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Ahtna language

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Koht’aene Kenaege', Atnakenaege’
Native toUnited States
RegionAlaska (Copper River region)
Ethnicity500 Ahtna (1995)[1]
Native speakers
15 (2020)[1]
30 (2011)[2]
Latin (Ahtna alphabet)
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3aht
Pre-contact distribution of Ahtna
Ahtna is classified as Critically Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger
Coordinates: 62°10′N 143°49′W / 62.167°N 143.817°W / 62.167; -143.817

Ahtna or Ahtena (/ˈɑːtnə/, from At Na "Copper River")[4] is the Na-Dené language of the Ahtna ethnic group of the Copper River area of Alaska. The language is also known as Copper River or Mednovskiy.

The Ahtna language consists of four different dialects: Upper, Central, Lower, and Western. Three of the four are still spoken today. Ahtna is closely related to Dena'ina.

The similar name Atnah occurs in the journals of Simon Fraser and other early European diarists in what is now British Columbia as a reference to the Tsilhqot'in people, another Northern Athapaskan group.[citation needed]


Ahtna is classified as belonging to the Northern Athabaskan languages, a subgrouping of the Athabaskan languages.[5]


Ahtna is one of the eleven Athabaskan languages native to Alaska. The Ahtna language comes from the proto-Athabaskan language possibly evolving 5,000 to 10,000 years ago when humans migrated from Eurasia to The New World over the Bering Sea floor (Beringia) when it was dried up and exposed creating a natural land bridge. Many indigenous Native American languages are to have derived from this proto-Athabaskan language, Navajo is one language derived from this early language and consequently Ahtna and Navajo have many similarities. The Ahtna Language has changed very much and very often, it is still changing today. Within the past century more than one hundred words have made their way into the Ahtna vocabulary mostly due to Euro-American influences. Contact with Russians influenced the Ahtna language with many Russian loanwords being introduced. With contact from English speakers, especially recently, English words have also been introduced. Some words are also borrowed from the Alaskan Tlingit and Alutiiq native people.[4]

Geographic distribution[edit]

The Ahtna region consists of the Copper River Basin and the Wrangell Mountains. The Ahtna Region is bordered by the Nutzotin river in the Northeast and the Alaska Range in the North. The Talkeetna Mountains are to the Chugach Mountains are to the South.[6] The Upper Ahtna live on the upper portion of the Copper River, The Middle or Central Ahtna live slightly down river from there, The Lower Ahtna live near the mouth of the Copper River, which opens into the Gulf of Alaska, and the Western Ahtna live to the West of the River.

The Ahtna people live on and near traditional villages. There are eight villages within the Ahtna Region: Cantwell, Chistochina, Chitina, Copper Center, Gakona, Gulkana, Mentasta and Tazlina. They are all recognized federally.[7]

Use and revitalization efforts[edit]

There are 15 elderly speakers out of a population of 500, and the language is facing extinction.

The subsistence and fishing-rights activist Katie John (1915–2013) of Mentasta helped develop an Ahtna alphabet in the 1970s[8] and recorded a pronunciation guide of the Mentasta dialect.[9] [10]

In 2012 a facing-bilingual collection of poetry in Ahtna and English, The Indian Prophet, was published by poet John Smelcer.

In a revitalization program, the Ya Ne Dah Ah School in Sutton, Alaska teaches the Ahtna language as a part of its curriculum.[11][12]

As of 2010, a digital archiving project of Ahtna was underway.[13]

Dialects and bands[edit]

There are four main dialect divisions and eight bands (tribal unions):[14]

  • Lower Ahtna (endonym Atnahwt'aene)
    • Chitina/Taral Band
    • Tonsina/Klutina Band
  • Central Ahtna or Middle Ahtna (endonym Dan'ehwt'aene)
    • Gulkona/Gakona Band
  • Western Ahtna (own name Tsaay Hwt'aene)
    • Tyone/Mendeltna Band
    • Cantwell/Denali Band
  • Upper Ahtna (endonym Tatl'ahwt'aene)
    • Sanford River/Chistochina Band [15]
    • Slana/Batzulnetas Band
    • Mentasta Band [9]

Vocabulary comparison[edit]

The comparison of some animal names in the three Athabaskan languages:[16]

Ahtna Tanacross Lower Tanana meaning
udzih wudzih bedzeyh caribou
ggax gah gwx rabbit
tsa' tsá' tso' beaver
dzen dzenh dzenh muskrat
niduuyi niidûuy niduuy lynx
debae demee deba Dall sheep
sos shos sresr bear
dliigi dlêg dlega squirrel
łuk'ae łuk'a łuk'a salmon


Athabaskan languages are primarily prefixing. Many prefixes are presented together. There is limited suffixation and often one word has as much meaning as an English language sentence. Verbs are very complex therefore creating many different meanings or analysis of verbs. Some verbs include syntactic principles in addition to and/or replacement of morphological principles when constructing a word.[17]


The consonants in Kari's IPA phonology and practical orthography are shown in the following table.[18]

