Koyukon language

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Denaakkenaageʼ, Denaakkʼe, Dinaak̲'a
Native toUnited States
RegionAlaska (middle Yukon River, Koyukuk River)
Native speakers
65 (2015 census)[1]
Official status
Official language in
Language codes
ISO 639-3koy
Koyukon is classified as Critically Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger

Koyukon (also called Denaakk'e) is the geographically most widespread Athabascan language spoken in Alaska.[3] The Athabaskan language is spoken along the Koyukuk and the middle Yukon River in western interior Alaska. In 2007, the language had approximately 300 speakers, who were generally older adults bilingual in English. The total Koyukon ethnic population was 2,300.[4]


Jules Jetté, a French Canadian Jesuit missionary, began recording the language and culture of the Koyukon people in 1898. Considered a fluent Koyukon speaker after spending years in the region, Jetté died in 1927. He had made a significant quantity of notes on the Koyukon people, their culture and beliefs, and their language.

Eliza Jones, a Koyukon, came across these manuscripts while studying, and later working, at the University of Alaska in the early 1970s. Working from Jetté's notes and in consultation with Koyukon tribal elders, Jones wrote the Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary. It was edited by James Kari and published in 2000 by the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary is unusually comprehensive in terms of documentation of an American indigenous language, in part because Jetté's notes were of excellent quality and depth. In addition, he wrote about the language and culture nearly a century ago, when the language was far more widely spoken in daily life and the Koyukon people were living in a more traditional way. The use of the word, "Dictionary", in the title is perhaps misleading; the book is more similar to an encyclopedia, as it also is a record of the culture and traditions of the Koyukon people.

The book includes traditional stories recorded by Catherine Attla and published in 1983 by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Three dialects[edit]

As of 1978 there were three Koyukon Language dialects (Lower, Central and Upper).[5] Lower Koyukon was spoken in Kaltag and Nulato; Central Koyukon was spoken on the Yukon River in the villages of Galena, Ruby, Koyukuk and part of Tanana, and on the Koyukuk River in the villages of Huslia, Hughes, and Allakaket; Upper Koyukon was spoken at Stevens Village, Rampart, and part of Tanana.[5]

Language revitalization[edit]

In 2012, Susan Pavskan reported:

On Thursday evenings Denaakk'e (Koyukon Athabascan) classes are held at Yukon-Koyukuk School District offices in Fairbanks and Huslia. About 18 people from four generations attended Thursday over video-conference. At the end of class, I demonstrated how MP3 sound files can be imported into iTunes then synced with iPads or iPods. The students demonstrated these to their parents and grandparents.[6]

The children's show Molly of Denali features the Koyukon language.

Phonology and orthography[edit]


Sounds are given in IPA with the orthographic equivalent in angled brackets:[7]

Consonant phonemes of Koyukon
Bilabial Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Central Sibilant Lateral
Plosive and
Plain p ⟨b⟩ t ⟨d⟩ ts ⟨dz⟩ ⟨dl⟩ k ⟨g⟩ q ⟨gg⟩ ʔ ⟨'⟩
Aspirated ⟨t⟩ tsʰ ⟨ts⟩ tɬʰ ⟨tl⟩ ⟨k⟩ ⟨kk⟩
Ejective tsʼ tɬʼ ⟨tl'⟩ ⟨kk'⟩
Fricative Voiced z ɣ ⟨gh⟩
Voiceless s x ⟨h⟩ h ⟨ĥ⟩
Sonorant Voiced m n l j ⟨y⟩
Voiceless ⟨nh⟩ ⟨ł⟩ ⟨yh⟩

Plosives and affricates, other than the labial b and the glottal ', distinguish plain, aspirated and ejective forms. Other consonants include labial and alveolar nasals; alveolar, velar and glottal fricatives; and alveolar and palatal approximants. Again other than the labial m and the glottal h, these distinguish forms with and without voice.


There are four full vowels in Koyukon:

And there are three reduced vowels:

  • ʊ ⟨u⟩
  • ə ⟨e⟩ (previously ⟨i⟩ and ⟨a⟩)
  • ɞ ⟨ʉ⟩


  1. ^ "Koyukon". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2018-03-29.
  2. ^ "Alaska OKs Bill Making Native Languages Official". NPR.org.
  3. ^ University of Fairbanks, Alaska Native Language Center, http://www.uaf.edu/anlc/languages/ka/ Archived 2011-08-05 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Krauss, Michael E. 2007. "Native languages of Alaska", In: The Vanishing Voices of the Pacific Rim, ed. by Osahito Miyaoko, Osamu Sakiyama, and Michael E. Krauss. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Table 21.1, page 408)
  5. ^ a b Junior Dictionary for Central Koyukon Athabaskan, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Jones, Eliza (author), 1978, http://www.uafanlc.arsc.edu/data/Online/KO972J1978i/koyukon%20junior%20dictionary.pdf[permanent dead link]
  6. ^ "Interior tribal leaders help promote language with after-school programs" (PDF). Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. March 5, 2012. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2015-01-30. Retrieved 30 January 2015.
  7. ^ Axelrod, Melissa (April 1990). "Incorporation in Koyukon Athapaskan". International Journal of American Linguistics. 56 (2). Chicago: University of Chicago: 79–95. doi:10.1086/466149. JSTOR 1265128. S2CID 144552080.

Further reading[edit]

  • Attla, Catherine (1983). Sitsiy yu̳gh noholnik ts'in' = As my grandfather told it: traditional stories from the Koyukuk. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center and Yukon-Koyukuk School District. LCCN 86621653.
  • Axelrod, Melissa (1990). "Incorporation in Koyukon Athabaskan". International Journal of American Linguistics. 56 (2): 179–195. doi:10.1086/466149. S2CID 144552080.
  • Axelrod, Melissa (1993). The Semantics of Time: Aspectual Categorization in Koyukon Athabaskan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803210329. LCCN 92042719.
  • Axelrod, Melissa (2000). "The Semantics of Classification in Koyukon Athabaskan". In Fernald, T; Platero, Paul R. (eds.). The Athabaskan Languages: Perspectives on a Native American Language Family. Oxford University Press.
  • Chief Henry (1976). K'ooltsaaẖ Ts'in'. Koyukon Riddles (PDF). Transcribed and edited by Eliza Jones. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-08-21.
  • Chief Henry (1979). Chief Henry Yugh Noholnigee: The Stories Chief Henry Told. Transcribed and edited by Eliza Jones. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.
  • Henry, David; Henry, Kay (1969). "Koyukon locationals". Anthropological Linguistics. 11 (4): 136–142.
  • Jette, Jules; Jones, Eliza (2000). Kari, James (ed.). Koyukon Athabaskan Dictionary. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.
  • Jones, Eliza (1986). Koyukon Ethnogeography. Alaska Historical Commission.
  • Jones, Eliza (1992). Junior Dictionary for Central Koyukon Athabaskan: Dinaakkanaaga Ts'inh Huyoza. Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
  • Nelson, Richard K. (1986). Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226571638.

External links[edit]