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HandWiki. Babine-Witsuwit'en Language. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 17 June 2024).
HandWiki. Babine-Witsuwit'en Language. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 17, 2024.
HandWiki. "Babine-Witsuwit'en Language" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 17, 2024).
HandWiki. (2022, November 07). Babine-Witsuwit'en Language. In Encyclopedia.
HandWiki. "Babine-Witsuwit'en Language." Encyclopedia. Web. 07 November, 2022.
Babine-Witsuwit'en Language

Babine–Witsuwit'en or Nadot'en-Wets'uwet'en is an Athabaskan language spoken in the Central Interior of British Columbia. Its closest relative is Carrier. Because of this linguistic relationship together with political and cultural ties, Babine–Witsuwit'en is often referred to as Northern Carrier or Western Carrier. Specialist opinion is, however, that it should be considered a separate, though related, language (Kari 1975, Story 1984, Kari and Hargus 1989). A term used briefly in the 1990s is Bulkley Valley – Lakes District Language, abbreviated BVLD. Ethnologue uses the bare name Babine for the language as a whole, not just for the Babine dialect. As its name suggests, Babine–Witsuwit'en consists of two main dialects, Babine (Nedut'en) and Witsuwit'en. Babine is spoken around Babine Lake, Trembleur Lake, and Takla Lake. Witsuwit'en is spoken in the Bulkley Valley, around Broman Lake, and in the vicinity of Skins Lake. The two dialects are very similar and are distinguished primarily by the fact that in Babine but not in Witsuwit'en the Athabaskan front velar series have become palatal affricates. Like most languages native to British Columbia, Babine–Witsuwit'en is an endangered language. It is spoken by a minority of the population, primarily elders. There are 161 fluent and 159 partial speakers of the Babine dialect and 131 fluent and 61 partial speakers of the Witsuwit'en dialect. At most, a handful of children are still speaking the language.

nadot'en-wets'uwet'en babine–witsuwit'en velar

1. Classification

Babine-Witsuwit'en is classified as Northern Athabaskan, in the same linguistic subgrouping as Dakelh and Chilcotin (though the latter is far more distinctly separate from Babine-Witsuwit'en).[1]

Several non-specialist sources (the First Peoples' Heritage Language and Culture Council, the British Columbia Ministry of Education, and the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology) classify Witsuwit'en as one language and Babine as a distinct language, either on its own or together with Carrier proper under the name Dakelh. Experts on the languages reject this classification. All agree that the differences between Babine and Witsuwit'en are small and that the major split is between Babine and Witsuwit'en on the one hand and Carrier proper on the other hand. The distinction is because speakers of Babine and of Carrier proper call themselves and their language Dakelh but that speakers of Witsuwit'en do not.[2]

2. Phonology

2.1. Consonants

Witsuwit'en has 35 consonants. Aspirated and ejective labials are rarer than other consonants.[3]

Witsuwit'en Consonant Inventory[3][4]
  Labial Alveolar Dorsal Glottal
central lateral sibilant fronted rounded backed
Nasal m n          
Occlusive tenuis b [p] d [t] dl [tɬ] dz [ts] g [c] [kʷ] G [q] ʔ
aspirated p [pʰ] t [tʰ] [tɬʰ] ts [tsʰ] c [cʰ] [kʷʰ] q [qʰ]  
ejective tɬʼ tsʼ kʷʼ
Continuant voiced     l z y [j] w ɣ [ʁ]  
voiceless     ɬ s ç χ h

2.2. Vowels

Witsuwit'en has six underlying vowels in its inventory.[4]

Witsuwit'en Vowel Inventory[4]
  Front Central Back
High i   u
Mid e ə o
Low   a  

3. Grammar

3.1. Lexical Categories

Witsuwit'en lexical categories include nouns, verbs, adjectives, and postpositions. Directional terms are considered to be a lexical group in Witsuwit'en found throughout lexical categories.[4]


Witsuwit'en nouns are only inflected for possession, and no case marking exists in Witsuwit'en.[4] Possessive morphology takes different forms depending on whether the referent is alienable or inalienable.

