The Na-Dene Languages

Tamara Olson
Linguistics 450
Cynthia Hallen

The Na-dene Languages branch into four "parent" languages. These are the Athapaskan, Eyak, Haida, and Tlingit Languages. Each of these languages has "daughter" languages, some of which are extinct and some that are still present among the Na-dene speakers.

I would like to highlight the daughter languages and in particular, Ahtna and Apache. I will show their main characteristics, where they languages migrated to and why the language is unique.

The first language that I would like to introduce is under the Athapaskan family. Ahtna or Ahtena was a major dialect of the Athapaskan family. Even though there are few records from before 1954, there is proof that this language did exist and is still being used today. In 1973 a writing system was established, since the Ahtna people had no type of written language. Ahtna originated in Alaska as did most of the Na-dene languages. Ahtna is one of the only ones to have actually remained and not migrated out of Alaska into Canada. This has become a very weak language, in that it is spoken by very few people. "Today Ahtna is spoken by fewer than one hundred persons, almost all of whom are over the age of forty. At this time there are about twelve hundred persons of Ahtna descent" (Kari, 1990, vii).

Ahtna is the language of the Copper River and of South-central Alaska. Although Ahtna is becoming rare, there are several other mutually intelligible dialects that have remained strong. Some of them are: Tanaina, Dena'ina, Upper Tanana, Tanacross (East), Tanana (North), and Salcha. I found it very interesting that even these had other dialects. For example, Iliamna and Nondalton-Lime are dialects of Dena'ina. These dialects and languages surfaced with migration and development of new villages and cultures that changed with farming and new diets. There are two known dialects that are extinct that are now; Kwalhioqua-Tlatskanai and Seldovia.

The other languages that descended from Athabaskan are: Ingalik, Kutchin, Holikachuk, Koyukon, Upper Koskokwin, Northern Tutchone (Mayo dialect), Sarcee, Galice, Coquille, Hupa, Tolowa-Tututni-Chasta Costa, Umpqua, Selkirk, Northern Tutchone, Southern Tutchone, Tagish, Slavey, Dogrib, Hare, Bearlake, Apache, Han, Hare, Beaver, Sekani, Tahltan, Kaska, Tsetsaut, Kiowa-Apache, and Carrier. Those languages that are only distinguished by the adding of "Northern" or "Southern" are not as similar as they appeared to be, they also consider themselves different from each other, and always include the distinction of northern or southern.

I also determined that these languages had common internal structures for word formations, but they all differed in at least one word. Some only differ in one word, but they often differ in pronunciation, even though spelling is similar. There was also a variation in stress-rhythm patterns and accents (Kari, 1990, 15.)

The Apache language is very nearly monosyllabic, by which term is meant that the majority of its words can be reduced to components of one syllable each. Take for example such a word as klíô-ka-lekíáy-dinné = reed-clan. The word reed in this compound is klíô-ka-le-kíáy, which can be resolved into klíô = grass, ka = arrow, le-káy = white, or the white grass used for making arrows (Condie, 1980, pp. 2-3).

I found a great amount of complete information on the Apache language, because they migrated the farthest south into Arizona and New Mexico and were closer to other cultures and influences. Some of the words comprehend the meaning of a whole phrase and they are most frequently the names of persons and places, but not always. An example of a phrase is the Apache word taddit'on, which means "his hair fell out", which is similar to the Ahtna word taddon, which means "bald".

The Apache language showed no inflection for case, and all objects are represented by the same numerals no matter whether they are animate or inanimate (Condie, 1980, pp 5-6).

Apache and Ahtna seem similar, but their overall phonetic systems are very different. "The Apache language is essentially guttural and nasal" (Condie, public domain, 18). This is very interesting, because the majority of the Apache vowels are extremely nasalized, which is very different from English in that the majority of the vowels are not very nasalized, except in certain circumstances. (There are varying degrees of nasalization, but the Apache vowels are almost completely nasalized.) Apache is rarely written, because the speakers tend to change their pronunciation of words enough to make it hard to have a concrete representation of the spelling. But to show the nasalization of vowels, they write a small "n" over the vowel.

