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Researching Endangered Languages in British Columbia

Mike Abou, native speaker of Tsek’ene, and Sharon Hargus, working together in Fort Ware, British Columbia, Summer 2007

September 28, 2007

Sharon Hargus, a professor in the Department of Linguistics, just had her book, Witsuwit’en Grammar: Phonetics, Phonology, Morphology published by University of British Columbia Press (2007). The book summarizes her research on the word-level grammar of Witsuwit’en (a.k.a. Wet’suwet’en), a language of the Athabaskan (or Athapaskan) family spoken in Smithers, British Columbia and neighboring communities. Witsuwit’en, a dialect of the Babine-Witsuwit’en language, is closely related to the better-known Carrier language spoken to the east. Witsuwit’en is endangered, with less than 200 native speakers left that are 55 years of age or older.

Hargus also recently received a $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for a project entitled, “Athabaskan Personal Histories of Climate Change in Alaska and Canada,” (2007–2010). With this award, she has begun the next phase of research on Witsuwit’en, sentence-level grammar. The award also allows her to continue her research on two other Athabaskan languages: Tsek’ene (or Sekani), spoken in the Rocky Mountain Trench area north of Prince George, British Columbia, and Deg Xinag, spoken in western central Alaska on the Yukon River and one of its tributaries, the Innoko River. Tsek’ene and Deg Xinag are also endangered. Tsek’ene has about 20 native speakers remaining, ages 60 and older, and Deg Xinag has seven native speakers remaining, ages 72 and older. One of the goals of the current grant is to extend the documentation on each of these Athabaskan languages in the area of syntax and texts. This fall Hargus was engaged in fieldwork in British Columbia in Fort Ware and the Smithers area, where she collected narratives about climate change in these two areas of northern British Columbia from speakers of Tsek’ene and Witsuwit’en.

Hargus’s doctoral student Julia Miller has been involved in research on Beaver, an Athabaskan language closely related to Tsek’ene, since 2003. Miller’s field research on Beaver tone, lexicon and verb paradigms is supported by the Volkswagen Foundation. Miller is currently in her third year of a Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships for Beaver language and culture study awarded through the Canadian Studies Center.

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