Labial Alveolar Velar Uvular Glottal
plain sibilant lateral
Nasals m ⟨m⟩ n ⟨n⟩ ŋ ⟨ng⟩
plain p ⟨b⟩ t ⟨d⟩ ts ⟨dz⟩ ⟨dl⟩ k ⟨g⟩ q ⟨gg⟩ ʔ ⟨'⟩
aspirated ⟨p⟩ ⟨t⟩ tsʰ ⟨ts⟩ tɬʰ ⟨tl⟩ ⟨c⟩ ⟨k⟩
ejective ⟨t'⟩ tsʼ ⟨ts'⟩ tɬʼ ⟨tl'⟩ ⟨c'⟩ ⟨k'⟩
Fricatives voiceless ⟨hw⟩ s ⟨s⟩ ɬ ⟨ł⟩ x ⟨yh⟩ χ ⟨x⟩ h ⟨h⟩
voiced v ⟨v⟩ z ⟨z⟩ l ⟨l⟩ ɣ ⟨y⟩ ʁ ⟨gh⟩


The vowels in Kari's practical orthography and phonology are as follows.[18]

Front Back
Short Long Short Long
High ɪ ⟨i⟩ ⟨ii⟩ ʊ ⟨u⟩ ⟨uu⟩
Mid ɛ ⟨e⟩ ɔ ⟨o⟩ ⟨oo⟩
Low ɐ ⟨a⟩ æ ⟨ae⟩ ɑː ⟨aa⟩

There is some variation in pronunciation of words according to dialect.



Possession is indicated by prefixes such as s- "my", u- or yu'- "his/her", ne- "our"; as in snaan "my mother", unaan (or yu'naan) "his/her mother", nenaan "our mother".[4]

Verb themes[edit]

Verbs are primarily prefixing. There are often six or more prefixes before the stem and then one or more suffixes. (1a) displays a surface form in Ahtna spelling while (1b) is the verb theme. Three prefixes are present that have to be listed with the stem to make up the form. Anything adjacent in a verb theme can be separated by morphemes in the forms surface.[17] Verb themes display what elements should be listed in a dictionary for a speaker to be able to reconstruct the verb. '#' displays an important word-internal boundary known as a disjunct boundary. '+' indicates a morpheme boundary.[17]



into water














(lexical listing: verb theme)

ta # d + l + dlok'

{into water} # QUAL + CL + laugh

"Water is gurgling." (surface form)

In the Ahtna language the verb typically goes after the noun.

Noun modification[edit]

In the Ahtna language, modifiers usually go after the noun they modify. Examples of this include the name of the deity or trickster figure Saghani Ggaay, where saghani is the noun "raven" and ggaay the adjective "little, small" or in the term nen ten "permafrost", a combination of nen "land, ground" and ten "frozen". This word order is also seen in place names such as Dghelaay Ce'e "Denali/Mount McKinley", literally "Biggest Mountain", and Ben Ce'e "Lake Susitna", literally "Big Lake".[4]


  1. ^ a b "2020 Biennial Report to the Governor and Legislature" (PDF). The Alaska Native Language Preservation & Advisory Council. 2020-01-01.
  2. ^ Directional Reference, Discourse, and Landscape in Ahtna. Berez, Andrea L. (2011) "There are about thirty first-language speakers still alive today (all 60+ years of age)"
  3. ^ "Alaska OKs Bill Making Native Languages Official : The Two-Way : NPR". NPR.
  4. ^ a b c d Smelcer, John (1998). Ahtna Noun Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide 2nd Edition. United States of America: The Ahtna Heritage Foundation. ISBN 0-9656310-2-8.
  5. ^ Ahtna language at Ethnologue (25th ed., 2022) Closed access icon
  6. ^ "Ahtna Land and Resource Department | Ahtna". ahtna-inc.com. Retrieved 2016-05-01.
  7. ^ "Ahtna Villages | Ahtna". ahtna-inc.com. Retrieved 2016-05-01.
  8. ^ "Fishing Rights, Language and Culture Advocate, Katie John, Walks On". Indian Country Today Media Network. 2013-06-03. Retrieved 2013-07-07.
  9. ^ a b "Ahtna Language, Mentasta Dialect, Recorded by Katie John". Yukon Native Language Centre. 2008. Archived from the original on 2017-05-20. Retrieved 2013-07-07.
  10. ^ Mary Beth Smetzer, "Katie John, advocate for indigenous Rights, Dies", Fairbanks News-Miner, May 31, 2013. Retrieved 14 June 2014.
  11. ^ "Case Studies, The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development". Archived from the original on 2012-06-24. Retrieved 2012-09-09.
  12. ^ "Ahtna Athabascan Language Rejuvenation and Curriculum Program". Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. Archived from the original on 2013-05-30. Retrieved 2013-07-07.
  13. ^ "Digital Archive Project". Ahtna Heritage Foundation Cultural Center Projects. Archived from the original on 2011-03-24. Retrieved 2013-07-07.
  14. ^ "Native American Tribal Arts & Architecture, SUBARCTIC ARTS". Archived from the original on 2012-09-29. Retrieved 2011-03-18.
  15. ^ Ahtna language, Chistochina Dialect Archived 2012-11-11 at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "Ahtna Noun Dictionary" by John E. Smelcer (2009)
  17. ^ a b c Tuttle, Siri G. (2008). "Phonetics and Word Definition in Ahtna". Linguistics. doi:10.1515/LING.2008.015. S2CID 144375935.
  18. ^ a b Kari, James (1990). Ahtna Athabaskan Dictionary. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center. p. 12. ISBN 1-55500-033-9.

External links[edit]