Western North America
Linguistic classificationDené–Yeniseian?
ISO 639-2 / 5ath
Geographic distribution of the Athabaskan languages

Athabaskan (/ˌæθəˈbæskən/ ATH-ə-BASK-ən; also spelled Athabascan, Athapaskan or Athapascan, and also known as Dene) is a large family of Indigenous languages of North America, located in western North America in three areal language groups: Northern, Pacific Coast and Southern (or Apachean). Kari and Potter (2010:10) place the total territory of the 53 Athabaskan languages at 4,022,000 square kilometres (1,553,000 sq mi).

Chipewyan is spoken over the largest area of any North American native language, while Navajo is spoken by the largest number of people of any native language north of Mexico.

The word Athabaskan is an anglicized version of a Cree language name for Lake Athabasca (Moose Cree: Āðapāskāw '[where] there are reeds one after another') in Canada. Cree is one of the Algonquian languages and therefore not itself an Athabaskan language.[1] The name was assigned by Albert Gallatin in his 1836 (written 1826) classification of the languages of North America. He acknowledged that it was his choice to use this name for the language family and the associated ethnic groups: "I have designated them by the arbitrary denomination of Athabascas, which derived from the original name of the lake."[2][full citation needed]

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.[3] Ethnologue uses Athapaskan in naming the language family and individual languages.[4]

Although the term Athabaskan is prevalent in linguistics and anthropology, there is an increasing trend among scholars to use the terms Dené and Dené languages, which is how many of their native speakers identify it. They are applying these terms to the entire language family. For example, following a motion by attendees in 2012, the annual Athabaskan Languages Conference changed its name to the Dené Languages Conference.[5]


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

  1. Northern Athabaskan languages
  2. Pacific Coast Athabaskan languages
  3. Southern Athabaskan languages 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. Five Athabaskan languages are official languages in the Northwest Territories, including Chipewyan (Dënesųłıné), Dogrib or Tłı̨chǫ Yatıì, Gwich'in (Kutchin, Loucheux), and the Northern and Southern variants of Slavey.

The seven or more Pacific Coast Athabaskan languages are spoken in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. These include Applegate, Galice, several Rogue River area languages, Upper Coquille, Tolowa, and Upper Umpqua in Oregon; Eel River, Hupa, Mattole–Bear River, and Tolowa in northern California; and possibly Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie in Washington.

The seven Southern Athabaskan languages are isolated by considerable 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 comprises the six Southern Athabaskan languages and Navajo.

The following list gives the Athabaskan languages organized by their geographic location in various North American states, provinces and territories (including some languages that are now extinct). Several languages, such as Navajo and Gwich'in, span the boundaries: these languages are repeated by location in this list. For alternative names for the languages, see the classifications given later in this article.

Alaskan Athabaskan languages

Language Population Speakers Percent Speakers
Ahtna 500 80 16.0%
Dena'ina 900 <50 <10%[6][circular reference]
Deg Xinag 275 40 14.6%
Eyak 50 0 0.0%
Gwich'in 1,100 300 27.3%
Hän 50 12 24.0%
Holikachuk 200 12 6.0%
Koyukon 2,300 300 13.0%
Tanana 380 30 7.9%
Tanacross 220 65 29.6%
Upper Kuskokwim 160 40 25.0%
Upper Tanana x x x
Source: Information in this table was retrieved from the Alaska Native Language Center.[7]

External classification

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-Dene 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.

A symposium in Alaska in February 2008 included papers on the Yeniseian and Na-Dené families. Edward Vajda of Western Washington University summarized ten years of research, based on verbal morphology and reconstructions of the proto-languages, indicating that these languages might be related.[8]

Internal classification

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, current comparative Athabaskan literature demonstrates that most Athabaskanists still use the three-way geographic grouping rather than any of the proposed linguistic groupings given below, because none of them has 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.

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):

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).

Very little is known about Tsetsaut, and for this reason it is routinely placed in its own tentative subgroup.

The Nicola language is so poorly attested that it is impossible to determine its position within the family. It has been proposed by some to be an isolated branch of Chilcotin.

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).

Pacific Coast Athabaskan

Southern Athabaskan

Sicoli & Holton (2014)

Using computational phylogenetic methods, Sicoli & Holton (2014)[9] proposed the following classification for the Athabaskan languages based exclusively on typological (non-lexical) data. However, this phylogenetic study was criticized as methodologically flawed by Yanovich (2020), since it did not employ sufficient input data to generate a robust tree that does not depend on the initial choice of the "tree prior", i.e. the model for the tree generation.[10]


Main article: Proto-Athabaskan

Proto-Athabaskan is the reconstructed ancestor of the Athabaskan languages.

See also


  1. ^ Bright, William (2004). Native American Place Names of the United States. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, pg. 52
  2. ^ Albert Gallatin, 1836:116–17.
  3. ^ Alaska Native Language Center: "The Name Athabascan" Archived June 25, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Ethnologue: Language Family Trees – Athapaskan
  5. ^ "Dené (Athabaskan) Languages Conference". Retrieved 18 March 2020.
  6. ^ Dena'ina#Language
  7. ^ Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC). University of Alaska Fairbanks.
  8. ^ Kari, James M.; Potter, Ben Austin (2011). The Dene-Yeniseian Connection: Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska. Alaska Native Language Center. ISBN 978-1-55500-112-4.
  9. ^ Sicoli, Mark A.; Holton, Gary (2014). "Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia". PLOS ONE. 9 (3): e91722. Bibcode:2014PLoSO...991722S. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091722. PMC 3951421. PMID 24621925.
  10. ^ Yanovich, Igor (2020). "Phylogenetic linguistic evidence and the Dene-Yeniseian homeland". Diachronica. 37 (3): 410–46. doi:10.1075/dia.17038.yan. S2CID 209542004.


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Further reading