Dena'ina language

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Dena’ina Qenaga
Native to United States
Region Alaska (Cook Inlet region, Lake Clark, Lake Iliamna)
Ethnicity Dena'ina people
Native speakers
75  (2007)[1]
Latin (Dena'ina alphabet)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 tfn
Glottolog tana1289[2]
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Dena’ina /dɨˈnnə/, also Tanaina, is the Athabaskan language of the region surrounding Cook Inlet. It is geographically unique in Alaska as the only Alaska Athabaskan language to include territory which borders salt water. Four dialects are usually distinguished:

  1. Upper Inlet, spoken in Eklutna, Knik, Susitna, Tyonek
  2. Outer Inlet, spoken in Kenai, Kustatan, Seldovia
  3. Iliamna, spoken in Pedro Bay, Old Iliamna, Lake Iliamna area
  4. Inland, spoken in Nondalton, Lime Village

Of the total Dena'ina population of about 900 people, only 75-95 members still speak Dena’ina. James Kari has done extensive work on the language since 1972, including his edition with Alan Boraas of the collected writings of Peter Kalifornsky in 1991. Joan Tenenbaum also conducted extensive field research on the language in the 1970s.


The word Dena'ina is composed of the dena, meaning 'person' and the human plural suffix ina. While the apostrophe which joins the two parts of this word ordinarily indicates a glottal stop, most speakers pronounce this with a diphthong, so that the second syllable of the word rhymes with English 'nine' (as in the older spelling Tanaina).

Gladys Evanoff pronouncing Dena'ina

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Dena'ina is one of seven Alaska Athabaskan languages which does not distinguish phonemic tone.


The consonants of Dena’ina in practical orthography, with IPA equivalents indicated in square brackets.

Labial Dental Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
plain lateral sibilant
Nasal m [m] n [n]
Plosive and
unaspirated (b [b]) d [t] dl [t͡ɬ] dz [t͡s] j [t͡ʃ] g [k] gg [q] ' [ʔ]
aspirated t [tʰ] tl [t͡ɬʰ] ts [t͡sʰ] ch [t͡ʃʰ] k [kʰ] q [qʰ]
ejective t' [tʼ] tl' [t͡ɬʼ] ts' [t͡sʼ] ch' [t͡ʃʼ] k' [kʼ] q' [qʼ]
Fricative voiceless (f [f]) ɬ [ɬ] s [s] sh [ʃ] x [x] h [χ] ĥ [h]
voiced v [v] l [l] z [z] zh [ʒ] ŷ [ɣ] gh [ʁ]
Approximant (r [ɹ]) [j]

[ɹ] is only found in English loanwords.


The 4 vowels of Dena’ina. Note that close vowels are more open in the environment of a uvular consonant.

Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e [ə]
Open a

Generally, the vowels i, a, and u, are considered 'long' vowels and are fully pronounced in words, however the e is considered a reduced vowel similar to the English schwa.

Syllable structure[edit]

In the Inland dialect, syllables at the end of a semantic unit are often longer, lower in pitch, and have longer rhymes. The onset of a syllable has consonant clusters of up to three, such as CCCVC, though these are rare and more commonly, a syllable onset is one or two consonants.


Dena'ina is a polysynthetic language where a single word can mean the entirety of an English sentence.

English sentence "I will see you again."
Dena'ina word: nuntnghel'ił
Dena'ina word parts: nu-n-t-n-gh-sh-l-'ił
Word part meanings: again-you-FUTURE-see-FUTURE-I-CLASSIFIER-see/FUTURE

Verbs are the most elaborate part of speech in the Dena'ina language, which vary in verb paradigms which vary by subject, object, or aspect. The following example is of -lan the verb "to be" in the imperfective aspect and in the Nondalton dialect.

Subject Meaning Nondalton
1st person singular I am eshlan
2nd person singular You are inlan
3rd person singular He/She/It is nlan
1st person plural We are ch'ilan
2nd person plural You all are ehlan
3rd person plural They are qilan
Areal Area is qilan

Grammatical categories[edit]

Dena'ina indicates classification with obligatory verb prefixes, meaning the root verb appears at the end of the word. The verb will always specify a classification and often person, gender, or object prefixes that indicate aspects of the noun or object for transitive verbs, and aspects of the speaker for intransitive verbs. Person can also be indicated by suffixes on the noun; the singular person suffix on a noun is generally "-en",whereas the plural suffix is generally "-na" or "-ina". Plurals for non-persons that are animate are indicated by the noun suffixes "-qa", "-ha", and "-yi". Inanimate plurals are unable to be indicated by a noun suffix, and instead attach to the verb.

For examples of person indication on the verb, see the chart under the morphology section above concerning the verb root "-lan". Dena'ina specifies between 1st person singular/plural, 2nd person singular/plural, 3rd person singular/plural, and areal.

