|Athabascan, Athapascan, Athapaskan
|Western North America|
|ISO 639-2 / 5:||ath|
Pre-contact distribution of Na-Dené languages (Athabaskan + Eyak + Tlingit)
Athabaskan or Athabascan (also Dene, Athapascan, Athapaskan) is a large group of 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. Most Athabaskans prefer to be identified by their specific language and location. Although, the general term Athabascan persists in linguistics and anthropology, in August of 2012 the annual Athabaskan Languages Conference changed its name to the Dene Languages Conference.
The word Athabaskan is an anglicized version of a Cree language name for Lake Athabasca (Woods Cree: Aδapaska˙w “[where] there are reeds 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 it was his own preference to assign this name to the group of languages and peoples, writing:
I have designated them by the arbitrary denomination of Athabascas, which derived from the original name of the lake.—1836:116-7
Albert Gallatin’s arbitrary designation has unfortunate connotations as the term describes a shallow, weedy lake rather than a coherent people with shared language and culture. Most Athabaskans prefer to be identified by their specific language and location, however the general term persists in linguistics and anthropology despite alternative suggestions such as “Dene”. As noted above, in August of 2012 the annual Athabaskan Languages Conference changed its name to the Dene Languages Conference.
The four spellings of “Athabaskan”, “Athabascan”, “Athapaskan”, and “Athapascan” are in approximately equal use. There are various preferences for one or another spelling depending on the particular community. For example, the Alaska Native Language Center prefers the spelling “Athabascan,” following a decision in favor of this spelling by the Tanana Chiefs Conference in 1997. Michael Krauss had previously endorsed the spelling “Athabaskan” (1987). Ethnologue uses “Athapaskan” in naming the language family and individual languages.
Linguists conventionally divide the Athabaskan family into three groups, based largely on geographic distribution:
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 Dëne Sųłiné (Chipewyan), Dogrib or Tłįchǫ Yatʼiì, Gwich’in (Kutchin, Loucheux), and Slavey.
The seven Pacific Coast Athabaskan languages are spoken in southern Oregon and northern California. The six Southern Athabaskan languages are distantly isolated from both the Pacific Coast languages and the Northern languages as they are spoken in the American Southwest and the northwestern part of Mexico. This group includes Navajo and the six Apache languages.
As a crude approximation of differences among the languages in the family, one can compare differences between Athabaskan languages 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. Note that several languages such as Navajo and Gwich’in span the boundaries between different states and provinces, and hence they appear in this list multiple times. For alternative names for the languages, see the classifications given later in this article.
- Alaska: Ahtna, Deg Hit’an, Dena’ina/Tanaina, Gwich’in/Kutchin, Hän, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Lower Tanana, Middle Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Upper Kuskokwim
- Yukon Territory: Gwich'in/Kutchin, Hän, Kaska, Mountain, Tagish, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Upper Tanana
- Northwest Territories: Bearlake, Dëne Sųłiné/Chipewyan, Gwich’in, Hare, Mountain, Slavey, Tłįchǫ Yatʼìi/Dogrib
- Nunavut: Dëne Sųłiné
- British Columbia: Babine–Witsuwit’en, Bearlake, Beaver, Chilcotin, Dakelh/Carrier, Hare, Kaska, Mountain, Nicola, Sekani/Tsek’ene, Slavey, Tagish, Tahltan, Tsetsaut
- Alberta: Beaver, Dëne Sųłiné, Slavey, Tsuut’ina/Sarcee
- Saskatchewan: Dëne Sųłiné
- Washington: Chilcotin, Kwalhioqua-Clatskanai (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
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-Dené 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-Athbaskan language which 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, thus making Haida unrelated to Athabaskan languages.
The major advance in Athabaskan and Na-Dene external classification was a symposium in Alaska in February 2008. Edward Vajda of Western Washington University summarized ten years of research, based on verbal morphology and reconstructions of the proto-languages, indicating that the Yeniseian and Na-Dené families might be related. Vajda's research was published in June 2010 in The Dene–Yeniseian Connection in the Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska (ISBN 978-0-615-43296-0). This 369-page volume, edited by James Kari and Ben Potter, contains papers from the 2008 symposium plus several contributed papers. Accompanying Vajda's lead paper are primary data on Na-Dene historical phonology by Jeff Leer, along with critiques by several linguistic specialists and articles on a range of topics (archaeology, prehistory, ethnogeography, genetics, kinship, and folklore) by experts in these fields.
