie Mountains of the Canadian territory of Northwest Territories. The dialect has around 800 speakers.
Northern Slavey is an amalgamation of three separate dialects:
South Slavey is spoken by the Slavey people, which were also known as Dehghaot'ine, Deh Cho, Etchareottine - “People Dwelling in the Shelter", in the region of Great Slave Lake, upper Mackenzie River and its drainage, in the District of Mackenzie, northeast Alberta, northwest British Columbia.
Some communities are bilingual, with the children learning Slavey at home and English when they enter school. Still other communities are monolingual in Slavey The dialect has around 1000 speakers.
Alternate names: Slavi, Slave, Dené, Mackenzian
The division of Slavey dialects is based largely on the way each one pronounces the old Proto-Athapaskan sounds *dz *ts *ts’ *s and *z.



The consonant inventories in the dialects of Slavey differ considerably. The table above lists the 30 consonants common to most or all varieties. Hare lacks aspirated affricates, which have lenited into fricatives, whereas Mountain lacks . In addition, for some speakers of Hare, an alveolar flap has developed into a separate phoneme.
The most pronounced difference is however the realization of a series of consonants that varies greatly in their place of articulation:
Slavey properMountainBearlakeHare
Plain stop/affricate,
Voiceless fricative
Voiced fricative / semivowel

In Slavey proper, these are dental affricates and fricatives; comparative Athabaskan work reveals this to be the oldest sound value. Mountain has labials, with the voiceless stop coinciding with pre-existing. Bearlake has labialized velars, but has lenited the voiced fricative to coincide with pre-existing. The most complicated situation is found in Hare, where the plain stop is a labialized velar, the ejective member is replaced by a sequence, the aspirated affricate has turned into a fricative, and both the voiceless and voiced fricatives have been lenited to.

Phonological processes

The following phonological and phonetic statements apply to all four dialects of Slavey.
Slavey has two tones:
In Slavey orthography, high tone is marked with an acute accent, and low tone is unmarked.
Tones are both lexical and grammatical.
Lexical: 'along' vs. 'rabbit'

Syllable structure

Slavey morphemes have underlying syllable structures in the stems: CV, CVC, CVnC, V, and VC. The prefixes of the stem occur as Cv, CVC, VC, CV, and C.
Stem structureExampleEnglish gloss

Prefix structureExampleEnglish gloss
CVCteh-"into water"
VCah-second-person singular subject


Slavey, like many Athabascan languages, has a very specific morpheme order in the verb in which the stem must come last. The morpheme order is shown in the following chart.
Position 000Adverb
Position 00Object of incorporated postposition
Position 0Incorporated postposition
Position 1Adverbial
Position 2Distributive
Position 3Customary
Position 4Incorporated stem
Position 5Number
Position 6Direct Object
Position 7Deictic
Position 8Theme/derivation
Position 9Aspect/derivation
Position 10Conjugation
Position 11Mode
Position 12Subject
Position 13Classifier
Position 14Stem

A Slavey verb must minimally have positions 13 and 14 to be proper. Here are some examples:

Person, number and gender


Slavey marks gender by means of prefixation on the verb theme. There are three different genders, one of which is unmarked; the other two are marked by prefixes ' and '. However, only certain verb themes allow gender prefixes.
' is used for nouns which mark location in either time or space. The gender pronoun can be a direct object, an oblique object or a possessor. Here are examples of each:
  • kú̜e̒ godetl’e̒h
house 3 paints area
“S/he is painting the house"
  • ko̜̒e̒ gocha
house shelter
“in the shelter of the house"
  • ko̜̒e̒ godeshi̜te̒ee
house area.floor
“floor of the house"
Some examples of these areal nouns are house, land, river, and winder.
' marks wood, leaves and branches. This gender is optional: some speakers use it and others do not. Examples of its use are as follows:
“wood is located"
Bird nest wooden O is located
“A bird’s nest is located"
Wood 3split wood
“S/he is splitting wood"


Slavey marks number in the subject prefixes in position 12. The dual is marked by the prefix łe̒h- /łe- /le-.
“They two got stuck in a narrow passage"
The plural is marked with the prefix go-.
They dance
“we go for meat"


Slavey has first, second, third, and fourth person. When in position 12, acting as a subject, first-person singular is /h-/, second-person singular is /ne-/, first-person dual/plural is /i̒d-/, and second person plural is marked by /ah-/. Third person is not marked in this position
When occurring as a direct or indirect object, the pronoun prefixes change and fourth person becomes relevant.
First-person singular takes se-.
Second-person singular takes ne-
Third person is marked by be-/me-
Fourth person is marked by ye-


Like most Athabaskan languages, Slavey has a multitude of classifications. There are five basic categories that describe the nature of an object. Some of these categories are broken up further.
ClassDescriptionLocative prefixActive PrefixExamples
1aOne dimensional slender, rigid and elongated objectsØ-to∅-tí͔,-tǫ, -tǫ́gun, canoe, pencil
1bOne directions flexible objects, ropelike; plurals∅-ɫa∅-ɫee, -ɫa, -ɫeethread, snowshoes, rope
2atwo dimensional flexibleh-chúh-chuh, -chú, -chuopen blanket, open tent, paper
2bTwo dimensional rigid objectsN/AN/Ano specific lexical item
3Solid roundish objects; chunky objects∅-ʔǫ∅-ʔáh, -ʔǫ, -ʔáball, rock, stove, loaf of bread
4aSmall containerful∅-kǫ∅-káh, -kǫ, -kahpot of coffee, puppies in a basket, cup of tea
4bLarge containerfulh-tǫh-tí͔h, -tǫ, tǫ́full gas tank, bucket of water, bag of flour
5Animate∅-tí͔∅-téh, -tí͔, -té, h-téh, -tįAny living thing

