Athabaskan languages

Athabaskan languages

Athabaskan or Athabascan (also Athapascan, Athapaskan, Athabasca Indians or Athapaskes) is the name of a large group of closely related indigenous peoples of North America, located in two main Southern and Northern groups in western North America, and of their language family. The Athabaskan family is the second largest family in North America in terms of number of languages and the number of speakers, following the Uto-Aztecan family which extends into Mexico. In terms of territory, only the Algic language family covers a larger area.

The word Athabaskan is an anglicized version of the Woods Cree name for Lake Athabasca (aðapaskāw, “[where] there are plants one after another”) in Canada. The name was assigned by Albert Gallatin in his 1836 (written 1826) classification of the languages of North America. He acknowledged that the name for these related languages was entirely his own individual preference, writing:

"I have designated them by the arbitrary denomination of Athabascas, which derived from the original name of the lake." (1836:116-7)


The 31 Northern Athabaskan languages are spoken throughout the interior of Alaska and the interior of northwestern Canada in the Yukon and Northwest Territories as well as in the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Several Athabaskan languages are official languages in the Northwest Territories, including Dene Suline, Dogrib or Tlicho, Gwich’in, and Slavey.

The seven Pacific Coastal Athabaskan languages are spoken in southern Oregon and northern California. Isolated from the northern and coastal languages, the six Southern Athabaskan languages, including the different Apache peoples and Navajo, are spoken in the American Southwest and the northwestern part of Mexico.

Eyak and Athabaskan together form a genetic grouping called Athabaskan-Eyak. Tlingit is distantly related to this group to form the Na-Dené stock (also known as Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit).

Family division


The Athabaskan language family has three main geographic groupings: Northern, Pacific Coast, and Southern. There is discussion of whether the Pacific Coast languages actually forms a valid genetic grouping. The Northern group is particularly problematic. Due to the failure of the usual criteria of shared innovation and systematic phonetic correspondences to provide well-defined subgroupings, the Athabaskan family (especially the Northern languages) has been called a "cohesive complex" by Michael Krauss (1973, 1982). Therefore, the Stammbaumtheorie model (family tree) of genetic classification may be inappropriate. The languages of the Southern branch are much more homogeneous and are the only clearly genetic subgrouping.

Below is an outline of the family showing only the major branches of the family. This outline follows mostly the classification of Keren Rice as seen in Goddard (1996) and Mithun (1999).

  1. Southern Alaska
  2. Central Alaska-Yukon
  3. Northwestern Canada
  4. Tsetsaut
  5. Central British Columbia
  6. Sarsi
  7. Kwalhioqua-Tlatskanai
  8. Pacific Coast Athabaskan
  9. Apachean

Branches 1-7 are the Northern Athabaskan (areal) grouping. Kwalhioqua-Tlatskanai (#7) has often been considered part of the Pacific Coast grouping, but a recent consideration by Krauss does not find it very similar to these languages.

A different classification by Jeff Leer is the following (Tuttle & Hargus 2004:72-74):

  1. Alaskan (Ahtna, Dena’ina, Deg Hit’an, Koyukon, Kolchan, Lower Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Gwich’in, Han)
  2. Yukon (Tsetsaut, N. Tutchone, S. Tutchone, Tagish, Tahltan, Kaska, Sekani, Dunneza)
  3. British Columbia (Babine-Witsuwit’en, Dakelh, Chilcotin)
  4. Eastern (Dene Suline, Slavey, Dogrib)
  5. Southernly (Tsuut’ina, Apachean, Pacific Coast Athabaskan)

At this time, the details of the Athabaskan family tree should be regarded as tentative.

For detailed lists including languages, dialects, and subdialects, see the respective articles on the 3 major groups (that is, Northern Athabaskan, Pacific Coast Athabaskan, Southern Athabaskan).

Northern Athabaskan

  • Southern Alaskan subgroup

1. Ahtna
2. Dena’ina (also known as Tanaina)

  • Central Alaska – Yukon subgroup

3. Deg Xinag (also known as Deg Hit'an, Kaiyuhkhotana)
4. Holikachuk (also known as Innoko)
5. Koyukon
6. Kolchan (also known as Upper Kuskokwim)
7. Lower Tanana (also known as Tanana)
8. Tanacross
9. Upper Tanana
10. Southern Tutchone
11. Northern Tutchone
12. Gwich’in (also known as Kutchin)
13. Hän (also known as Han)