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, it is clear from current comparative Athabaskan literature that most Athabaskanists still use the three-way geographic grouping rather than any of the proposed linguistic groupings given below because none of them have 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), and representing what is generously called the “Rice–Goddard–Mithun” classification (Tuttle & Hargus 2004:73), although it is almost entirely due to Keren Rice.
- Southern Alaska (Dena’ina, Ahtna)
- Central Alaska–Yukon (Deg Hit’an, Holikachuk/Kolchan, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Lower Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, N. Tutchone, S. Tutchone, Gwich’in, Hän)
- Northwestern Canada (Tagish, Tahltan, Kaska, Sekani, Dunneza/Beaver, Slavey, Mountain, Bearlake, Hare, Tłįchǫ Yat’iì/Dogrib, Dëne Sųłiné/Chipewyan)
- Central British Columbia (Babine–Witsuwit’en, Dakelh/Carrier, Chilcotin, Nicola?)
- Pacific Coast Athabaskan (Upper Umpqua, Tututni, Galice–Applegate, Tolowa, Hupa, Mattole, Eel River, Kato)
- Apachean (Navajo, W. Apache, Mescalero–Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan, Plains)
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):
- Alaskan (Ahtna, Dena’ina, Deg Hit’an, Koyukon, Holikachuk/Kolchan, Lower Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Gwich’in, Hän)
- Yukon (Tsetsaut, N. Tutchone, S. Tutchone, Tagish, Tahltan, Kaska, Sekani, Dunneza/Beaver)
- British Columbia (Babine–Witsuwit’en, Dakelh/Carrier, Chilcotin)
- Eastern (Dëne Sųłiné/Chipewyan, Slavey, Mountain, Bearlake, Hare, Tłįchǫ Yat’iì/Dogrib)
- Southerly Outlying (Tsuut’ina/Sarsi, Apachean, Pacific Coast Athabaskan, Kwalhioqua–Tlatskanai)
Neither subgrouping has found any significant support among other Athabaskanists. Thus at this time the 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.
There is active debate whether the Pacific Coast languages actually forms a valid genealogical grouping, or whether it 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, although Nicola might possibly be intermediate between Kwalhioqua–Tlatskanai and Chilcotin.
Similarly to Nicola, there is very limited documentation on Tsetsaut, and 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 that of Tahltan, Tagish, Kaska, and North and South Tutchone – PA *-tuʼ (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.
Northern Athabaskan 
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 somewhere in central southern Alaska, probably overlapping where the Dena’ina and Ahtna languages are spoken today (Kari 2009). The Northern Athabaskan group also contains the most linguistically conservative languages, particularly Ahtna, Dena’ina, and Dakelh/Carrier (Leer 2008).
- Southern Alaskan subgroup
- Central Alaska–Yukon subgroup
- 3. Deg Xinag (AKA Deg Hitʼan, Kaiyuhkhotana, Ingalik (deprecated))
- 4. Holikachuk (AKA Innoko)
- 5. Koyukon (AKA Denaakkʼe, Tenʼa)
- 6. Upper Kuskokwim (AKA Kolchan, Goltsin)
- 7. Lower Tanana and Middle Tanana (FKA Tanana)
- 8. Tanacross
- 9. Upper Tanana
- 10. Southern Tutchone
- 11. Northern Tutchone
- 12. Gwich’in (AKA Kutchin, Loucheux, Tukudh)
- 13. Hän (AKA Han)
- Northwestern Canada subgroup
- A. Tahltan–Tagish–Kaska (AKA “Cordilleran”)
- 17. Sekani (AKA Tsekʼehne)
- 18. Dunneza (AKA Beaver)
- B. Slave–Hare
- 19. Slavey (AKA Southern Slavey)
- 20. Mountain (Northern Slavey)
- 21. Bearlake (Northern Slavey)
- 22. Hare (Northern Slavey)
- 23. Dogrib (AKA Tłįchǫ Yatiì)
- 24. Dene Suline (AKA Chipewyan, Dëne Sųłiné, Dene Soun’liné)
Very little is known about Tsetsaut, and for this reason it is routinely placed in its own tentative subgroup.
