Na-Dene languages

Na-Dene (also Nadene, Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit, English [nadɪ'ne] or [nadə'ne]) is a proposed Native American language family which includes the Athabaskan languages, Eyak, Tlingit, and possibly Haida. The connection of Haida to the other languages is controversial. In February 2008 a proposal relating Na-Dene to the Yeniseian language Ket, spoken in Siberia, has been published and well received by a number of linguists

Family division

In its non-controversial core, Na-Dene consists of two branches, Tlingit and Athabaskan-Eyak:

For linguists who follow Edward Sapir in connecting Haida to the above languages, the Haida isolate represents an additional branch, with Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit together forming the other. Dene or Dine (the Athabaskan languages) is a widely distributed group of Native languages and peoples spoken in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Alaska, parts of Oregon, northern California, and the American Southwest as far as northern Mexico. The southwestern division of Athabaskan is also called Southern Athabaskan or Apachean, and includes Navajo and all the Apache dialects. Eyak was spoken in south central Alaska; the last speaker died in 2008. Navajo is the most widely spoken language of the Na-Dene family, spoken in Arizona, New Mexico, and other regions of the American Southwest.

Typological profile of Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit

All of these languages share a highly complex prefixing verb structure in which tense and mood markers are interdigitated between subject and object agreement markers. The morphological hallmark of the family is a series of prefixes found directly before the verb root that raise or lower the transitivity of the verb word. These prefixes, traditionally known as "classifiers", derive historically from a combination of three distinct classes of morphemes and not found in any other Native American family.

Generalized model of Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit verb morphology

object agreement shape or anatomical prefix tense-mood-aspect prefix 1,2p subject agreement perfective-stative prefix classifier prefix(es) verb root tense-mood-aspect suffix
The phoneme system contains a large number of guttural (velar or uvular) consonants (fronting in many modern Athabaskan languages to palatals and velars, correspondingly) as well as a general absence of labial obstruents (except where /b/ has arisen from *w). In the historical phonology there is a widespread tendency, observable across many Athabaskan languages, for phonemic tonal distinctions to arise from glottal features originally found at the end of the syllable. The glottal features in question are often evident in Eyak or Tlingit. These languages are typologically unusual in containing extensive prefixation yet being SOV and postpositional, features normally associated with suffixing languages.

Proposals of deeper genetic relations involving Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit

The genetic relationship between Tlingit, Eyak and Athabaskan languages was suggested early in the 19th century, but not universally accepted until much later. Haida, with 15 fluent speakers (M. Krauss, 1995), was originally linked to Tlingit by Franz Boas in 1894. Both Haida and Tlingit were then connected to Athabaskan by Edward Sapir in 1915. Linguists such as Lyle Campbell (1997) today consider the evidence inconclusive and have classified Haida as a language isolate. In order to emphasise the exclusion of Haida, Campbell refers to the language family as Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit rather than Na-Dene. Jeff Leer has recently proposed the name "Tlina-Dine" instead of the cumbersome AET, to emphasize the exclusion of Haida.


Recently, Professor Edward Vajda of Western Washington University has presented compelling evidence that the Na-Dene languages (Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit) are actually related to Yeniseian (or Yeniseic) languages of Siberia., the only living representative of which is the Ket language. Key evidence includes homologies in verb prefixes and also a systematic correspondence between the distribution of Ket tones and consonant articulations found in Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit. His paper has been favorably reviewed by several experts on Na-Dene and Yeniseic languages, including Michael Krauss, Jeff Leer, James Kari, and Heinrich Werner, as well as a number of other well-known linguists, including Bernard Comrie, Johanna Nichols, Victor Golla, Michael Fortescue, and Eric Hamp. It was also the conclusion of this seminar that this comparison of Yeniseic and Na-Dene shows that Haida cannot be classified as a genetic unit with Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit if data from Yeniseic languages are considered.

Earlier Proposals

According to Joseph Greenberg's controversial classification of the languages of Native North America, Na-Dené (including Haida as well as Athabaskan-Eyak + Tlingit) is one of the three main groups of Native languages spoken in the Americas, and represents a distinct wave of migration from Asia to the Americas. The genetic relationship of Tlingit, Eyak and Athabaskan is widely accepted, while the inclusion of Haida remains controversial. The other two families recognized by Greenberg for the Americas are the widely accepted Eskimo-Aleut family, spoken in Siberia, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, and the far less widely accepted Amerind, Greenberg's most controversial classification, which includes every language native to the Americas that is not Eskimo-Aleut or Na-Dené.

Contemporary supporters of Greenberg's theory such as Merritt Ruhlen have suggested that the Na-Dené language family represents a distinct migration of people from Asia to the New World. Ruhlen claims this migration occurred six to eight thousand years ago, placing it around four thousand years later than the previous migration into the Americas by Amerind speakers. Ruhlen speculates that the Na-Dené speakers may have arrived in boats, initially settling near the Queen Charlotte Islands, now in British Columbia, Canada.

According to Sergei Starostin and his followers, Na-Dené (including Haida) belongs to the much broader Dene-Caucasian superfamily, which also contains the North Caucasian languages, Sino-Tibetan languages, Yeniseian languages and Basque. Some of the links subsumed by the Dene-Caucasian proposal were suggested much earlier. The hypothesis that Sino-Tibetan is genetically related to Na-Dene (including Haida) was considered by Edward Sapir nearly a century ago.



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