Athabaskan (also spelled Athabascan, Athapaskan or Athapascan, and also known as Dene) is a large family of indigenous languages of North America, located in western North America in three groups of contiguous languages: Northern, Pacific Coast and Southern (or Apachean). Kari and Potter 2010:10 place the total territory of the 53 Athabaskan languages at 4,022,000 square kilometres (1,553,000 sq mi).
Chipewyan is spoken over the largest area of any North American native language, while Navajo is spoken by the largest number of people of any native language north of Mexico.
The word Athabaskan is an anglicized version of a Cree language name for Lake Athabasca (Cree: Aδapaska˙w «[where] there are reeds one after another») in Canada. Cree is one of the Algonquian languages and therefore not itself an Athabaskan language. The name was assigned by Albert Gallatin in his 1836 (written 1826) classification of the languages of North America. He acknowledged that it was his choice to use this name for the language family and associated peoples, writing:
The four spellings—»Athabaskan», «Athabascan», «Athapaskan», and «Athapascan»—are in approximately equal use. Particular communities may prefer one spelling over another (Krauss 1987). For example, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and Alaska Native Language Center prefer the spelling «Athabascan». Ethnologue uses «Athapaskan» in naming the language family and individual languages.
Although the term Athabaskan is prevalent in linguistics and anthropology, there is an increasing trend among scholars to use the terms Dené and Dené languages, which is how many of their native speakers identify it. They are applying these terms to the entire language family. For example, following a motion by attendees in 2012, the annual Athabaskan Languages Conference changed its name to the Dené Languages Conference.
Linguists conventionally divide the Athabaskan family into three groups, based on geographic distribution:
The 32 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. Five Athabaskan languages are official languages in the Northwest Territories, including Chipewyan (Dënesųłıné), Dogrib or Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì, Gwich’in (Kutchin, Loucheux), and the Northern and Southern variants of Slavey.
The seven or more Pacific Coast Athabaskan languages are spoken in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. These include Applegate, Galice, several Rogue River area languages, Upper Coquille, Tolowa, and Upper Umpqua in Oregon; Eel River, Hupa, Mattole–Bear River, and Tolowa in northern California; and possibly Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie in Washington.
The seven Southern Athabaskan languages are isolated by considerable distance from both the Pacific Coast languages and the Northern languages. Reflecting an ancient migration of peoples, they are spoken by Native Americans in the American Southwest and the northwestern part of Mexico. This group comprises the six Southern Athabaskan languages and Navajo.
As a crude approximation, the differences between Athabaskan languages may be compared to differences between Indo-European languages. Thus, Koyukon and Dena’ina are about as different as French and Spanish, while Koyukon and Gwich’in are as different as English and Italian.
The following list gives the Athabaskan languages organized by their geographic location in various North American states and provinces (including some languages that are now extinct). Speakers of several languages, such as Navajo and Gwich’in, span the boundaries between different states and provinces. These languages are repeated by location in this list. For alternative names for the languages, see the classifications given later in this article.
Alaskan Athabaskan languages
External classification of the family
Eyak and Athabaskan together form a genealogical linguistic grouping called Athabaskan–Eyak (AE) – well demonstrated through consistent sound correspondences, extensive shared vocabulary, and cross-linguistically unique homologies in both verb and noun morphology.
Tlingit is distantly related to the Athabaskan–Eyak group to form the Na-Dene family, also known as Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit (AET). With Jeff Leer’s 2010 advances, the reconstructions of Na-Dene (or Athabascan–Eyak–Tlingit) consonants, this latter grouping is considered by Alaskan linguists to be a well-demonstrated family. Because both Tlingit and Eyak are fairly remote from the Athabaskan languages in terms of their sound systems, comparison is usually done between them and the reconstructed Proto-Athabaskan language. This resembles both Tlingit and Eyak much more than most of the daughter languages in the Athabaskan family.
Although Ethnologue still gives the Athabaskan family as a relative of Haida in their definition of the Na-Dene family, linguists who work actively on Athabaskan languages discount this position. The Alaska Native Language Center, for example, takes the position that recent improved data on Haida have served to conclusively disprove the Haida-inclusion hypothesis. Haida has been determined to be unrelated to Athabaskan languages.
