Athapaskan language family

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The 32 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.

Athabaskan or Athabascan (also Dene, Athapascan, Athapaskan) is a large family of indigenous languages of North America, located in in western North America in three groups of contiguous languages: Northern, Pacific Coast and Southern (or Apachean).

Although the term Athabascan, from a Cree word meaning ““[where] there are reeds one after another” (the Cree name for Lake Athabasca) is prevalent in linguistics and anthropology, there is increasing use of the terms Dene and Dene languages as a self-designation and to refer to the entire language family.

The four spellings: “Athabaskan”, “Athabascan”, “Athapaskan”, and “Athapascan,” are in approximately equal use. Particular communities may prefer one spelling over another (Krauss 1987). For example, the Tanana Chiefs Conference and Alaska Native Language Center prefer the spelling “Athabascan.”  Ethnologue uses “Athapaskan” in naming the language family and individual languages.

Athabaskan Language Divisions

Linguists conventionally divide the Athabaskan family into three groups, based on geographic distribution:

  1. Northern Athabaskan
  2. Pacific Coast Athabaskan
  3. Southern Athabaskan or Apachean

The 32 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 or more Pacific Coast Athabaskan languages are spoken in southern Oregon and northern California.

The six Southern Athabaskan languages are isolated by distance from both the Pacific Coast languages and the Northern languages. Reflecting an ancient migration of peoples, they are spoken by Native Americans in the American Southwest and the northwestern part of Mexico. This group includes Navajo and the six Apache languages.

The following list gives the Athabaskan languages organized by their geographic location in various North American states and provinces. Speakers of several languages, such as Navajo and Gwich’in, span the boundaries between different states and provinces, and hence the languages are repeated by location in this list. 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

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-Athabaskan language. This 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. Haida has been determined to be unrelated to Athabaskan languages.

Alternate classification of the Athabascan languages

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). It represents 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 (Dena’ina, Ahtna)
  2. Central Alaska–Yukon (Deg Hit’an, Holikachuk/Kolchan, Koyukon, Upper Kuskokwim, Lower Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, N. Tutchone, S. Tutchone, Gwich’in, Hän)
  3. Northwestern Canada (Tagish, Tahltan, Kaska, Sekani, Dunneza/Beaver, Slavey, Mountain, Bearlake, Hare, Tłįchǫ Yat’iì/Dogrib, Dëne Sųłiné/Chipewyan)
  4. Tsetsaut
  5. Central British Columbia (Babine–Witsuwit’en, Dakelh/Carrier, Chilcotin, Nicola?)
  6. Tsuut’ina/Sarsi
  7. Kwalhioqua–Clatskanai
  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–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):

  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 Yat’iì/Dogrib)
  5. Southerly Outlying (Tsuut’ina/Sarsi, Apachean, Pacific Coast Athabaskan, Kwalhioqua–Tlatskanai)

Neither subgrouping has found any significant support among other Athabaskanists. 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.

Debate continues as to whether the Pacific Coast languages form a valid genealogical grouping, or whether this group 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. Nicola may be intermediate between Kwalhioqua–Tlatskanai and Chilcotin.

Similarly to Nicola, there is very limited documentation on Tsetsaut. 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 with that of Tahltan, Tagish, Kaska, and North and South Tutchone – PA *-tuʼ (Kari 1996; 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 in the Tanana Valley of east-central Alaska. There are many homologies between Proto-Athabaskan vocabulary and patterns reflected in archaeological sites such as Upward Sun, Swan Point and Broken Mammoth (Kari 2010). The Northern Athabaskan group also contains the most linguistically conservative languages, particularly Koyukon, Ahtna, Dena’ina, and Dakelh/Carrier (Leer 2008).

  • Southern Alaskan subgroup
1. Ahtna
2. Dena’ina (AKA Tanaina, Kenaitze)
  • Central Alaska–Yukon subgroup
3. Deg Xinag (AKA Deg Hitʼan, Ingalik (deprecated))
4. Holikachuk (AKA Innoko)
5. Koyukon (AKA Denaakkʼe, Tenʼa)
6. Upper Kuskokwim (AKA Kolchan)
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”)

14. Tagish
15. Tahltan (AKA Nahanni)
16. Kaska (AKA Nahanni)
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)
31. Kwalhioqua–Clatskanie (AKA Kwalhioqua –Tlatskanie)

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

40. Chiricahua
41. Mescalero
42. Navajo (AKA Navaho)
43. Western Apache (AKA Coyotero Apache)
  • Eastern Apachean subgroup
44. Jicarilla
45. Lipan

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