The Gwichʼin language (Dinju Zhuh Kʼyuu) belongs to the Athabaskan language family and is spoken by the Gwichʼin First Nation (Canada) / Alaska Native People (United States). It is also known in older or dialect-specific publications as Kutchin, Takudh, Tukudh, or Loucheux. Gwich’in is spoken primarily in the towns of Inuvik, Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Old Crow, and Tsiigehtchic (formerly Arctic Red River) in the Northwest Territories and Yukon of Canada. In Alaska of the United States, Gwichʼin is spoken in Beaver, Circle, Fort Yukon, Chalkyitsik, Birch Creek, Arctic Village, Eagle, and Venetie.
The ejective affricate in the name Gwichʼin is usually written with symbol U+2019 RIGHT SINGLE QUOTATION MARK, though the correct character for this use (with expected glyph and typographic properties) is U+02BC MODIFIER LETTER APOSTROPHE.
A missionary called Robert McDonald first started working on the written representation of Van Tat and Dagoo dialects Gwich’in. He also produced a Bible and a hymn book which was written in Gwich’in in 1898. He was the only one who used English as his model to represent Gwich’in, while other missionaries were translating the Bible from French into languages such as northern Slavey.
Few Gwichʼin speak their heritage language as a majority of the population shifts to English. According to the UNESCO Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, Gwichʼin is now «severely endangered.» There are about 260 Gwichʼin speakers in Canada out of a total Gwichʼin population of 1,900. About 300 out of a total Alaska Gwichʼin population of 1,100 speak the language.
In 1988, the NWT Official Languages Act named Gwich’in as an official language of the Northwest Territories, and the Official Languages of Alaska Law as amended declared Gwich’in a recognized language in 2014.
The Gwich’in language is taught regularly at the Chief Zzeh Gittlit School in Old Crow, Yukon Territory.
Projects are underway to document the language and enhance the writing and translation skills of younger Gwich’in speakers. In one project, lead research associate and fluent speaker Gwichʼin elder Kenneth Frank works with linguists and young Gwich’in speakers affiliated with the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to document traditional knowledge of caribou anatomy.
Gwichʼin is a member of the Northern Athabaskan subgroup of the Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit language family. It shares the Hän-Kutchin subdivision with the Hän language.
There are two main dialects of Gwichʼin, eastern and western, which are delineated roughly at the Canada–US border. There are several dialects within these subgroupings, including Fort Yukon Gwichʼin, Arctic Village Gwichʼin, Western Canada Gwichʼin (Takudh, Tukudh, Loucheux), and Arctic Red River. Each village has unique dialect differences, idioms, and expressions. The Old Crow people in the northern Yukon have approximately the same dialect as those bands living in Venetie and Arctic Village, Alaska.
Gwich’in speakers located in Old Crow speak several dialects including Kâachik and Tâachik. They are spoken in Johnson Creek village.
The consonants of Gwichʼin in the standard orthography are listed below (with IPA notation in brackets):
Gwichʼin language in place names
The Porcupine River, a 916-kilometre (569 mi) tributary of the Yukon River in Canada and the United States, is called Chʼôonjik in Gwichʼin.
A sign in the Fort McPherson identifies the city by its original Gwichʼin name, Teetl'it Zheh.
Vadzaih (caribou) are an integral part of First Nations and Inuit oral histories and legends including the Gwich’in creation story of how Gwichʼin people and the caribou separated from a single entity. The caribou is the cultural symbol and a keystone subsistence species of the Gwich’in, just as the buffalo is to the Plains Indians.
Elders have identified at least 150 descriptive Gwich’in names for all of the bones, organs, and tissues «Associated with the caribou’s anatomy are not just descriptive Gwich’in names for all of the body parts including bones, organs, and tissues as well as «an encyclopedia of stories, songs, games, toys, ceremonies, traditional tools, skin clothing, personal names and surnames, and a highly developed ethnic cuisine.»
Published in April 2020.
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