A symposium in Alaska in February 2008 included papers on the Yeniseian and Na-Dené families. Edward Vajda of Western Washington University summarized ten years of research, based on verbal morphology and reconstructions of the proto-languages, indicating that these languages might be related.
Internal classification of the family
The internal structure of the Athabaskan language family is complex, and its exact shape is still a hotly debated issue among experts. The conventional three-way split into Northern, Pacific Coast, and Southern is essentially based on geography and the physical distribution of Athabaskan peoples rather than sound linguistic comparisons. Despite this inadequacy, current comparative Athabaskan literature demonstrates that most Athabaskanists still use the three-way geographic grouping rather than any of the proposed linguistic groupings given below, because none of them has been widely accepted. This situation will presumably change as both documentation and analysis of the languages improves.
Besides the traditional geographic grouping described previously, there are a few comparatively based subgroupings of the Athabaskan languages. Below the two most current viewpoints are presented.
The following is an outline of the classification according to Keren Rice, based on those published in Goddard (1996) and Mithun (1999). It represents what is generously called the «Rice–Goddard–Mithun» classification (Tuttle & Hargus 2004:73), although it is almost entirely due to Keren Rice.
Branches 1–7 are the Northern Athabaskan (areal) grouping. Kwalhioqua–Clatskanai (#7) was normally placed inside the Pacific Coast grouping, but a recent consideration by Krauss (2005) does not find it very similar to these languages.
A different classification by Jeff Leer is the following, usually called the «Leer classification» (Tuttle & Hargus 2004:72–74):
Neither subgrouping has found any significant support among other Athabaskanists. Details of the Athabaskan family tree should be regarded as tentative. As Tuttle and Hargus put it, «we do not consider the points of difference between the two models … to be decisively settled and in fact expect them to be debated for some time to come.» (Tuttle & Hargus 2004:74)
The Northern group is particularly problematic in its internal organization. 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 group – has been called a «cohesive complex» by Michael Krauss (1973, 1982). Therefore, the Stammbaumtheorie or family tree model of genetic classification may be inappropriate. The languages of the Southern branch are much more homogeneous and are the only clearly genealogical subgrouping.
Debate continues as to whether the Pacific Coast languages form a valid genealogical grouping, or whether this group may instead have internal branches that are tied to different subgroups in Northern Athabaskan. The position of Kwalhioqua–Clatskanai is also debated, since it may fall in either the Pacific Coast group – if that exists – or into the Northern group. The records of Nicola are so poor – Krauss describes them as «too few and too wretched» (Krauss 2005) – that it is difficult to make any reliable conclusions about it. Nicola may be intermediate between Kwalhioqua–Tlatskanai and Chilcotin.
Similarly to Nicola, there is very limited documentation on Tsetsaut. Consequently, it is difficult to place it in the family with much certainty. Athabaskanists have concluded that it is a Northern Athabaskan language consistent with its geographical occurrence, and that it might have some relation to its distant neighbor Tahltan. Tsetsaut, however, shares its primary hydronymic suffix («river, stream») with Sekani, Beaver, and Tsuut’ina – PA *-ɢah – rather than with that of Tahltan, Tagish, Kaska, and North and South Tutchone – PA *-tuʼ (Kari 1996; Kari, Fall, & Pete 2003:39). The ambiguity surrounding Tsetsaut is why it is placed in its own subgroup in the Rice–Goddard–Mithun classification.
For detailed lists including languages, dialects, and subdialects, see the respective articles on the three major groups: Northern Athabaskan, Pacific Coast Athabaskan, Southern Athabaskan. For the remainder of this article, the conventional three-way geographic grouping will be followed except as noted.
The Northern Athabaskan languages are the largest group in the Athabaskan family, although this group varies internally about as much as do languages in the entire family. The urheimat of the Athabaskan family is most likely in the Tanana Valley of east-central Alaska. There are many homologies between Proto-Athabaskan vocabulary and patterns reflected in archaeological sites such as Upward Sun, Swan Point and Broken Mammoth (Kari 2010). The Northern Athabaskan group also contains the most linguistically conservative languages, particularly Koyukon, Ahtna, Dena’ina, and Dakelh/Carrier (Leer 2008).