  • Northwestern Canada subgroup

A. Tahltan-Tagish-Kaska
14. Tagish
15. Tahltan
16. Kaska
17. Sekani
18. Dunneza (also known as Beaver)
B. Slave-Hare (Southern and Northern Slavey)
19. Slavey (also known as Slave)
20. Mountain
21. Bearlake
22. Hare
23. Dogrib
24. Dene Suline (also known as Chipewyan, Dëne Sųłiné, Dene Soun’liné)

  • Tsetsaut subgroup

25. Tsetsaut

  • Central British Columbia subgroup

26. Babine-Witsuwit'en (also known as North Carrier)
27. Dakelh (also known as Carrier)
28. Chilcotin (also known as Tsilhqot’in)
29. Nicola (also known as Stuwix)

  • Sarsi subgroup

30. Tsuut’ina (also known as Sarcee, Sarsi, Tsuu T’ina)

  • Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie subgroup

31. Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie (also known as Kwalhioqua-Tlatskanie)

Pacific Coast Athabaskan

  • California Athabaskan subgroup

32. Hupa (also known as Hoopa-Chilula)
33. Mattole-Bear River
34. Eel River

  • Oregon Athabaskan subgroup

35. Upper Umpqua
36. Rogue River (also known as Tututni)
37. Galice-Applegate
38. Tolowa

Southern Athabaskan (also known as Apachean)

  • Plains Apache subgroup

39. Plains Apache (also known as Kiowa-Apache)

  • Western Apachean subgroup

A. Chiricahua-Mescalero
40. Chiricahua
41. Mescalero
42. Navajo (also known as Navaho)
43. Western Apache (also known as Coyotero Apache)

  • Eastern Apachean subgroup

44. Jicarilla
45. Lipan

Areal list

List of the Athabaskan languages by their geographic locations.

  • Alaska: Ahtna, Deg Hit’an, Dena’ina, Gwich’in, Hän, Holikachuk, Kolchan, Koyukon, Lower Tanana, Tanacross, Tsetsaut, Upper Tanana
  • Yukon Territory: Gwich'in, Hän, Kaska, Mountain, Tagish, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Upper Tanana
  • Northwest Territories: Bearlake, Dene Suline, Dogrib, Gwich’in, Hare, Mountain, Slavey
  • Nunavut: Dene Suline
  • British Columbia: Babine, Bearlake, Beaver, Chilcotin, Dakelh, Hare, Kaska, Mountain, Nicola, Sekani, Slavey, Tagish, Tahltan, Tsetsaut
  • Alberta: Beaver, Dene Suline, Slavey, Tsuut’ina
  • Saskatchewan: Dene Suline
  • Washington: Chilcotin, Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie (Willapa, Suwal), Nicola
  • Oregon: Applegate, Clatskanie, Galice, Rogue River (Chasta Costa, Euchre Creek, Tututni, Upper Coquille), Tolowa, Upper Umpqua
  • Northern California: Eel River, Hupa, Mattole-Bear River, Tolowa
  • Utah: Navajo
  • Colorado: Jicarilla, Navajo
  • Arizona: Chiricahua, Navajo, Western Apache
  • New Mexico: Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarilla, Lipan, Navajo
  • Texas: Mescalero, Lipan
  • Oklahoma: Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Plains Apache
  • Northwestern Mexico: Chiricahua



A recent reconstruction of proto-Athabaskan consists of 40 consonants (Cook 1981; Krauss & Golla 1981; Krauss & Leer 1981; Cook & Rice 1989), as detailed below:

  Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
central lateral plain labial plain labial
Stop unaspirated   t       k q  
aspirated         qʷʰ  
glottalized   t’       k’ q’ q’ʷ ʔ
Affricate unaspirated   ʦ ʧ ʧʷ        
aspirated   ʦʰ tɬʰ ʧʰ ʧʷʰ        
glottalized   ʦ’ tɬ’ ʧ’ ʧ’ʷ        
Fricative voiceless   s ɬ ʃ ʃʷ x χ χʷ h
voiced   z ɮ ʒ ʒʷ ɣ ʁ ʁʷ  
Nasal m n   ɲ          
Approximant       j       w  

