Skip to main content

2012 Athabaskan/Dene languages conference at Western Washington University

Sharon Hargus

October 31, 2012

by Sharon Hargus, Linguistics


First Nations community language specialists and scholars from Canada and the United States gathered at Western Washington University (WWU), August 15-17, 2012, to share information about the Athabaskan/Dene languages, a group of about 40 related languages spoken in the interior of Alaska, much of western Canada, the southwest United States and various locations on the Pacific coast.

Meeting almost annually since 1980, the conference has had the goal of advancing the study and preservation of the languages of the Athabaskan or Dene family. The 2012 conference included presentations on structural aspects of the languages by linguists, as well as presentations on language pedagogy by language teachers from some of the communities where the languages of the family are spoken, including Cold Lake, Alberta (Denesųɬiné language), Moricetown, British Columbia (Witsuwit’en language), and Rae, Northwest Territories (Tlįchǫ language).

The language family has been known by two names for some time. Athapasca was first bestowed on the family by Gallatin 1836. Variant spellings are Athabaskan, Athabascan (preferred in Alaska), and Athapaskan (preferred in Canada). The term Dene is a generalized form of the word for “person, man”, which occurs in a similar form in most of the languages of the family; e.g. Dakelh (Carrier) dune, Navajodiné, Gwich’in dinjii. This term also made its first appearance in the 19th century (e.g. Petitot 1876). The conference has historically been called the Athabaskan Languages Conference, using the generally accepted term among linguists, but for some years at this conference, many community members, particularly those from Canadian communities, have expressed a preference that the language family be referred to as Dene rather than Athabaskan. The issue came to a head at the 2012 conference, and at the business meeting on August 16, participants voted unanimously to change the name of future meetings to the Dene Languages Conference.

The conference was co-organized by Edward Vajda, WWU Department of Modern and Classical Languagesm and Sharon Hargus, UW Linguistics and an Affiliate Faculty of Canadian Studies. Major funding for the conference was provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation (Arctic Social Sciences Program). The proceedings will be published by the Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in 2013.

The 2013 Dene Languages Conference will be hosted by the Tsuut’ina Gunaha Institute, Tsuut’ina First Nation, Alberta.

Sharon Hargus is currently involved in projects related to the documentation of four Native American or First Nations languages: Sahaptin (Yakima dialect) (spoken in Washington state), Deg Xinag (spoken in Alaska), Kwadacha (Ft. Ware) Sekani (Tsek’ene), and Witsuwit’en (spoken in British Columbia). She has been an Affiliate of the Center since 1990. Sharon is chair of the dissertation committee for Canadian Studies Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellow Julia Miller for Dane-Zaa (2006-07, 07-08, 08-09). In the last six years the Canadian Studies Center has awarded at total of 16 FLAS Fellowships for the acquisition of Canadian indigenous languages – a leader in the nation.

Gallatin, Albert. 1836. ‘A Synopsis of the Indian Tribes within the United States East of            the Rocky Mountains, and in the British and Russian Possessions in North America.’          Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society II:1-422.
Petitot, Emile, o.m.i. 1876. Dictionnaire de la langue dènè-dindjiè, dialectes montagnais           ou chippewayan, peaux de lièvre et loucheux: enfermant en outre un grand                     nombre de termes propres à sept autres dialectes de la même langue: précédé                 d’une monographie des Dènè-dindjiè, d’une grammaire et de tableaux synoptiques           des conjugaisons. Paris and San Francisco: E. Leroux and A.L. Bancroft.

Return to Top