Dene Zágéʼ
Native toCanada
Ethnicity1,435 Kaska (2016 census)[1]
Native speakers
240 (2016 census)[2]
Language codes
ISO 639-3kkz
ELPDanezāgé' (Kaska)
Lang Status 40-SE.svg
Kaska is classified as Severely Endangered by the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger

The Kaska language originated from the family of Athabaskan languages.[3] Traditionally Kaska is an oral aboriginal language that is used by the Kaska Dena people.[4] The Kaska Dene region consists of a small area in the Southwestern part of the Northwest Territories, the Southeastern part of Yukon Territory, and the Northern part of British Columbia.[3][4] The communities that are in the Kaska Dene region are Fort Ware in N.W.T.; Ross River and Watson Lake in Y.T.; Dease Lake, Good Hope Lake, Lower Post, Fireside, and Muncho Lake in B.C.[3][4][5] Kaska is made up of eight dialects,[6] all of which have similar pronunciations and expressional terms.[4][6] The town of Watson Lake was established around the period of the second World War when the Alaska Highway was first built in 1942.[5] A major consequence of colonization was Kaska language loss.[4][5] Another major cause of Kaska language loss in Canada was due to the Canadian Residential School System. The effect that these schools had on the Kaska language have caused a language gap between two generations resulting in few young speakers.



Labial Dental Alveolar Post-al.
Velar Glottal
central sibilant lateral
Nasal m n
Stop tenuis p t ts k ʔ
aspirated tθʰ tsʰ tɬʰ tʃʰ
ejective tθʼ tsʼ tɬʼ tʃʼ
Fricative voiceless θ s ɬ ʃ x h
voiced ð z ɮ ʒ ɣ
Rhotic r
Approximant w j


Kaska makes use of the vowels /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/, which, through various combinations of inflection (high, falling, and rising tone), lengthening and nasalization, produce about 60 vowel sounds in total.

Front Central Back
Close i, , ĩ u, , ũ
Near-close (ɪ) (ʊ)
Close-mid e (ə) o, , õ
Open-mid (ɛ), ɛ̃ ʌ, ʌ̃
Open æː, (æ̃ː) , ãː

Allophones of sounds /i, e, o, ɛ̃/ can also be heard as [ɪ, ɛ~ə, ʊ, æ̃ː].[7][6]


Kaska is a polysynthetic language, commonly featuring sentence words. It is head-final, availing nine prefix positions to a given stem verb morpheme. Kaska does not mark for control or grammatical gender. (Sexual gender is often implied in narratives through contextual association with the prevalent gender roles of Kaska society, particularly with regard to warfare.)

The Verb-Sentence

Verb-sentences, or single-word sentences consisting of a stem verb modified by inflectional, derivational and/or other types of affixes, commonly appear in Kaska. In these cases, a word-final verb morpheme may be accompanied by up to nine prefixes grouped into three categories: the disjunct, the conjunct and the verb theme. O'Donnell's Kaska verb structure diagram is shown below.

Disjunct Prefixes Conjunct Prefixes Verb Theme
Oblique Object Postposition Distributive Plural Subject Agreement II Direct Object Mood/Aspect Subject Agreement I Thematic Prefix Classifier Verb Stem

Verb Theme

The verb theme carries the stem verb morpheme, which is immediately preceded by one of four classifiers (-h-, -Ø-, -l-, -d-).

The -Ø- classifier primarily marks intransitive and stative verbs.

The classifier -h-, referred to as ł classification in Athabaskan literature, marks transitivity and/or causativity and deletes when preceded by the first-person singular subject marking s-. Though it is found in some intransitive clauses, as in sehtsū́ts ("clothlike object is located"), these generally bear the -Ø- classifier.[7]

The -d- classifier serves a more complex function, accompanying self-benefactives, reflexives, reciprocals, iteratives (marked by the prefix ne-) and passives.

The -l- classifier combines the functions of the -d- and -h- (ł) classifiers.


The conjunct, which appears between the disjunct prefix group and the verb theme, carries inflectional information including subject, direct object and mood/aspect markings. In subject markings, Kaska syntactically differentiates between "subject I" and "subject II" morphemes (the latter represented in the gray boxes in the table below to the left).

Subject Markers in Kaska
Singular Plural
1st person s- dze-
2nd person n- ah-
3rd person Ø- ge-
Direct Object Markers in Kaska
Singular Plural
1st person se- gu-
2nd person ne- neh-
3rd person Ø-/ye- ge-

Subject I markers occur conjunct-finally, while subject II markers occur conjunct-initially.

The direct object markings are given in the table at right. The marking for third-person singular direct object depends on the subject of the sentence: if the subject is in first- or second-person, then it is Ø-, but becomes ye- when the subject is in third-person.


The disjunct typically carries adverbial and derivational prefixes, including the negative marker dū- and the distributive plural morpheme né-, which pluralizes otherwise dual subjects and, in some cases, singular objects. The presence (or absence) of this feature bears most of the numerical marking that is not already indicated contextually or through the subject and object affixes themselves. The prefix ɬe- marks for dual subject in at least one verb phrase: "to sit." Postpositional morphemes, such as ts'i'- ("to") and yé- ("about"), also appear in the disjunct, along with the oblique object markings listed in the table below.