- Tsetsaut subgroup
- 25. Tsetsaut (AKA Tsʼetsʼaut, Wetalh)
- Central British Columbia subgroup (AKA “British Columbian” in contrast with “Cordilleran” = Tahltan–Tagish–Kaska)
- 26. Babine–Witsuwit'en (AKA North Carrier, Natutʼen, Witsuwitʼen)
- 27. Dakelh (AKA Carrier)
- 28. Chilcotin (AKA Tsilhqot’in)
- 29. Nicola (AKA Stuwix, Similkameen)
- Sarsi subgroup
- 30. Tsuut’ina (AKA Sarcee, Sarsi, Tsuu T’ina)
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).
- Kwalhioqua–Clatskanie subgroup (also called Lower Columbia Athapaskan)
Pacific Coast Athabaskan 
- California Athabaskan subgroup
- 32. Hupa (AKA Hupa-Chilula, Chilula, Whilkut)
- 33. Mattole–Bear River
- 34. Eel River (AKA Wailaki, Lassik, Nongatl, Sinkyone)
- 35. Kato (AKA Cahto)
- Oregon Athabaskan subgroup
- 36. Upper Umpqua
- 37a. Lower Rogue River and Upper Coquille (AKA Tututni, Chasta Costa)
- 37b. Upper Rogue River (AKA Galice, Applegate, Dakubetede)
- 38. Tolowa (AKA Smith River, Chetco, Siletz Dee-ni)
Southern Athabaskan (AKA Apachean) 
- Plains Apache subgroup
- 39. Plains Apache (AKA Kiowa-Apache)
- Western Apachean subgroup
- A. Chiricahua–Mescalero
- 42. Navajo (AKA Navaho)
- 43. Western Apache (AKA Coyotero Apache)
- Eastern Apachean subgroup
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.
Consonant reconstruction 
The traditional reconstruction of the Proto-Athabaskan sound system consists of 40 consonants (Cook 1981; Krauss & Golla 1981; Krauss & Leer 1981; Cook & Rice 1989), as detailed in the following table.
|Stop||unaspirated||*d [t]||*g [k]||*ɢ [q]||*ɢʷ [qʷ]|
|aspirated||*t [tʰ]||*k [kʰ]||*q [qʰ]||*qʷ [qʷʰ]|
|glottalized||*tʼ [tʼ]||*kʼ [kʼ]||*qʼ [qʼ]||*qʼʷ [qʷʼ]||*ʼ ~ *ˀ ~ *ʔ [ʔ]|
|Affricate||unaspirated||*ʒ ~ *dz [ts]||*λ ~ *dl [tɬ]||*ǯ ~ *dž [tʃ]||*ǯʷ ~ *džʷ [tʃʷ]|
|aspirated||*c ~ *ts [tsʰ]||*ƛ ~ *tł ~ *tɬ [tɬʰ]||*č ~ *tš [tʃʰ]||*čʷ ~ *tšʷ [tʃʷʰ]|
|glottalized||*cʼ ~ *tsʼ [tsʼ]||*ƛʼ ~ *tłʼ ~ *tɬʼ [tɬʼ]||*čʼ ~ *tšʼ [tʃʼ]||*čʼʷ ~ *tšʼʷ [tʃʷʼ]|
|Fricative||voiceless||*s [s]||*ł ~ *ɬ [ɬ]||*š [ʃ]||*šʷ [ʃʷ]||*x [x]||*x̣ ~ *χ [χ]||*x̣ʷ ~ *χʷ [χʷ]||*h [h]|
|voiced||*z [z]||*l [ɮ]~[l]||*ž [ʒ]||*žʷ [ʒʷ]||*γ ~ *ɣ [ɣ]||*γ̇ ~ *ɣ̇ [ʁ]||*γ̇ʷ ~ *ɣ̇ʷ [ʁʷ]|
|Nasal||*m [m]||*n [n]||*ŋ̪ ~ *ỹ ~ *ŋʸ ~ *nʸ [ɲ]|
|Approximant||*y [j]||*ŋʷ ~ *w̃ ~ *w [w~w̃]|
First person singular fricative 
A peculiar proto-phoneme in Proto-Athabaskan is the sound that Krauss (1976b) represents as *$, and which Leer (2005:284) has represented as *šʸ though he has since returned to *$ lately (e.g. Leer 2008). This is the phoneme found in Proto-Athabaskan, Proto-Athabaskan–Eyak, and Proto-Na-Dene which 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 which 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 major reduction in the complexity of the system. In addition, the inventory is drastically changed, with the lack of contrastive labialization, removal of the entire glottal series, the change of velars into palatals, the replacement of labialized postalveolars with a separate retroflex series, and the clear assertion that stops and affricates are phonologically the same class although they may be articulated somewhat differently.
