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Keeping traditional language alive

Erika Sherk
Northern News Services

Hay River Reserve (Nov 13/06) - "Would you like to play a game of geese?"

Laughter rang out as language instructor Dorothy Buckley explained the minute difference between the word for cards and the word for geese in the South Slavey language.

NNSL Photo/graphic

Kate Osted, left, practices South Slavey words with instructor Dorothy Buckley at the Dene Cultural Institute. - Erika Sherk/NNSL photo

The words seem nearly identical, but accents on the vowels are pronounced differently - changing the meaning completely.

The language's complexities were what led Lucy Cayen to the lessons, which began last week at the Dene Cultural Institute on the K'atlodeeche reserve.

"There are so many meanings to each word," said Cayen. "If you say it wrong they'll crack up at you."

Another student, who wished to remain nameless, told a story of the time she tried to say something nice to an elder.

"I said some things in Slavey," she said, "and sat there all proud. Turns out I said her butt stunk.

"She was horrified and everyone else was just cracking up laughing."

Seven students were at the lessons, which are held by the Yamozha Kue Society. Another group meets earlier in the week.

The lessons are funded by the Aboriginal Literacy Fund, through the GNWT. Similar lessons are ongoing in Yellowknife.

Maintaining the language is important to preserving Dene culture, said Ken Latour, co-ordinator at the Institute.

"We live in the homeland of Dene languages," he said. "If they don't exist here they're going to be gone forever."

The idea behind the lessons, which are aimed at adult beginners, is to encourage intergenerational learning, said Latour. Children are learning the language in school, so if adults are learning it as well, families can practice together, he said.

At the Institute, the lessons are held in a beautiful round room decorated with Dene arts and crafts. A fire was crackling in the fireplace.

Latour and Buckley demonstrated the first exercise, using basic words the class had been practicing.

"Egho! (come!)" Buckley ordered Latour. Then they took turns giving and taking objects.

"Ezhi de (give that to me)" Buckley said, pointing to a marker. Then, "di na (here, take this)" and she gave it back to him.

The class then divided into pairs to practice. Laughter filled the room as mistakes were made.

Humour is an integral part of the Slavey language, said Buckley.

"Sometimes you get going in Slavey and you'll be just laughing your heads off for no reason at all," she said.

Pam Jones said that was part of the reason she was at the class.

"Someone will be telling a story (in Slavey)," she said, "and everyone will be laughing. I ask my Mom 'what's so funny?' and she says 'I can't tell you - it wouldn't be funny in English."

"It seems like there is a real pleasure in speaking Slavey," Jones added, "like they have fun doing it."

The students should achieve a good grounding in the language if they keep with it until March, when the lessons end, said Buckley.

Teaching the lessons make her happy, she said. "It's a way to keep our language alive."