May 3, 2010

Athabaskan Languages



The word Athabaskan is an anglicized version of the Woods Cree name for Lake Athabasca (aðapaskāw, “[where] there are plants one after another”) in Canada. The name was assigned by Albert Gallatin in his 1836 classification of the languages of North America. He acknowledged that the name for these related languages was entirely his own individual preference, 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”.

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, Alaska Native Language Center prefers the spelling “Athabascan” following a decision in favor of this spelling by the Tanana Chiefs Conference in 1997. In contrast, Michael Krauss has previously endorsed the spelling “Athabaskan” (1987). Ethnologue uses “Athapaskan” in naming the language family and individual languages.

The Athabaskan family is conventionally divided into three groups based largely on geographic distribution: Northern Athabaskan, Pacific Coast Athabaskan, and Southern Athabaskan or Apachean. 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 five 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 Denaʼina are about as different as French and Spanish, while Koyukon and Gwichʼin 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 Gwichʼin 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, Tanacross, Tsetsaut, Upper Kuskokwim/Kolchan, Upper Tanana
  • 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-Witsuwitʼen, Bearlake, Beaver, Chilcotin, Dakelh/Carrier, Hare, Kaska, Mountain, Nicola, Sekani/Tsekʼene, Slavey, Tagish, Tahltan, Tsetsaut
  • Alberta: Beaver, Dëne Sųłiné, Slavey, Tsuut’ina/Sarcee
  • Saskatchewan: Dëne Sųłiné
  • Washington: Chilcotin, Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie (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

Eyak and Athabaskan together form a genealogical linguistic grouping called Athabaskan-Eyak (AE) that has been 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 which is also known as Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit (AET). This latter grouping is considered to be a well demonstrated family despite significant problems in establishing a complete set of sound changes because the resemblances in both shared vocabulary and unique verb morphology between the languages are so numerous that it is impossible to ascribe them to mere chance. 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, this is position is discounted by linguists who work actively on Athabaskan languages. 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, and thus Haida is unrelated to Athabaskan languages.[5] Some debate on the topic still continues, though at present only by linguists who do not work on languages in the Athabaskan 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.

  1. Southern Alaska (Denaʼina, Ahtna)
  2. Central Alaska–Yukon (Deg Hitʼan, Holikachuk/Kolchan, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Lower Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, N. Tutchone, S. Tutchone, Gwichʼin, Hän)
  3. Northwestern Canada (Tagish, Tahltan, Kaska, Sekani, Dunneza/Beaver, Slavey, Mountain, Bearlake, Hare, Tłįchǫ Yatʼiì/Dogrib, Dëne Sųłiné/Chipewyan)
  4. Tsetsaut
  5. Central British Columbia (Babine-Witsuwitʼen, Dakelh/Carrier, Chilcotin, Nicola?)
  6. Tsuutʼina/Sarsi
  7. Kwalhioqua-Tlatskanai
  8. Pacific Coast Athabaskan (Upper Umpqua, Tututni, Galice-Applegate, Tolowa, Hupa, Mattole, Eel River, Kato)
  9. Apachean (Navajo, W. Apache, Mescalero-Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan, Plains)

Branches 1-7 are the Northern Athabaskan (areal) grouping. Kwalhioqua-Tlatskanai (#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):

  1. Alaskan (Ahtna, Dena’ina, Deg Hit’an, Koyukon, Holikachuk/Kolchan, Lower Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Gwich’in, Hän)
  2. Yukon (Tsetsaut, N. Tutchone, S. Tutchone, Tagish, Tahltan, Kaska, Sekani, Dunneza/Beaver)
  3. British Columbia (Babine-Witsuwit’en, Dakelh/Carrier, Chilcotin)
  4. Eastern (Dëne Sųłiné/Chipewyan, Slavey, Mountain, Bearlake, Hare, Tłįchǫ Yatʼiì/Dogrib)
  5. 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-Tlatskanai 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 Tsuutʼina – 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 Denaʼina and Ahtna languages are spoken today (Kari 2009). The Northern Athabaskan group also contains the most linguistically conservative languages, particularly Ahtna, Denaʼina, and Dakelh/Carrier (Leer 2008).

  • Southern Alaskan subgroup
1. Ahtna
2. Dena’ina (also known as Tanaina, Kenaiski)
  • Central Alaska–Yukon subgroup
3. Deg Xinag (also known as Deg Hitʼan, Kaiyuhkhotana, Ingalik (deprecated))
4. Holikachuk (also known as Innoko)
5. Koyukon (also known as Denaakkʼe, Tenʼa)
6. Upper Kuskokwim (also known as Kolchan, Goltsin)
7. Lower Tanana (also known as Tanana)
8. Tanacross
9. Upper Tanana
10. Southern Tutchone
11. Northern Tutchone
12. Gwich’in (also known as Kutchin, Loucheux, Tukudh)
13. Hän (also known as Han)
  • Northwestern Canada subgroup
A. Tahltan-Tagish-Kaska (a.k.a. “Cordilleran”)

14. Tagish
15. Tahltan (also known as Nahanni)
16. Kaska (also known as Nahanni)
17. Sekani (also known as Tsekʼehne)
18. Dunneza (also known as Beaver)
B. Slave-Hare (Southern and Northern Slavey)

19. Slavey (also known as Slave)
20. Mountain
21. Bearlake
22. Hare
23. Dogrib (also known as Tłįchǫ Yatiì)
24. Dene Suline (also known as 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 (also known as Tsʼetsʼaut, Wetalh)
  • Central British Columbia subgroup (a.k.a. “British Columbian” in contrast with “Cordilleran” = Tahltan-Tagish-Kaska)
26. Babine-Witsuwit’en (also known as North Carrier, Natutʼen, Witsuwitʼen)
27. Dakelh (also known as Carrier)
28. Chilcotin (also known as Tsilhqot’in)
29. Nicola (also known as Stuwix, Similkameen)
  • Sarsi subgroup
30. Tsuut’ina (also known as 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
31. Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie (also known as Kwalhioqua-Tlatskanie)

Pacific Coast Athabaskan

  • California Athabaskan subgroup
32. Hupa (also known as Hoopa-Chilula, Na:tinixwe, Mixine:whe, Whilkut)
33. Mattole-Bear River
34. Eel River (also known as Lassik, Nongatl, Sinkyone)
  • Oregon Athabaskan subgroup
35. Upper Umpqua
36. Rogue River (also known as Tututni, Tototəni)
37. Galice-Applegate (also known as Taltushtuntude, Dakubetede)
38. Tolowa (also known as Smith River, Chasta Costa)

Southern Athabaskan (also known as Apachean)

  • Plains Apache subgroup
39. Plains Apache (also known as Kiowa-Apache)
  • Western Apachean subgroup
A. Chiricahua-Mescalero

40. Chiricahua
41. Mescalero
42. Navajo (also known as Navaho)
43. Western Apache (also known as Coyotero Apache)
  • Eastern Apachean subgroup
44. Jicarilla
45. Lipan
Na-Dene Language Family
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