|Stop/Affricate||unaspirated||*d [t]||*dl [tɬ]||*dz [ts]||*ǯ ~ *dž [tʃ]||*ǯʳ ~ *džʳ [ʈʂ]||*gʸ [c]||*ɢ [q]|
|aspirated||*t [tʰ]||*tɬ [tɬʰ]||*ts [tsʰ]||*č ~ *tš [tʃʰ]||*čʳ ~ *tšʳ [ʈʂʰ]||*kʸ [cʰ]||*q [qʰ]|
|glottalized||*tʼ [tʼ]||*tɬʼ [tɬʼ]||*tsʼ [tsʼ]||*čʼ ~ *tšʼ [tʃʼ]||*čʼʳ ~ *tšʼʳ [ʈʂʼ]||*kʼʸ [cʼ]||*qʼ [qʼ]||*ʼ ~ *ʔ [ʔ]|
|Fricative||voiceless||*ɬ [ɬ]||*s [s]||*š [ʃ]||*xʸ [ç]||*x̣ ~ *χ [χ]||*h [h]|
|voiced||*l [l]||*z [z]||*ž [ʒ]||(*y [j])||*ɣ̇ ~ *ɣ [ʁ]|
|Nasal||*m [m]||*n [n]||*nʸ ~ *ñ [ɲ]|
|Approximant||*w [w]||*y [j]|
Keren Rice (1997) argued that there was no need to distinguish between *y and *žʸ, a proposal which Leer adopted and which is indicated in the table above by duplicating *y in place of *žʸ.
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.
Vowel reconstruction 
|This section requires expansion. (February 2010)|
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.
|High||*iˑ [iː]||*uˑ [uː]|
|Mid||*ə [ə]||*υ ~ *ʊ [ʊ]|
|Low||*eˑ [eː]||*α [ɑ]||*aˑ [ɑː]|
The following table is adapted from Leer 2005 (p. 286) and shows the vowel correspondences between Proto-Athabaskan and the better documented Athabaskan languages.
|Language||Full vowels||Reduced vowels|
|Ahtna||i(ˑ)||e(ˑ)||a(ˑ)||u(ˑ)||e ~ ∅||e||a||o|
|Denaʼina||i||a||u||i||ə ~ ∅||ə||ə||ə|
|Koyukon||i||a||o||u||ə ~ [∅]||ə||α ~ ʊ||ʊ ~ α|
|Upper Kuskokwim||i||a||o||u||ə ~ [∅]||ə||ʊ||ʊ|
|Lower Tanana||i||a||o||u||ə ~ [∅]||ə||ʊ||ʊ|
|Tanacross||i(ˑ)||e(ˑ)||a(ˑ)||u(ˑ)||e ~ ∅||e||a||o|
|Upper Tanana||i(ˑ)||e(ˑ)||a(ˑ)||u(ˑ)||i ~ ∅||ɵ ~ a||a||o|
|Gwichʼin||i[pal]||i[pal]||e ~ i||i(o)[pal]||ə||a||a||o|
|Hän||i||e||æ||u||ə ~ ∅||ɵ ~ ə||a||o|
|Northern Tutchone||i||i||e||u||e||ʌ||ʌ||o ~ ʌ|
|Southern Tutchone||i||e||a||u||e||ʌ||ʌ||o ~ ʌ|
|Tagish-Tahltan||i(ˑ)||e(ˑ)||a(ˑ)||u(ˑ)||e||e ~ i||a||o|
|Tsekʼehne/Sekani||i||e||a||u||ə ~ ɪ||ə ~ i||a||o ~ ʊ|
|Witsuwitʼen||i ~ e||i ~ e ~ ɛ||a ~ e||u ~ o||ə ~ ∅||ə||ə||o ~ ə[rnd]|
|Dakelh/Carrier||i||e ~ i||a||u ~ o||ə (~ ∅)||ə||ə||ə[rnd]|
|Dëne Sųłiné/Chipewyan (Li)||i||e ~ ə ~ ɛ||a||u||ɛ ~ ə||ɛ ~ ə||a||o|
|Navajo||i(ˑ)||e(ˑ)||a(ˑ)||o(ˑ)||i ~ a||i ~ a||a||o|
|Apache (Hoijer)||i(ˑ)||e(ˑ)||a(ˑ)||o(ˑ)||i||i ~ a||a||o|
|Mattole (Li)||i(ˑ)||e(ˑ)||a(ˑ)||o(ˑ)||i||i||a ~ i||o|
|This section requires expansion. (February 2010)|
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.
