Tagish language

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Native toCanada
EthnicityTagish people
Extinct2008, with the death of Lucy Wren[1][2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3tgx

Tagish was a language spoken by the Tagish or Carcross-Tagish, a First Nations people that historically lived in the Northwest Territories and Yukon in Canada. The name Tagish derives from /ta:gizi dene/, or "Tagish people", which is how they refer to themselves, where /ta:gizi/ is a place name meaning "it (spring ice) is breaking up.[4]

The language is a Northern Athabaskan language, closely related to Tahltan and Kaska. The three languages are often grouped together as Tahltan-Kaska-Tagish; by some the three languages are considered dialects of the same language.[5] As of 2004, there was only 1 native fluent speaker of Tagish documented: Lucy Wren (Agaymā/Ghùch Tlâ).[6] She died in 2008.[7]


Tagish is among many other languages within the large language family of Na-Dene languages,[8] which includes another group of indigenous North American languages called the Athabaskan languages.[9] The Northern Athabaskan languages are often considered to be part of a complex of languages entitled Tagish-Tahltan-Kaska. The languages in this complex have an extremely similar lexicon and grammar, but differ in systems of obstruents.[5] Known alternatively as Dene K'e, Tagish is also closely related to the neighboring languages Tahitian, Kaska, and Southern Tutchone.[10]


The culture of the Tagish people has its roots in both coastal Indian cultures and those from the interior (Tlingit and Athapaskan respectively).[6] Trade and travel across the Chilkoot pass contributed to the mixing of these cultures. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Tlingit-speaking peoples began to move in from the coast and intermarry with the native Tagish-speaking population. By the time outsiders first made contact in the 1880s, the majority of the people were bilingual, and the Tlingit language had replaced Tagish as the language of the majority.[6]

Tagish became less common partially because native traditions were domesticated and suppressed by colonial administration through writing because there are open ended possibilities inherent in oral dialogue which are impossible to convey through text.[11] The most significant impact on the decline of nearly every native language in Canada came when aboriginal children were forced to attend residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages.[12]

After the Yukon Gold Rush in 1898, English became the majority language of the area. As the majority of children attended the English-only Chooutla Anglican school nearby, fluency in the native languages began to be lost. Language courses began to be reintroduced in the 1970s, but the programs had little funding and were not comparable to the French or English programs present. More recently, political awareness has led to movements to gain constitutional provisions for the language, as well a greater focus on in-school programs, language conferences, and public awareness.[13] For example, in 2004, Southern Tutchone and Tagish languages are being revitalized and protected through an on-line approach called FirstVoices.

The federal government signed an agreement giving the territory $4.25 million over five years to "preserve, develop and enhance aboriginal languages",[14] however Tagish is not one of the offered native language programs. Ken McQueen has stated that despite efforts, the language will likely become extinct after the last fluent Tagish speaker dies.[15]

Tagish on First Voices[edit]

FirstVoices is an Indigenous language computer database and web-based teaching and development tool.[16] Tagish was one of the first to be added into the FirstVoices digital multimedia archive of endangered indigenous languages.[13] Resources on the site include sound files of name pronunciation, word lists, and some children's books written in the language. This language documentation is intended to create a holistic platform where identity, oral tradition, elder's knowledge and the centrality of the land can all be intertwined.[17] On the Tagish First Voices page, there is a total of 36 words archived and 442 phrases archived as well as the alphabet complete with sound recordings. To provide a cultural context, there are also a community slide show and art gallery section. This website also has welcomes from a multitude of elders complete with contact information about the website's contributors.[18]

Notable people[edit]

Angela Sidney was a prominent activist for the use and reclamation of her Tagish language and heritage in the southern Yukon Territory. Born in 1902, her heritage was Tagish on her father's side and Tlingit on her mother's side. Sidney's accomplishments include working with Julie Cruikshank, documenting and authoring traditional stories[19] as well as becoming a member for the Order of Canada in 1986. Sidney died in 1991.[20]

Lucy Wren was the last known fluent speaker. She was actively involved in the recordings and stories used on the First Voices website including the "Our Elders Statement" before passing in 2008.[21] This work by Lucy Wren has been continued by her son Norman James as he works to record more language and culture of the Tagish and Tlingit people for the Yukon Native Language Centre and the First Voices website.[22]

Geographic Distribution[edit]

The Tagish people make their territory in southern Yukon Territory and northern British Columbia in Canada,[4] most specifically at Tagish, which lies between Marsh Lake and Tagish Lake, and Carcross, located between Bennett and Nares Lake.[6] The majority of the area in which Tagish was spoken is made up of the Lewes and Teslin plateaus.


