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Athapaskan Languages

One of the largest of indigenous language families in North America, the Athapaskan language family, spans from Alaska through western Canada and into the American Pacific Coast and Southwest. The Athapaskan language family is a relatively cohesive group of languages spread out in distinct geographical regions of North America. The languages are known for being difficult to learn due to their rich and highly inflected verbs. One of the most well-known members of the family, the Navajo language, was used as a World War II code, which was never broken. Other linguistic features that Athapaskan languages are known for include the development of tone in some of the languages from syllables originally closed with glottalization, as well as incidents of sibilant harmony where s-like sounds affect the pronunciation of certain words. The languages are also known for a set of verb stems called classificatory verbs, which classify an object according to its shape or manner. Linguists tend to direct the greatest attention, however, to the complex verb morphology of Athapaskan, where numerous prefixes attach to the verb stem in a very specific way, which has been likened to a template.

The family comprises three geographic groupings within four cultural areas and includes the language of Navajo, the largest Native American tribe in the United States. The three general geographical groupings are referred to as Northern Athapaskan, Pacific Coast Athapaskan, and Apachean (aka Southern Athapaskan).

The Northern Athapaskan group consists of between twenty-three and thirty languages spoken in a large continuous area in western Canada and the interior of Alaska, through the western Subarctic and the northern Plains. The number of languages calculated depends on how divisions are made within the family. No Northern language or dialect has been completely isolated from the others for very long, and this constant contact creates mutual influence between languages.

The majority of the well-documented Athapaskan languages are among the Northern group. A number of the Athapaskan-speaking peoples in this area, especially those in Northern British Columbia and Southern Northwest Territories, prefer the term "Dene" to "Athapaskan" as a classificatory identity. The term "Dene" is recognized to mean "person" or "people" by most speakers of Athapaskan languages. The official body of the Dene nation belongs to the Northern Athapaskan group and includes the Gwich'in, Bearlake, Hare, Dogrib, Slave, Chipewyan, and Mountain people.

The other Athapaskan languages are found farther south on the continent. The Pacific Coast languages number about eight and are spoken by river-oriented peoples in southwest Oregon, on the coast of northern California, and in northwestern California. There was also a language spoken on the Columbia River on both the Washington and the Oregon sides. Many of the languages of this group are not as well documented as most other groups. A list of all the names of the languages in this group and the others is given at the end of this entry.

The Apachean languages make up the southernmost geographical division of the Athapaskan family. The languages of the Apachean group are spoken in the Southwest and in the southern Plains, and they number between four and eight. This group, including Navajo, Western Apache, MescaleroChiricahua, Kiowa Apache, Lipan, and Jicarilla, are thought to come from a common ancestral language that separated from the Northern group in approximately 1000 CE. These languages are relative newcomers to the Southwest.

The origin of the Athapaskan-speaking peoples is considered to be in the north, according to comparative studies of the languages. The mother language, Proto-Athapaskan, is thought to have been a single language until approximately 500 BCE, when splits and migrations diversified it. There is more diversity found among the Northern group than among the Southern languages, and so the ProtoAthapaskan homeland is likely to be in the specific areas of oldest differentiation: somewhere in the area of the eastern interior of Alaska, northern British Columbia, and the upper drainage of the Yukon River (Krauss and Golla, 1981, 68).

One theory about the splits of the mother language, Proto-Athapaskan, and the separation of the daughter languages, postulates an enormous volcanic eruption that may have created a considerable ashfall in the southern Yukon that spread east (Workman, 1979, 352). Oral traditions among the Northern peoples uphold this idea, although it is not yet supported archaeologically. Whether or not they were driven by natural disaster, three major migrations may explain the widespread distribution of the Athapaskan languages. The first migration was probably to the west, farther into Alaska, and south into central and southern British Columbia. The second was east into the McKenzie River drainage area and as far as Hudson Bay. The last migration was likely south along the eastern Rocky Mountains and into the Southwest (Krauss and Golla, 1981, 68). There is likely a connection between the two later movements, since there are closer ties between the Southern Apachean languages and the Albertan language, Sarcee, than with the Athapaskan languages in British Columbia. The movement into the Plains by Kiowa and Lipan in the Southwest and the Sarcee in the North occurred within the last few hundred years.