|“fish”||ɬúg||ɬúkʼά||ɬóˑʔ ~ -lóˑʔ||ɬùè ~ -lùéʔ||ɬùgə̀||lùgè ~ -lúgéʔ||ɬoˑkʼe||ɬoˑkʼe||ɬiqʼa||*ɬuˑqʼə ~ *ɬuˑqʼeˑ|
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 full vowel, the v represents a reduced vowel, the R a sonorant, the S a fricative, the T a stop or affricate, and the ’ a glottalization of the preceding segment. Long vowels are sequences of two full vowels, whereas short vowels are lone full or reduced vowels. 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.
Verb template 
Keren Rice (2000) offers a “Pan-Athabaskan” verb template that characterizes the complexity of verb morphology in the proto-language and the daughter languages.
|disjunct domain||#||conjunct domain||[||stem|
|preverb||quantificational elements||incorp-orates||object||3 subj.||%||qualifiers||subsituation aspect||situation aspect||viewpoint aspect||1 & 2 subject||classifier||root||aspect suffixes|
|areal||multiple||iterative||distributive||d-||n-||gh-||inceptive||egressive||conative||achievement n-||accomp-lishment s-||semel-factive i-||activity gh-||imperf.||perf.||opt.||future|
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.
|bound phrase||disjunct domain||#||conjunct domain||[||stem|
|proclitic||oblique pronoun||preverb||various deriv.||reflexive accusative||iterative||distributive||incorporate||number||accusative pron.||3 nominative pron.||%||transitivity decrease||qualifier||inceptive||conjugation||mode||1 & 2 nom. pron.||transitivity indicator||root||mode/aspect suffix||enclitic|
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:
- Rice (2000) “viewpoint aspect” = conventional “mode”
- Rice (2000) “situation aspect” = conventional “conjugation”
- Rice (2000) “subsituation aspect” ≈ Kibrik’s “inceptive”
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.
- Position: a point or slot the verb template which hosts some number of morphemes which never cooccur. Some affixes may occur in multiple positions which are usually adjacent, but most morphemes are found in a single position. Kari (1989:435) gives the Ahtna ɣo- mode prefix and the s- qualifier as examples of multipositional morphemes.
- Floating position: a position which seems to move around depending on the appearance or lack of other morphemes in the verb. Kari cites the Ahtna third person plural subject pronominal q- as occurring in three different locations "under highly constrained conditions" (Kari 1989:435).
- Zone: a group of positions which are adjacent and semantically similar. Some previous descriptions of “position-subposition” are zones with positions within them (Kari 1989:435). The qualifiers are a type of zone, being made of at least two positions. The description by Krauss (1969) and Leer (2008) of the classifier as a three-morpheme sequence in Proto-Athabaskan technically makes the classifier a zone, but it is monomorphemic and often treated like a single position in the analysis of documented languages. Tlingit has a classifier approaching a zone although it is morphologically a single unit, and Eyak has a true classifier zone with two phonologically separate prefixes.
- Domain: an area of zones and positions which is grouped together as a phonological unit.
- Stem domain: a domain including the verb root and suffixes, and usually including the classifier.
- Conjunct domain: a domain spanning from the classifier (may or may not be included) leftward to the object prefixes.
- Disjunct domain: a domain spanning from the incorporated nouns to the preverbs, and not including any bound phrases that are considered to be word-external.
- Boundary: a morphological division between zones and/or domains. Each boundary has an associated conventional symbol. Not all researchers describe all the boundaries for every language, and it is not clear that there is total agreement on the existence of all boundaries.
- Disjunct boundary (#): the boundary between the disjunct and conjunct domains. Found in most Athabaskan descriptions.
- Qualifier-pronominal boundary (=/%): the boundary between the qualifiers and the outer pronominals (3 subjects, objects, etc.). Kari proposed using = but since that symbol is often used for clitics, many authors (e.g. Rice 2000) have used % instead.