Very little is known about Tsetsaut, and for this reason it is routinely placed in its own tentative subgroup.
The Nicola language is so poorly attested that it is impossible to determine its position within the family. It has been proposed by some to be an isolated branch of Chilcotin.
The Kwalhioqua–Clatskanie language is debatably part of the Pacific Coast subgroup, but has marginally more in common with the Northern Athabaskan languages than it does with the Pacific Coast languages (Leer 2005). It thus forms a notional sort of bridge between the Northern Athabaskan languages and the Pacific Coast languages, along with Nicola (Krauss 1979/2004).
Pacific Coast Athabaskan
Southern Athabaskan (also known as Apachean)
The reconstruction of Proto-Athabaskan phonology is still under active debate. This section attempts to summarize the less controversial parts of the Proto-Athabaskan sound system.
As with many linguists working on Native American languages, Athabaskanists tend to use an Americanist phonetic notation system rather than IPA. Although some Athabaskanists prefer IPA symbols today, the weight of tradition is particularly heavy in historical and comparative linguistics, hence the Americanist symbols are still in common use for descriptions of Proto-Athabaskan and in comparisons between members of the family. In the tables in this section, the proto-phonemes are given in their conventional Athabaskanist forms with IPA equivalents following in square brackets.
Since transcription practices in Americanist phonetic notation are not formally standardized, there are different symbols in use for the same sounds, a proliferation partly due to changes in typefaces and computing technology. In the following tables, the older symbols are given first with newer symbols following. Not all linguists adopt the newer symbols at once, although there are obvious trends, such as the adoption of belted ɬ instead of barred ł, and the use of digraphs for affricates which is standard today for the laterals but not fully adopted for the dorsals. In particular, the symbols c, λ, and ƛ are rare in most publications today. The use of the combining comma above as in c̓ has also been completely abandoned in the last few decades in favor of the modifier letter apostrophe as in cʼ. Republication of older materials may preserve older symbols for accuracy, although they are no longer used, e.g. Krauss 2005, which was previously an unpublished manuscript dating from 1979.
It is crucial to recognize that the symbols conventionally used to represent voiced stops and affricates are actually used in the Athabaskan literature to represent unaspirated stops and affricates in contrast to the aspirated ones. This convention is also found in all Athabaskan orthographies since true voiced stops and affricates are rare in the family, and unknown in the proto-language.
The traditional reconstruction of the Proto-Athabaskan sound system consists of 45 consonants (Cook 1981; Krauss & Golla 1981; Krauss & Leer 1981; Cook & Rice 1989), as detailed in the following table.
First person singular fricative
A peculiar proto-phoneme in Proto-Athabaskan is the sound that Krauss (1976b) represents as *$, and which Leer (2005:284) has represented as *šʸ though lately he has since returned to *$ (e.g. Leer 2008). This is the phoneme found in Proto-Athabaskan, Proto-Athabaskan–Eyak, and Proto-Na-Dene that occurs in various reflexes of the first person singular pronoun. In Athabaskan languages, it usually has a reflex of /š/, the alveolar fricative, but in Eyak it appears as /x/ and in Tlingit as /χ/. Peculiarly, in Kwalhioqua-Tlatskanai, it seems to have been /x/ in at least some forms of the first-person-subject verb prefix (Krauss 1976b). It does not correspond well with other fricatives, a situation that led Krauss to considering it as unique. This proto-phoneme is not given in the table above, but is always assumed to be somehow a part of the Proto-Athabaskan inventory.
New consonant reconstruction
A newer reconstruction by Leer (2005:284) constitutes a significant reorganization of the system. Velars are reinterpreted as palatals, labialized postalveolar affricates are reinterpreted as retroflex consonants, and other labialized consonants are removed. In addition, the clear assertion is made that stops and affricates are phonologically the same class, although they may be articulated somewhat differently. Leer also adopted the argument advanced by Keren Rice (1997) that there was no need to distinguish between *y and *žʸ. The resulting system is somewhat simpler than the traditional one, with 8 fewer phonemes.