Verbs fall into many categories that are broadly lumped into "active" and "neuter", where an active verb indicates movement, a state of being incomplete, something being made, or in the production of sound, and a neuter verb indicates a general state of being that is complete. Categories of classification that are affixated to a verb also can refer to certain characteristics of the object of that verb. Depending on the gender affix that follows the classificatory affix, the nature of the object can change, as indicated by the following chart:

Classificatory verbs Gender prefixes
Ø- d- n- dn- q-
1 Single compact object; ‘u ball, trap, hat, sun, beaver lodge egg, song, word berry, bread, roe, coiled rope, head rock, ring, mirror, box, whetstone house, plot of land, situation, weather
2 Elongated object; tun needle, sled, boat, bow, gun pole, plate, cane, quill, pencil stick dentalium necklace mirror x
3 Enclosed object; łtun knife, full sack, rolled sleeping bag pillow, mattress, lake sack of berries, flour or fish eggs box of rocks q+d ravine, valley
4 Fabric-like object; kits blanket, net, paper, open sleeping bag, empty sack, skin without hair skin with

hair, fur, caribou mat

5 Object in open vessel; qu sugar, water in container eggs or wood chips in bucket berries or roe in container rocks or coal in bucket x
6 Animate object; ta person, dog, doll, crucifix x x x x
7 Food; kit piece of meat, dry fish beaver’s food pile roe x x
8 Mushy object; tlaq’ mud, rotted food, wet cloth, butter wet tea leaves fish eggs (not in container) x pile of refuse, area of soft ground
9 Plural objects; lu traps, boots, dogs eggs, plates, cups, words, tobacco, songs, waves sg. uncoiled rope, pl. coiled ropes, beads, berries, roe, snare rocks, whetstones, boxes houses, objects over area, freight
10 Multiple objects; chuq’ sand, glacier ice chips of wood berries rocks earth, clouds

However, there are other categories of classification or instrumentation that indicate how an action was done or aspects about the outcome of the action. Many instrumental affixes have become causative over time. Causality is expressed by changing a classifier in the verb to "ł". Instrumental affixes that indicate the manner or motion of an action include the following: "-aq’a", which refers to clubbing an object or leaving a depression in the snow; "-dni", which refers to causing an object to leave, disappear, or die; "-du", which refers to affecting an object with the mouth; "-eł,-eła, and -ł", which all indicate that the object being referred to was used in an instrumental sense; "-iqu (uqu)", which refers to a pointing motion; "-k’", which refers to a wiping motion; and "-lu", which refers to the use of a hand.


  1. ^ Tanaina at Ethnologue (17th ed., 2013)
  2. ^ Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Tanaina". Glottolog 2.2. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. 


  • Balluta, Alex & Gladys Evanoff. 2004. Dena'ina Qenaga Du'idnaghelnik (Dena'ina Words Sound Pretty). Dena'ina Phrases 1: Nondalton Dialect, ed. by Olga Müller. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center; Anchorage: Alaska Native Heritage Center. [1]
  • Chickalusion, Maxim, et al. 1980. Q'udi Heyi Niłch'diluyi Sukdu'a: "This Years Collected Stories.(Dena'ina Stories from Tyonek and Illiamna Lake). Anchorage: National Bilingual Materials Development Center.
  • Ellanna, Linda & Andrew Balluta. 1992. Nuvendaltin Quht'ana: The People of Nondalton. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Johnson, Walter. 2004. Sukdu Neł Nuhtghelnek: I'll Tell You A Story: Stories I Recall From Growing Up On Iliamna Lake. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.
  • Kalifornsky, Peter. 1991 "K'tl'egh'i Sukdu, A Dena'ina Legacy: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky" edited by James Kari and Alan Boraas. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.
  • Kari, James. 1975. A classification of the Tanaina dialects. Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska 17:49-55.
  • Kari, James. 2007. Dena'ina Topical Dictionary. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center. ISBN 978-1-55500-091-2.
  • Kari, James, Priscilla Russell Kari and Jane McGary. 1983. Dena’ina Ełnena: Tanaina Country. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center. Includes good bibliography and many photographs
  • Kari, Priscilla Russell. 1987. Tanaina Plantlore: Dena’ina K’et’una. 2nd ed. Anchorage: Alaska Park Service. Ethnobotany and much other cultural information.
  • Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The languages of Native North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-23228-7 (hbk); ISBN 0-521-29875-X.
  • Osgood, Cornelius. 1937. Contributions to the Ethnography of the Tanaina. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, 16.
  • Stephan, Sava. 2005. Upper Inlet Dena’ina Language Lessons, ed. by James Kari. Anchorage: Alaska Native Heritage Center. [2]
  • Tenenbaum, Joan. 1978. Morphology and semantics of the Tanaina verb. (Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University).
  • Tenenbaum, Joan. 2006. Dena'ina Sukdu'a 3rd ed. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center. ISBN 1-55500-090-8.
  • Townsend, Joan B. 1981. “Tanaina.” In June Helm, ed., Subarctic: Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 6. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.
  • Wassillie, Albert. 1980. Nuvendaltun Ht’ana Sukdu’a: Nondalton People’s Stories. Anchorage: National Bilingual Materials Development Center.

External links[edit]