- Conjugation-qualifier boundary (%): the boundary between the qualifiers and the conjugation prefixes. Not commonly used, especially with the loss of the % symbol to the qualifier-pronominal boundary.
- Stem boundary ([): the boundary between the inner pronominals (1 and 2 subject) and the classifier.
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 (2009). 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 
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:
A better term would be something like “valentizers”, since their principal function is to indicate the valence of the verb [...] However, since the name classifier is one of the few grammatical labels sanctioned by common use among Athabaskanists, it is probably not worth the trouble to try to change it.—Jeff Leer, 1990, p. 93, fn. 12
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.
|ɬ||*ɬ-||*ɬə- > *l(ə)-|
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.
|ɬ||*ɬ-||*nʸə-ɬ-||*ɬə- > *lə-|
History of Athabaskan language studies 
|This section requires expansion. (February 2010)|
The history of Athabaskan language studies contains some interesting episodes. Krauss (2005) offers some humorous side notes on the work of Edward Sapir and his students in the early reconstruction Proto-Athabaskan. He presents some scandalous events, such as the reason why Gladys Reichard was not particularly positive about Sapir’s work: “it was in fact common knowledge in some circles that she was shacked up, living in sin, in Greenwich Village for years with none other than P.E. Goddard” (p. 63), with whom Sapir had “strange and strained relations” (p. 64). The same situation probably deprived later linguists of P.E. Goddard’s monumental comparative Athabaskan dictionary which is now lost: “Goddard’s wife naturally evinced some displeasure, which may well explain why the whereabouts of the Goddard papers, including his life’s work, the comparative dictionary of Athabaskan, have been unknown since his death” (id.).
See also 
- Dené–Yeniseian languages
- Broken Slavey, a trade language based on Slavey, French, and Cree.
- Loucheux Pidgin, another trade language based on at least Dëne Sųłiné (Chipewyan) and Gwich’in (Loucheux).
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Athapascan.|
- Athapascan Bibliography
- Athabaskan Satellites & ASL Ion-Morphs
- Alaska Native Language Center
- Yukon Native Language Center
- California Athapascan
- Don Macnaughtan. "Bibliography and Discography on the Chetco, Tututni and other Athapaskans of Southwest Oregon" (Lane Community College Library). Retrieved 2012-09-04.
- ATHAPBASCKAN-L mailing list for Athabaskan linguistics
- Boas, Franz. 1917. Grammatical notes on the language of the Tlingit Indians. (University Museum Anthropological Publications 8.1). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
- California Indian Library Collections Project. California Athapaskan Bibliography
- 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 William Bright (ed.), International encyclopedia of linguistics, 122–128. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505196-3.
- Cook, Eung-Do & Keren Rice. 1989. Introduction. In Eung-Do Cook & Keren Rice (eds.), Athapaskan linguistics: Current perspectives on a language family, 1–61. (Trends in Linguistics, State-of-the-art Reports 15). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 0-89925-282-6.
- Golla, Victor. 2011. California Indian Ianguages. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- 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 Harry Hoijer (ed.), Studies in the Athapaskan languages, 1–29. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Hoijer, Harry (ed.). 1963. Studies in the Athapaskan languages. (University of California publications in linguistics 29). Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Hoijer, Harry. 1971. The position of the Apachean languages in the Athpaskan stock. In Keith H. Basso & M. E. Opler (eds.), Apachean culture history and ethnology, 3–6. (Anthropological papers of the University of Arizona 21). Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
- Hymes, Dell H. 1957. A note on Athapaskan glottochronology. International Journal of American Linguistics 23(4). 291–297.
- Kari, James. 1989. Affix positions and zones in the Athapaskan verb complex: Ahtna and Navajo. International Journal of American Linguistics 55(4). 424-454.
- Kari, James, James A. Fall, & Shem Pete. 2003. Shem Pete’s Alaska: The territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Denaʼina. Fairbanks, AK: University of Alaska Press. ISBN 1-889963-56-9 (cloth); ISBN 1-889963-57-7 (pbk.).
- Kari, James and Ben A. Potter. (2010). The Dene–Yeniseian Connection, ed. by J. Kari and B. Potter, 1–24. Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, new series, vol. 5. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Department of Anthropology.