The asymmetric lack of retroflex fricatives in the Proto-Athabaskan inventory appears as a surprising gap, but Leer argued against them being distinguished from *š and *ž: «In my reconstruction, PA lacked distinctively reflexed *šʳ and *žʳ as opposed to plain *š and *ž». Although Leer (2005) did not include *ʔ and *h in his list of reconstructed consonants, those two proto-phonemes nevertheless appear in a variety of reconstructions in the same article and hence it can be assumed that they are indeed part of his proto-phoneme inventory.
Leer (2005:284) also offered a vowel system consisting of four long or full vowels and three short or reduced vowels which are more centralized.
The following table is adapted from Leer 2005 (p. 286) and shows the vowel correspondences between Proto-Athabaskan and the better documented Athabaskan languages.
The reconstruction of tone is an issue of major importance in Athabaskan language studies, as well as for the wider historical linguistics field. The possibility of a reconstructable tone system was first proposed by Edward Sapir, although it took around a half-century for his ideas to be realized into a coherent system. Michael Krauss’s unpublished manuscript on Athabaskan tone (1979) circulated for decades before being published (2005), and has become the basis for all discussion of Athabaskan tonology. Krauss gives a detailed history of the work on Athabaskan tonology which is briefly summarized here.
The early work on Athabaskan languages ignored the existence of phonemic tone. Father Adrien-Gabriel Morice was the first linguist to describe tone for an Athabaskan language, specifically for Carrier, in 1891. Sapir’s first fieldwork on Athabaskan languages was with Chasta Costa and Kato, both Pacific Coast Athabaskan languages that lack tone. He encountered tone in Tlingit in 1914 when working with Louis Shotridge, a student and consultant of Franz Boas, with whom Sapir described the minimal pair /qáːt/ «crippled» and /qaːt/ «sockeye salmon». He then encountered tone in Tsuut’ina (Sarcee) and gradually became convinced that Proto-Athabaskan must be reconstructed as a tonal language, although he was concerned by apparently contradictory findings in Gwich’in, Deg Hit’an, and Navajo. His student Fang-Kuei Li, whom Sapir described as «a very able Chinaman», had the benefit of speaking Mandarin Chinese and hence being well aware of tone. Sapir and Fang-Kuei Li investigated tone in several other Athabaskan languages, including Mattole, Wailaki, Hupa, Dëne Sųłiné (Chipewyan), and Hare. The problem that disturbed Sapir and others was that tone in Athabaskan languages does correspond, but in an unexpected and difficult to explain way.
It can be seen in the table above that the languages differ in how their tones correspond: the first three have low tone where the next three have high tone, and vice versa, with the last three lacking tone entirely. This issue puzzled linguists for some time. Both Li and Harry Hoijer both harbored suspicions that Proto-Athabaskan lacked tone entirely, but it took until 1964 when Michael Krauss published a paper in the International Journal of American Linguistics where he argued that Proto-Athabaskan instead had glottalization contrasts which developed independently into tones in the daughter languages or in some cases were lost. This argument was strengthened by data from Eyak which had a system of glottal modifications on vowels that corresponded well to Athabaskan tones, and furthermore by Jeff Leer’s discovery of the Tongass dialect of Tlingit, which had a system closely corresponding that of Eyak.
The oppositions in tonal distribution are explained as an ahistorical division in Athabaskan languages whereby each language becomes either «high-marked», «low-marked», or «unmarked» for tone based on the Proto-Athabaskan reconstruction. The following table adapted from Rice & Hargus (2005:9) shows how the syllable codas of Proto-Athabaskan (PA) and the internal reconstruction of Pre-Proto-Athabaskan (PPA) correspond with those of the high-marked and low-marked languages.
In the above table, the symbol v represents a monomoraic reduced vowel, the VV represents a bimoraic full vowel, and the V a monomoraic full vowel in a syllable nucleus whose second mora is ‘. The R represents a sonorant, the S a fricative, the T a stop or affricate, and the ‘ a glottalization of the preceding segment. Note that nearly all languages that developed tone have also lost syllable-final ejectivity, retaining only the glottalized sonorants and bare glottal stops in that position. (Syllable initial ejective stops and affricates are of course retained.)