The Tagish language includes aspiration, glottalization, nasal sounds, resonance, and tones.[23]

Tagish is characterized by the simplest stem-initial consonant system of the Northern Athabaskan languages, and also has a conservative vowel system as well as conserving stem-final consonants.Final glottalization is lost. Constricted vowels are pronounced with low tone.[23]

The Tagish language includes nouns, verbs, and particles. Particles and nouns are single, sometimes compounded, morphemes, but the difference is that nouns can be inflected and particles cannot. Verbs are the most complex class in this language because their stemmed morphemes have many prefixes which indicate inflectional and derivational categories.[24]

The total inventory of phonemes present in Tagish includes:[25]


Unaspirated stops, affricates t t͡ɬ t͡s t͡ʃ k ʔ
Aspirated stops, affricates t͡ɬʰ t͡sʰ t͡ʃʰ
Glottalized t͡ɬʼ t͡sʼ t͡ʃʼ
Voiceless Continuants ɬ s ʃ x h
Voiced Continuants l z ʒ ɣ
Prenasalized stops mb nd
Nasals m n
Resonant w j


The short vowels i, e, a, u; as well as their long counterparts iː, eː, aː, uː.


High tone is marked with (v́) on short vowels and (v́v) on long vowels while low tones remain unmarked [26]


Some women's names contain the nasalized prefix Maa which translates directly to "mother of." [26]

Writing System[27][edit]

The language makes use of the Latin writing system. The Tagish alphabet, as seen in how it is written, is present in the table below.

Tagish Alphabet
Consonants Stops and Affricates d dl dz j g
t tl ts ch k
t' tl' ts' ch' k' '
Fricatives ł s sh x h
l z zh ÿ
Nasals m n
mb nd
Glides w y
Vowels Short i e a u
Long ī ē ā ū

Nasal vowels are denoted by a hook as follows: (ᶏ).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://www.ynlc.ca/materials/lessons/wrenl/author.html
  2. ^ Tagish at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  3. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Tagish". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  4. ^ a b Yinka Déné Language Institute. (2006). The Tagish Language. https://www.ydli.org/langs/tagish.htm
  5. ^ a b Alderete, J., Blenkiron, A., &Thompson, J. E. (2014). Some notes on stem phonology and the development of affricates in Tahltan (Northern Athabaskan). Ms., Simon Fraser University and Northwest Community College.
  6. ^ a b c d Greenaway, J. (2006, November 08). Tagish First Voices Project. http://www.firstvoices.com/en/Tagish/welcome
  7. ^ http://www.yukon-news.com/life/carcross-elder-steps-forward-to-continue-language-work-of-mother-and-sister/
  8. ^ Na-Dene Language Family. (2016). Salem Press Encyclopedia
  9. ^ Olson, Tamara. (1999). The Na-Dene Languages. Brigham Young University. Retrieved from http://linguistics.byu.edu/classes/Ling450ch/reports/na-dene.html
  10. ^ Moore, P., & Hennessy, K. (2006). New technologies and contested ideologies: The tagish FirstVoices project. American Indian Quarterly, 30(1), 119-137,261-262. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/216858891
  11. ^ Remie, C. (2002). Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory: A Review Article. Anthropos, 97(2), 553-557. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40466054
  12. ^ Unrau, J. (2010, Apr 08). Parties at odds over preserving languages. Whitehorse Star Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/362432339
  13. ^ a b Moore, P. & Hennessy, K. (2006). New Technologies and Contested Ideologies: The Tagish FirstVoices Project. The American Indian Quarterly 30(1), 119-137. University of Nebraska Press. Retrieved March 9, 2017, from Project MUSE database.
  14. ^ MacQueen, K. (1989, Sep 10). Native tongue was a sin, punishment was the strap.The Gazette Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/431847503
  15. ^ Ken MacQueen, S. N. (1989, Sep 06). The tagish language is angela sidney, age... ].CanWest News Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/460878484
  16. ^ Protecting the past with the future. (2005, Nov 07). Whitehorse Star Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/362290009
  17. ^ Moore, Patrick (2006). "New technologies and contested ideologies: The Tagish first voices project". American Indian Quarterly. 30: 119–137 – via jstor.
  18. ^ "Tagish First Voices".
  19. ^ Ruppert, James (2001). "Tagish". Our Voices: Native Stories of Alaska and the Yukon: 169–186.
  20. ^ "Angela Sidney". Retrieved 2017-11-12.
  21. ^ Wren, Lucy. "Our Elders Statement". Retrieved 2017-11-12.
  22. ^ "Yukon News".
  23. ^ a b Krauss, M. E., & Golla, V. K. (1978). Northern Athapaskan Languages. In Handbook of North American Indians: Subarctic (Vol. 6, pp. 67-85). Government Printing Office 1978.
  24. ^ Helm, June. (1981). Handbook of North American Indians: Subarctic. Smithsonian Institution
  25. ^ McClellan, C. (1978). Tagish. In Handbook of North American Indians: Subarctic (Vol. 6, pp. 481-492). Government Printing Office 1978.
  26. ^ a b Cruikshank, Julie. (1990). Life Lived Like a Story: Life Stories of Three Yukon Native Elders. University of Nebraska Press
  27. ^ Yukon Native Language Centre. Tagish. {{cite web |url=http://www.ynlc.ca/languages/tg/tg.html |title=Archived copy |accessdate=2008-05-25 |deadurl=yes |archiveurl=https://web.archive.org/web/20080417165007/http://www.ynlc.ca/languages/tg/tg.html |archivedate=2008-04-17 |df= }}

External links[edit]