Oblique Object Markers in Kaska
Singular Plural
1st person es- gu-
2nd person ne- neh-
3rd person me- ge-

Space, Time and Aspect

In Kaska, time is expressed primarily through aspect marking, called modes when described in Athabaskan languages. These prefixes convey imperfective, perfective and optative aspect. Overt expressions for quantified units of time exist, such as tādet'ē dzenḗs ("three days"), but rarely appear in Kaska dialog.

The imperfective (prefix Ø-) expresses incomplete action, is used in instrumental marking, descriptions of static situations and to express irrealis mood. In Kaska narratives, imperfective verb forms commonly accompany a humorous tone.

The perfective mode (prefix n-) functions largely in complement to the imperfective, expressing complete action, is used in descriptions of kinetic events and establishing realis mood. Kaska narratives tend to express a more serious tone through perfective verb forms.

The optative mode (prefix u- in conjunction with suffix ) expresses unrealized or desired activity.

Directional prefixes, stems and suffixes also index spatial relations in Kaska narratives. These include allatives, ablatives, areals and punctuals, with some examples listed below.


When a sentence contains two independent nominals, it takes on Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) structure.

eskie ayudeni ganehtan







eskie ayudeni ga-Ø-ne-h-tan

boy girl at-3SG.SBJ-MA-CL-look

The boy saw/looked at the girl

When only one independent nominal is present, the subject and object are differentiated by the prefixes in the verb, shown using the same sample sentence.

  1. eskie meganehtan
  2. boy 3sg.Obj...
  3. "The boy saw/looked at her"

Subordinate clauses are marked with an -i or suffix and appear before the independent clause, as in the following example:

etsedzi gugā́nehtān




3SG.was watching us

etsedz-i gugā́nehtān

3SG.eat-SUBCLAUSE {3SG.was watching us}

While he was eating he was watching us.

The available literature on Kaska makes no mention of applicatives, relatives or complements, and case marking appears restricted to nominative (subject), accusative (object) and the various forms of locative case marking conveyed through directional morphemes.


With around 200 speakers as of 2011, the Ethnologue lists Kaska as Status 7 (shifting). It is mostly Kaska Dena Elders who are the fluent speakers[4] despite four communities (Good Hope Lake, Lower Post, Watson Lake and Ross River) where the language is taught in schools.[9] Kaska Dena children are not learning to be fluent because many families do not use the Kaska language at home.[5] The Kaska Dena people recognize the importance in revitalizing the Kaska language and have worked towards building Kaska language written and oral materials as well as programs such as culture camps and training programs.[10]

See also


  1. ^ "Aboriginal Ancestry Responses (73), Single and Multiple Aboriginal Responses (4), Residence on or off reserve (3), Residence inside or outside Inuit Nunangat (7), Age (8A) and Sex (3) for the Population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, 2016 Census - 25% Sample Data". www12.statcan.gc.ca. Government of Canada. 25 October 2017. Retrieved 2017-11-23.
  2. ^ Canada, Government of Canada, Statistics (28 March 2018). "Aboriginal Language Spoken at Home (90), Single and Multiple Responses of Language Spoken at Home (3), Aboriginal Identity (9), Registered or Treaty Indian Status (3) and Age (12) for the Population in Private Households of Canada, Provinces and Territories, Census Metropolitan Areas and Census Agglomerations, 2016 Census - 25% Sample Data". www12.statcan.gc.ca. Retrieved 2018-05-10.
  3. ^ a b c Moore, J. P. (2003). "Lessons on the Land: The Role of Kaska Elders in a University Language Course". Canadian Journal of Native Education. 27. No. 1: 127–139. ProQuest 230305886.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Farnell, G. (2014). The Kaska Dene: A study of Colonialism, Trauma and Healing in Dene Kēyeh. The University of British Columbia. [1]
  5. ^ a b c d Meek., A. B. (2010). We Are Our Language. An Ethnography of Language Revitalization in a Northern Athabaskan Community. Tucson, Az.: The University of Arizona Press. pp. 1–40.
  6. ^ a b c Meek, Barbra Allyn (2001). "Kaska language socialization, acquisition and shift". ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ a b c [2] Moore, Patrick James. "Point of view in Kaska historical narratives". Indiana University, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing, 2003. PDF file.
  8. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-05. Retrieved 2014-02-10.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) O'Donnell, Meghan. "INFLECTIONAL AFFIXES & CLITICS IN KASKA (NORTHERN ATHABASKAN)". Coyote Papers XIII: Papers Dedicated to the Indigenous Languages of the Americas, p. 41-74. University of Arizona, 2004. PDF file.
  9. ^ Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2014. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Seventeenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.
  10. ^ Meek, A. B., Messing, J. (2007). "Framing Indigenous Languages a Secondary to Matrix Languages". 2. 38 (2): 99–118. JSTOR 25166611.

Further reading

  • Kaska Tribal Council. Guzāgi k'ū́gé': our language book : nouns : Kaska, Mountain Slavey and Sekani. [Watson Lake, Yukon]: Kaska Tribal Council, 1997. ISBN 0-9682022-0-9