Linguistic historical methods indicate the time of separation of the Apachean group from the Sarcee at approximately 1000, while archaeological evidence indicates that at least one Apachean group had arrived in the Southwest by 1500 (Young, 1983, 393). These ancestral peoples moved into the area slowly, eventually spreading to occupy much of southeastern Colorado, New Mexico, western Texas, northern Mexico, and central and southeastern Arizona.

Links between the Pacific Coast group and the most recent relations elsewhere in the family are not as clear. This suggests that these languages separated earlier from the Northern languages than the Apachean group. One possible route the ancestors of the Pacific Coast Athapaskans may have taken is across the Columbia River Basin through Oregon to northern California. Another possibility is a course along the eastern coastal ranges, which would have offered more environmental continuity. It is possible that Athapaskan speakers were the latest arrivals in prehistoric California, arriving around 1000–1300 (Foster, 1996, 75).

Athapaskan is a branch of an even larger genetic grouping of languages that also includes Eyak, a single language from the south coast of Alaska, called Athapaskan-Eyak. This grouping has also been linked to the Tlingit language, spoken along the Alaskan Panhandle, due to similarities in grammar and phonology. There is a possibility that Haida, a language isolate spoken off the northwest coast of British Columbia, may also be related to this group, in a grouping referred to as Na-Dene by Sapir in 1915. However, many linguists doubt this relationship, and even the relationship between Tlingit and Athapaskan-Eyak is still undetermined.

There are several spellings of the Athapaskan language family name, but the most common are Athapaskan and Athabaskan. The first was assumed by the Smithsonian Institute and the National Museum of Canada, and the second was adopted by the Alaska Native Language Centre, responsible for much of the documentation of the Northern languages.

This table is a list of the languages in the Athapaskan language family (adapted from Mithum, 1999, 346).

Athapaskan Languages

Northern Athapaskan
Alaska - Yukon
      Tanaina (Dena'ina)
      Ingalik (Deg Xinag)
      Holikachuk (Innoko)
      Upper Kuskokwim (Kolchan)
              Lower Tanana
              Upper Tanana
              Northern Tutchone
              Southern Tutchone
      Kutchin (Gwich'in)
Southern Yukon - Northern BC
Northwest Territories
              South Slavey
              Bearlake (Sahtu Dene)
      Dogrib (Tlicho)
      Chipewyan (Dene Suline)
Pacific Coast Athapaskan
      Upper Umpqua
      Eel River
Apachean Athapaskan
Western Apachean
      Western Apache
Eastern Apachean
      Kiowa Apache

Aliki Marinakis

Further Reading
Able, Kerry. 1993. Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History. Montreal, QC, and Kingston, ON: McGill–Queen's University Press.; Foster, Micheal K. 1996. "Language and the Culture History of North America." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 17: Languages. Edited by Ives Goddard, 64–110. General editor, William C. Sturtevant. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Krauss, Michael E., and Victor K. Golla. 1981. "Northern Athapaskan Languages." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 6: Subarctic. Edited by June Helm, 67–85. General editor, William C. Sturtevant. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Mithun, Marianne. 1999. The Languages of North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.; Workman, William B. 1979. "The Significance of Volcanism in the Prehistory of Subarctic Northwest North America." In Volcanic Activity and Human Ecology. Edited by P. D. Sheets and D. K. Grayson, 339–371. New York: Academic Press.; Young, Robert W. 1983. "Apachean Languages." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 10: Southwest. Edited by Alphonse Ortiz, 393–400. General editor, William C. Sturtevant. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

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