See also


External links


  • Campbell, Lyle. (1997). American Indian languages: The historical linguistics of Native America. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509427-1.
  • Cook, Eung-Do. (1981). Athabaskan linguistics: Proto-Athapaskan phonology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 10, 253–273.
  • Cook, Eung-Do. (1992). Athabaskan languages. In W. Bright (Eds.), International encyclopedia of linguistics (pp. 122–128). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505196-3.
  • Cook, Eung-Do; & Rice, Keren. (1989). Introduction. In E.-D. Cook & K. Rice (Eds.), Athapaskan linguistics: Current perspectives on a language family (pp. 1–61). rends in linguistics, State-of-the-art reports (No. 15). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 0-89925-282-6.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1938). The southern Athapaskan languages. American Anthropologist, 40 (1), 75–87.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1956). The Chronology of the Athapaskan languages. International Journal of American Linguistics, 22 (4), 219–232.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1963). The Athapaskan languages. In H. Hoijer (Ed.), Studies in the Athapaskan languages (pp. 1–29). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hoijer, Harry (Ed.). (1963). Studies in the Athapaskan languages. University of California publications in linguistics (No. 29). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Hoijer, Harry. (1971). The position of the Apachean languages in the Athpaskan stock. In K. H. Basso & M. E. Opler (Eds.), Apachean culture history and ethnology (pp. 3–6). Anthropological papers of the University of Arizona (No. 21). Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
  • Hymes, Dell H. (1957). A note on Athapaskan glottochronology. International Journal of American Linguistics, 23 (4), 291–297.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1964). The proto-Athapaskan-Eyak and the problem of Na-Dene, I: The phonology. International Journal of American Linguistics, 30 (2), 118–131.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1965). The proto-Athapaskan-Eyak and the problem of Na-Dene, II: The morphology. International Journal of American Linguistics, 31 (1), 18–28.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1968). Noun-classification systems in the Athapaskan, Eyak, Tlingit and Haida verbs. International Journal of American Linguistics, 34 (3), 194–203.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1969). On the classification in the Athapascan, Eyak, and the Tlingit verb. Baltimore: Waverly Press, Indiana University.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1973). Na-Dene. In T. A. Sebeok (Ed.), Linguistics in North America (pp. 903–978). Current trends in linguistics (Vol. 10). The Hague: Mouton. (Reprinted as Krauss 1976).
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1976). Na-Dene. In T. A. Sebeok (Ed.), Native languages of the Americas (pp. 283–358). New York: Plenum. (Reprint of Krauss 1973).
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1979). Na-Dene and Eskimo. In L. Campbell & M. Mithun (Eds.), The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1980). On the history and use comparative Athapaskan linguistics. Fairbanks, AL: University of Alaska, Native Language Center.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1986). Edward Sapir and Athabaskan linguistics. In W. Cowan, M. Foster, & K. Koerner (Eds.), New perspectives in language, culture, and personality (pp. 147–190). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Krauss, Micahel E. (1987). The name Athabaskan. In Peter L. Corey, ed, Faces, Voices & Dreams: A celebration of the centennial of the Sheldon Jackson Museum, Sitka, Alaska, 1888-1988, 105-08. Sitka, Alaska: Division of Alaska State Museums and the Friends of the Alaska State Museum.
  • Krauss, Michael E.; & Golla, Victor. (1981). Northern Athapaskan languages. In J. Helm (Ed.), Subarctic (pp. 67–85). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 6). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Krauss, Michael E.; & Leer, Jeff. (1981). Athabaskan, Eyak, and Tlingit sonorants. Alaska Native Language Center research papers (No. 5). Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska, Alaska Native Language Center.
  • Leer, Jeff. (1979). Proto-Athabaskan verb stem variation I: Phonology. Alaska Native Language Center research papers (No. 1). Fairbanks, AK: Alaska Native Language Center.
  • Leer, Jeff. (1982). Navajo and comparative Athabaskan stem list. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska, Alaska Native Language Center.
  • Mithun, Marianne. (1999). The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Rice, Keren. (200). Morpheme order and semantic scope: Word formation in the Athapaskan verb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1915). The Na-Dene languages, a preliminary report. American Anthropologist, 17 (3), 534–558.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1916). Time perspective in aboriginal American culture: A study in method. Anthropology series (No. 13), memoirs of the Canadian Geological Survey 90. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1931). The concept of phonetic law as tested in primitive languages by Leonard Bloomfield. In S. A. Rice (Ed.), Methods in social science: A case book (pp. 297–306). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1936). Linguistic evidence suggestive of the northern origin of the Navaho. American Anthropologist, 38 (2), 224–235.
  • Saville-Troike, Muriel. (1985). On variable data and phonetic law: A case from Sapir's Athabaskan correspondences. International Journal of American Linguistics, 51 (4), 572–574.
  • Sturtevant, William C. (Ed.). (1978–present). Handbook of North American Indians (Vol. 1-20). Washington, D. C.: Smithsonian Institution. (Vols. 1–3, 16, 18–20 not yet published).

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