Because obvious similarities in morphology are prevalent throughout all of the languages in the Athabaskan family, Proto-Athabaskan rejoices in an extensive reconstructed proto-morphology. All Athabaskan languages are morphologically complex and are commonly described as polysynthetic, thus it comes as no surprise that the proto-language is also morphologically complex.
Keren Rice (2000) offers a «Pan-Athabaskan» verb template that characterizes the complexity of verb morphology in the proto-language and the daughter languages.
The actual verb template of Proto-Athabaskan has not been reconstructed yet, as noted by Vajda (2010:38). Nonetheless, Rice’s generalization of the verb template based on various languages in the family is a reasonable approximation of what the structure of the Proto-Athabaskan verb might look like.
Rice’s is probably the newest attempt at a Pan-Athabaskan template, but it is not the only one. Kibrik (1995) and Hoijer (1971) also proposed templates which generalized across a number of Athabaskan languages. Hoijer’s proposal is missing several elements which were described in detail later, but Kibrik’s is not terribly different from Rice’s.
Kibrik only gives the zones rather than individual positions where the distinction matters. In addition, Kibrik did not give the domains and boundaries which have been added here for comparison.
A major distinction between the Kibrik and Rice versions is in the terminology, with Kibrik’s «Standard Average Athabaskan» maintaining much of the traditional Athabaskanist terminology – still widely used – but Rice changing in favor of aspectual descriptions found in wider semantic and typological literature. The terminology in comparison:
Kari (1989) offers a rigorous foundation for the position class system that makes up the verb template in Athabaskan languages. He defines a few terms and resurrects others which have since become standard in Athabaskanist literature.
Kari (1989) and elsewhere uses + to indicate morpheme boundaries. This convention has been adopted by some Athabaskanists, but many others use the more common – instead. Another innovation from Kari is the use of angle brackets to mark epenthetic segments, a convention which is not often used even by Kari himself.
The «classifier» is a verb prefix that occurs in all Athabaskan languages as well as the Tlingit and Eyak languages. It is, as Leer (1990:77) puts it, «the hallmark of Na-Dene languages». The classifier is found in no other language family, although may be present in the Yeniseian family per Vajda (2010). It is an obligatory prefix such that verbs do not exist without the classifier. Its function varies little from language to language, essentially serving as an indicator of (middle) voice and valence for the verb.
The name «classifier» is confusing to non-Athabaskanists since it implies a classificatory function that is not obvious. Franz Boas first described it for Tlingit, saying «it is fairly clear that the primary function of these elements is a classificatory one» (Boas 1917:28), a not inaccurate statement given that it does enter into the classificatory verb system. Previously Edward Sapir had noted it in his seminal essay on the Na-Dene family, calling it a «‘third modal element'» (Sapir 1915:540). He described it as indicating «such notions as transitive, intransitive, and passive» (id.), thus having voice and valency related functions. Once it was realized that the Tlingit and Athabaskan morphemes were functionally similar Boas’s name for the Tlingit form was extended to the Athabaskan family. Unfortunately the classifier has only the vague remains of classificatory function in most Athabaskan languages, so in this family the name is opaque.
Because of the confusion that occurs from the use of the term «classifier», there have been a number of proposals for replacement terms. Andrej Kibrik (1993, 1996, 2001) has used the term «transitivity indicator» with the gloss abbreviation TI, Keren Rice (2000, 2009) has used «voice/valence prefix» abbreviated V/V, and for Tlingit Constance Naish and Gillian Story (1973:368–378) used «extensor». None of these alternatives has gained acceptance in the Athabaskan community, and Jeff Leer describes this situation:
Jeff Leer (1990:93) offers an early reconstruction of the Proto-Athabaskan classifier. It is a portmanteau morpheme with two dimensions that are both phonological and functional. The one dimension is the «series», which surfaces as the presence or absence of a lateral fricative. The other dimension is the «D-effect», surfacing as the presence or absence of either vocalization or an alveolar stop.
Leer (2008:22) gives a newer, more complex reconstruction, which takes into account some rare correspondences with the Eyak yi- prefix. This Eyak form corresponds to a Proto-Athabaskan *nʸə- that is mostly lost.
Published in March 2020.
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