Water classifier
"A clothlike object is in the water"

Tense and aspect


Slavey has only one structural tense: future. Other tenses can be indicated periphrastically.
An immediate future can be formed by de- inceptive in position 9 plus y-
3 fut.start out
“s/he is just ready to go"
3 fut.start to heal
“it is just starting to heal"


Slavey has two semantic aspects: perfective and imperfective.
Perfective is represented in position 11.
3 pf.start off
"S/he started off."
long 3
"S/he talked for a long time."
The perfective can also be used with a past tense marker to indicate that at the point of reference, which is sometime in the past, the event was completed
hose 3 area PAST
“He had built a house"
Imperfective indicates that the reference time precedes the end of the event time.
3 imp.sing
“s/he sing, s/he is singing"
house 3 area 1sg. pf.see 3
“I saw him building a house"

Word order

Slavey is a verb-final language. The basic word order is SOV.
Man boat made
"The man made the boat"
dog child bit
"The dog bit the child"
Oblique objects precede the Direct object.
girl mother for parka made.
"The girl made a parka for her mother."


Slavey has no case markings. To differentiate between subject, direct object, and oblique objects, word order is used. The subject will be the first noun phrase, and the direct object will occur right before the verb. The oblique objects are controlled by postpositions.


Possessive pronoun prefixes are found in Slavey. These pronouns have the same forms as the direct and oblique object pronouns. The prefixes are listed below with examples.

''se-'' first-person singular

“my mitts"
“my knife

''ne-'' second-person singular

“your sg. hat"
“your sg. rope"

''be-/me-'' third-person singular possessive 3 is fast
“His/her dog is fast."
3.slippers.possessive 1sg. Made
“I made his/her slippers."

''ye-'' fourth person

4. slippers.possessive 3 made
“S/he made his/her slippers."

''ʔe-'' unspecified possessor

“someone's dog"

''naxe-/raxe-'' first-person plural, second-person plural.

“our blanket, your pl. blanket"

''ku-/ki-/go-'' third-person plural 3 is fast
“Their dog is fast."
3pl.clothes.possessive 1sg. washed
“I washed their clothes."



There are both coordinating and subordinating conjunctions in Slavey.


''gots'éh'' "and, and then"
wood 1sg. cut and 1sg. warmed
“I cut some wood and then I warmed myself up inside."
people some berry 3 picks and some 3
“Some people will pick berries and some will fish."
''kúlú, kólí, kúú, kóó, ékóó, góa'' “but"
there 1sg. opt.go 1sg. want but 1sg. be afraid
“I want to go there but I'm afraid."
1sg. child 1sg. saw 3pl. but 3sg. instead 3 became
“I was supposed to watch the children but he did it instead."

Subordinating conjunctions

''ʔenįdé, nįdé, ndé, néh'' “if, when, whenever"
moose 3pl. shoot if 1sg.for thanks
“If they shoot a moose, I'll be grateful."
3. head 1sg.opt.comb 3 wants of 3 combs 4
“Whenever Dora wants to comb my hair, she combs it."
''-were'' “before"
1sg. opt.go to sleep before woodbox 3 is full 1sg. made area
“Before I went to bed, I filled to woodbox."
''-ts'ę'' “since, from"
1sg. was born area.from here 1sg. lived
“I lived here since I was born."
-''hé'' “because, so"
wood 3 is wet because 1sg. make fire NEG
“Because the wood is wet, I can't make fire."

Relative clauses

There are three important parts to a relative clause. There is the head, which is the noun that is modified or delimited. The second part is the restricting sentence. The sentence modifies the head noun. The last part is the complementizer.
The man 1sg. talked COMP 3 is tall
“the man whom I talked to is tall."
dog rabbit 3 chased COMP 1sg. saw
“I saw the dog that chased the rabbit."


North and South Slavey are recognized as official languages of the Northwest Territories; they may be used in court and in debates and proceedings of the Northwest Territories legislature. However, unlike English and French, the government only publishes laws and documents in North and South Slavey if the legislature requests it, and these documents are not authoritative.
In 2015, a Slavey woman named Andrea Heron challenged the territorial government over its refusal to permit the ʔ character, representing the Slavey glottal stop, in her daughter's name, Sakaeʔah, despite Slavey languages being official in the NWT. The territory argued that territorial and federal identity documents were unable to accommodate the character. Heron had registered the name with a hyphen instead of the ʔ when her daughter was born, but when Sakaeʔah was 6, Ms. Heron joined a challenge by a Chipewyan woman named Shene Catholique-Valpy regarding the same character in her own daughter's name, Sahaiʔa.
Also in 2015, the University of Victoria launched a language revitalization program in the NWT, pairing learners of indigenous languages including Slavey with fluent speakers. The program requires 100 hours of conversation with the mentor with no English allowed, as well as sessions with instructors in Fort Providence.

In popular culture

Slavey was the native language spoken by the fictional band in the Canadian television series North of 60. Nick Sibbeston, a former Premier of the Northwest Territories, was a Slavey language and culture consultant for the show.