Alienable Inalienable
c'əni s - əɬtsen
trap.bait 1.SG.POSS-brother
'trap bait' 'my brother

Because trap bait is an alienable entity which need not be possessed by anyone/anything, it does not include any possessive morphology but stands alone in its bare form. In contrast, brother is an inalienable entity; a brother cannot exist without someone else to be in relation to. Thus, brother requires possessive morphology, as exampled in səɬtsen, 'my brother'.[4]


The basic lexical verb in Witsuwit'en is the verb theme, a unit composed of two parts: a verbal root and required thematic prefixes.[4]

Verbal morpheme order is stable throughout the Athabaskan family; thus, the template of the Witstuwit'en verb is very similar to other Athabaskan languages.[5] Prefixes which are furthest away from the lexical stem display more variability. The Witsuwit'en verb consists of a lexical root and an aspectual, tense, or modal affix (most often a suffix). All Witsuwit'en verbs carry tense and subject inflection; there is no Witsuwit'en equivalent to the English infinitive.[6]


Postpositional object marking is demonstrated in the examples below. Postpositions can stand by themselves, as in the example '3s was playing with it,' or attach to the verbal complex.[7]

Yi-lh niwilyekh.
with-3s 3s-plays
'3s was playing with it.'

Directional terms

Complex directional systems and directional terms have been described in Ahtna, Slavey, Kaska, Koyukon, Tsek'ene, and Witsuwit'en. Directional terms are composed of a directional root, prefixes which describe distance, and suffixes which indicate motion or rest.[4]

3.2. Syntax

Like most Athabaskan languages, basic word order in Babine-Witsuwit'en is Subject-Object-Verb (SOV), demonstrated in the example below.[6]

Mary dilhtsen yik'ëntsiy'
Mary 3.SG.loves.3.SG.
'Mary loves her own brother.'

Grammatical relations

Babine-Witsuwit'en uses verbal morphology to express grammatical roles. Subjects of transitive and intransitive constructions are marked in the same way and appear in identical positions within the sentence, while objects of transitive constructions may differ in position and occasionally in morphological form. Subjects are marked in different places within the verbal complex, with 1st and 2nd person subjects appearing more closely to the verb stem and 3rd person subjects and direct objects further to the left.[8]

Two object prefixes [hiy-] and [y-]:[7]

'They need it.'
Ndutah yiziz
'What's he drinking?'

1st and 2nd person subjects include 1SG, 2SG, and 2PL. 3rd person subjects can be expressed as unspecified (human), indefinite, or 4th person (referred to as the obviative in Algonquian languages).[8]

Voice / Valence

Athabaskan languages like Babine-Witstuwit'en make use of two main argument transferring morphemes known as classifiers. However, the term classifier is recognized among Athabaskanists as a misnomer; voice and valence markers are more appropriate descriptors.[8] Each lexical entry of Witsuwit'en verbs features a lexicalized voice/valence marker fused with the verb stem, though this element sometimes appears as zero. The classifiers [ɬ] and [d] regulate transitivity: [ɬ] increases transitivity by creating causatives and the [d] classifier lowers transitivity to create middle voice. The valence marker [l] is more complex in nature, indicating a combination of [ɬ] and [d] where a middle is built upon a causative.[8]

4. Words and Phrases

Witsuwit'en Southern Carrier English
lhok lhook fish
ne' 'ama mother
lhk'iy lhuk'i one
nek nankoh two
tak'iy tak'ih three
Hadï So'endzin   Hello. How are you?
Sne kal yëgh   Thank you

Source: First Voices


  1. Krauss, Michael E. and Victor Golla (1981) Northern Athapaskan Languages. Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 6: Subarctic, ed. by June Helm, 67–85. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
  2. Poser, William J. (2011) The Carrier Language: a brief introduction. Prince George, British Columbia: College of New Caledonia Press. Page 8, footnote 15.
  3. Wright, Hargus & Davis (2002:45)
  4. Hargus, Sharon (2007). Witsuwit'en Grammar: Phonetics, phonology, morphology. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press. ISBN 978-0774813822. 
  5. Tuttle, Siri G. 2002. A Short Introduction to Athabaskan Morphology. Morphology in Comparison, ed. by Elke Nowak, 1–37. Technische Universität Berlin Arbeitspapiere zur Linguistik 37.
  6. Denham, Kristin (2000). "Optional Wh-Movement in Babine-Witsuwit'en". Natural Language & Linguistic Theory: 199–251. 
  7. Gunlogson, Christine (2001). "Third-Person Object Prefixes in Babine Witsuwit'en". International Journal of American Linguistics 67: 365–395. doi:10.1086/466468.
  8. Rice, Keren (2000). Voice and valence in the Athapaskan family. Changing Valency: Case Studies in Transitivity, ed. by R.M.W. Dixon and A.Y. Aikhenvald, 173-234. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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