- Kibrik, Andrej A. 1993. Transitivity increase in Athabaskan languages. In Bernard Comrie & Maria Polinsky (eds.), Causatives and Transitivity, 47–68. (Studies in Language Comparison Series 23). Philadelphia: John Benjamins. ISBN 978-1-55619-375-0 (hbk).
- Kibrik, Andrej A. 1996. Transitivity decrease in Navajo and Athabaskan: Actor-affecting propositional derivations. In Eloise Jelinek, Sally Midgette, Keren Rice, & Leslie Saxon (eds.) Athabaskan language studies: Essays in honor of Robert W. Young, 259–304. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico. ISBN 0-8263-1705-7 (cloth).
- Kibrik, Andrej A. 2001. A typologically oriented portrait of the Athabaskan language family. Presented at ALT-IV, Santa Barbara, CA.
- 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 Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Linguistics in North America, 903–978. (Current trends in linguistics 10). The Hague: Mouton. (Reprinted as Krauss 1976).
- Krauss, Michael E. 1976a. Na-Dene. In Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Native languages of the Americas, 283–358. New York: Plenum. Reprint of Krauss 1973.
- Krauss, Michael E. 1976b. Proto-Athabaskan–Eyak fricatives and the first person singular. Unpublished manuscript.
- Krauss, Michael E. 1979. Na-Dene and Eskimo. In Lyle Campbell & Marianne Mithun (eds.), The languages of native America: Historical and comparative assessment. Austin: University of Texas Press.
- Krauss, Michael E. 1979. Athabaskan tone. Unpublished manuscript. Published with revisions as Krauss 2005.
- Krauss, Michael E. 1981. On the history and use of comparative Athapaskan linguistics. Unpublished manuscript.
- Krauss, Michael E. 1986. Edward Sapir and Athabaskan linguistics. In W. Cowan, M. Foster, & K. Koerner (eds.), New perspectives in language, culture, and personality, 147–190. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
- Krauss, Michael 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, AK: Division of Alaska State Museums and the Friends of the Alaska State Museum. PDF version available from the Alaska Native Language Center.
- Krauss, Michael E. 2005. Athabaskan tone. In Sharon Hargus & Keren Rice (eds.), Athabaskan Prosody, 51–136. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Revision of unpublished manuscript dated 1979.
- Krauss, Michael E. & Victor Golla. 1981. Northern Athapaskan languages. In J. Helm (ed.), Subarctic, 67–85. (Handbook of North American Indians 6). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.
- Krauss, Michael E. & Jeff Leer. 1981. Athabaskan, Eyak, and Tlingit sonorants. (Alaska Native Language Center research papers 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 1). Fairbanks, AK: Alaska Native Language Center.
- Leer, Jeff. 1982. Navajo and comparative Athabaskan stem list. Unpublished manuscript. ANLA CA965L1982
- Leer, Jeff. 1990. Tlingit: A portmanteau language family? In Philip Baldi (ed.), Linguistic change and reconstruction methodology, 73–98. (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and monographs 45). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-011908-4.
- Leer, Jeff. 2005. How stress shapes the stem-suffix complex in Athabaskan. In Sharon Hargus & Keren Rice (eds.), Athabaskan Prosody, 278–318. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
- Leer, Jeff. 2008. Recent advances in AET comparison. ANLA CA965L2008b
- Leer, Jeff. 2010. The Palatal Series in Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit, with an Overview of the Basic Sound Correspondences. In The Dene–Yeniseian Connection, ed. by J. Kari and B. Potter, XX-XX. Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, new series, vol. 5. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Fairbanks, Department of Anthropology.
- Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X (pbk).
- Naish, Constance & Gillian Story. 1973. Tlingit verb dictionary. Fairbanks, AK: Alaska Native Language Center. ISBN 0-933769-25-3.
- Rice, Keren. 1997. A reexamination of Proto-Athabaskan y. Anthropological Linguistics 39(3). 423–426.
- Rice, Keren. 2000. Morpheme order and semantic scope: Word formation in the Athapaskan verb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-58354-1 (hbk); ISBN 978-0-521-02450-1 (pbk).
- 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 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, 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.
- Sapir, Edward, & Victor Golla. 2001. Hupa Texts, with Notes and Lexicon. In Victor Golla & Sean O'Neill (eds.), Collected Works of Edward Sapir, vol. 14, Northwest California Linguistics, 19-1011. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
- 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, vols. 1-20. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Vols. 1–3, 16, 18–20 not yet published.
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