Indigenous Languages and Education Secretariat

Languages Overview

The Northwest Territories (NWT) is the only political region in Canada which recognizes 11 official languages. Of these, nine belong to three different Indigenous language families: Dene-Athapaskan (Chipewyan, Gwich’in, North Slavey, South Slavey, and Tłı̨chǫ), Inuit (Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, and Inuvialuktun), and Algonquian (Cree). Indigenous languages are frequently spoken throughout the Northwest Territories in smaller communities that have high proportions of resident speakers. However, according to the 2014 NWT Community Survey, a significant percentage of territorial resident speakers of most official languages live in Yellowknife/Ndilǫ and other regional centres. The regions where NWT Indigenous languages are spoken extend into Yukon, Alaska, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nunavut, and beyond.

The Dene-Athapaskan languages spoken in the NWT include Chipewyan (i.e., Dëne Sųłıné Yatıé), Gwich’in (i.e. Dinjii Zhu’ Ginjìk), North Slavey (i.e., Sahtúot’ı̨nę Yatı), South Slavey (i.e., Dene Zhatıé), and Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı̨̀.

  • Chipewyan speakers may refer to Chipewyan itself, or one of its dialects/sub-dialects, by the terms Dëne Sųłıné Yatıé, Dëne Dédlıné Yatıé, Tthetsánót'ıné Yatıé, K-dialect, or T-dialect. By proportion of all territorial Chipewyan speakers, most live in Yellowknife/Ndilǫ (30.2%), Łutselk'e (26.2%), and Fort Resolution (19.0%). Chipewyan is also spoken in parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
  • Gwich’in speakers may refer to Gwich’in itself, or one of its dialects/sub-dialects, as Dinjii Zhu’ Ginjìk, Teetl’it Gwichin, or Gwichya Gwich’in. Most Gwich’in speakers live in Fort McPherson (35.8%), Inuvik (24.2%), and Yellowknife/Ndilǫ (13.4%). Gwich’in is also spoken in parts of Yukon and Alaska.
  • North Slavey speakers may refer to North Slavey itself, or one of its dialects/sub-dialects, as Sahtúot’ı̨nę Gokedǝ́, Sahtúot’ı̨nę Yatı̨́, Sahtúgot'ıne Yatı̨́, K’ashógot’įne Yatı̨́, Shúhtaot’ı̨ne Yatı̨́, Shıhgot'ıne, or other names. Most North Slavey speakers live in Délı̨ne (29.1%), Yellowknife/Ndilǫ (16.2%), and Tulita (14.2%). North Slavey is also spoken in Yukon.
  • South Slavey speakers may refer to South Slavey itself, or one of its dialects/sub-dialects, as Dene Zhatıé, Dehcho Dene Zhatıé, Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ Dene Zhatıé, Deh Gáh Got'ı̨ę, Echaot'ı̨ Kǫ́ę́ Dene Zhatıé, Katł’odeeche Dene Zhatıé, or other names. Most South Slavey speakers live in Fort Simpson (22.9%), Fort Providence (20.9%), and Fort Liard (15.9%). South Slavey is also spoken in Yukon, British Columbia, and Alberta.
  • Tłı̨chǫ speakers may refer to Tłı̨chǫ itself, or one of its dialects/sub-dialects, as Tłı̨chǫ Yatıı̨̀, Wıı̀lıı̀deh Yatıı̀, or other names. Most Tłı̨chǫ speakers live in Behchokǫ̀ (49.0%), Yellowknife/Ndilǫ (15.3%), and Whatı̀ (13.2%).

The Inuit languages spoken in the NWT include Inuinnaqtun, Inuktitut, and Inuvialuktun.

  • By proportion of all territorial Inuinnaqtun speakers, the majority live in Ulukhaktok (81.0%), Yellowknife (10.8%), and other smaller communities in the Beaufort Delta (8.2%). Kangiryuarmiutun is a dialect of Inuinnaqtun spoken Ulukhaktok. Inuinnaqtun is also spoken in parts of Nunavut.
  • Most Inuktitut speakers live in Yellowknife (34.8%), Fort Smith (15.9%), and Hay River (11.9%). Inuktitut is also an official language of Nunavut.
  • Inuvialuktun speakers may refer to Inuvialuktun itself, or one of its dialects/sub-dialects, as Siglitun or Uummarmiutun. Most Inuvialuktun speakers live in Inuvik (42.6%), Tuktoyaktuk (24.0%), Aklavik (7.5%) and Paulatuk (7.5%).

The Algonquian language spoken in the NWT is Cree (i.e. Nēhiyawēwin).

  • Cree speakers may refer to Cree itself, or one of its dialects/sub-dialects, by the terms Nēhiyawēwin, Sākaw Nēhiyawēwin, Sakāwithiniwak, Bush Cree, Northern Woodland Cree, or Plains Cree. By proportion of all territorial Cree speakers, most live in Fort Smith (41.1%), Yellowknife/Ndilǫ (28.3%), and Hay River (17.5%). Cree is also spoken in parts of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador.  

According to 2014 NWT Community Survey, between 1989 and 2014 the percentage of territorial residents aged 15 years and over who speak an Indigenous language declined 17.1%, and now stands at 38.5% of the 15+ population. Since 2013, the Regional Indigenous Governments have received annual contributions from the GNWT to administer Regional Indigenous Language Plans (RILPs) to support local language revitalization goals. In 2016, a new Canada-NWT action plan came into effect, increasing the funding made available to the RILPs. While there is still much collaborative work to be done, continuing to fund community led language revitalization initiatives directly will help increase language use in the NWT.