There are few variations from the Apache language, even though there was great intermixing with other cultures as they migrated South. There was a time that they thought there was a female dialect, that had originated from the white female settlers that were taken captive, but this was not found to be true. They found out that the females taken were too young to continue their mother tongue, and quickly learned Apache and completely lost their former language. When this was first hypothesized, they believed that the females might have taught their children their first language and if this was the case, their daughter would have retained it, but their sons, upon becoming warriors would have lost it.

The Spaniards had a large amount of contact with the Apaches, but their language does not reflect it as others would, because it has very few loan words from Spanish. (Researchers have tried to link Athapaskan languages to the Asiatic languages, but have been unsuccessful. They have not been able to find enough information tying them together.)

Other tribes migrated south, as did the Apaches, including the Hupa, Tolowa-Tututni-Chasta Costa and the Umpqua that all settled in Oregon. The Umpqua language has very prominent oral language, but just as the Apache, a very weak writing system. This is true for many of the Na-dene languages as they were considered "savage languages" and were rarely encouraged to continue their native language upon settling in certain parts of the United States. They were often pushed into learning the languages of other settlers or travelers, because they (the settlers and travelers) believed their languages were superior and more valuable than the Na-dene languages (Carrier, 1974, 20.).

There are many individuals who are bilingual in places that there were Northern and Central dialects. Since the dialects do not differ significantly they have very few problems with communication, and in fact "...the native tongue is used except when speaking with outsiders" (Hamp, 1979, p 96).

Prefixes and suffixes are used to show tenses and they are also used to show distinctions between verbs and nouns. There were distinctions and not just changes in sentence order or annunciation. This is mainly due to the fact that many of the Na-dene languages did not have written systems and so were kept as simple as possible.

It is in the nature of the problem that you can never demonstrate that two languages are NOT related, since eventually the changes that all languages undergo can move any two streams indefinitely far apart (Emmon).

I do not understand why American English does not reflect more of the Na-dene languages or any of itís general structure. The simplicity and distinctions are very favorable as they make a language clear. If they had complete writing systems I think that it would have made them more favorable for borrowing and integrating into. (They borrowed and invented words for new objects as they migrated.)

These languages are based mostly on nature and tangible objects although they reflect religious beliefs as well. Life was simple and the language reflected their lifestyles of hunting, fishing, farming and everyday survival.

Navajo and Apache have been shown to be closely related, but there is conflicting information as to whether they are from the same Athapaskan family. I have found some information saying that it is from the same family and others that say it is not. I am unable to give a complete endorsement to one or the other, because I have not found a majority favoring either hypothesis, and I have exhausted my sources. I do have my own idea that it is from the same family, because the word and language examples of Navajo that I have looked at, have been extremely similar to Apache and also other dialects of the Athapaskan languages. The article written by Patrick Maun was one that had me sway toward the idea that they were from the same family, as he was extremely up front when he said "Another well known Athapaskan language is Navajo. The Athapaskan family spreads out from Northern Alaska down until northern California."

I have been able to show the fact that many of the Na-dene languages migrated outside of Alaska to prove that they were involved in constant contact with other dialects and languages to help evolve their own. I have enjoyed the research involved with this paper and I have learned a great deal about the settlement of the migrating tribes in the United States.

Most of the languages seemed extremely interrelated and this helped to prove that they all originate back to the Na-dene family.


Carrier Linguistics Committe. Central Bilingual Dictionary. British Columbia. 1974

Condie, C. Occasional Publications in Anthropology.Colorado: University of Northern Colorado. 1980.

Kari, J. Ahtna Athabaskan Dictionary. Alaska: Alaska Native Language Center. 1990.

Hamp, E., Howren, R., King, Q., Lowery, B., and Walker, R. Contributions to Canadian Linguistics. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada. 1979.

Kari, J. Alaska Native Language Center Research Papers. Alaska: Alaska Native Language
Center. 1979.

Emmon. bioc02.uthscsa.edu/natnet/archive/ng/93/0021.html

Maun, P. bioc02.uthscsa.edu/natnet/archive/ng/93/0036.html


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1998-1999 © Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen
Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999