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Athapaskan Languages of the Region
Athapaskan is used to designate a family of related indigenous North American languages spoken in the Western Subarctic. There are also smaller groups of this language family found on the northwest and southwest Pacific coast, as well as the interior American southwest (Apachean languages).
Most Athapaskan speakers refer to themselves as Dineh, or some cognate variant, which translates as "the people." Within the Chisana Ethnohistory Project's study region are found aboriginal people who speak three different Athapaskan languages: Upper Tanana, Ahtna, and Tanacross.
The intent of this page is to provide a brief overview of some characteristic features of the Athapaskan language and more detailed information on the three specific languages spoken in the study region. There is also a link to a page which reviews some Basic Principles of Linguistics.
Here is a link to the Yukon Native Language Centre ,one to the Alaska Native Language Center ,and one about Athapaskan Languages in Alaska
General Characteristics of Athapaskan Languages
The subarctic Athapaskan languages comprise 23 distinct languages, between which there is no mutual intelligibility, and considerably more dialects throughout the region.
The distribution of Athapaskan languages proper is continuous through the subarctic, but discontinuous through North America - that is there is found a number of Athapaskan subgroups which are isolated from Northern or subarctic athapaskan - two groups along the Pacific coast (Pacific Coast Athapaskan and Kwalhioqua-Tlatskanai) and one within the circum-Pueblo southwest and adjacent plains (Apachean).
Unlike the case for Algonquian, Athapaskan linguistic relationships cannot be adequately described in terms of discrete family-tree branches.
This is because intergroup communication has ordinarily been constant, and no northern Athapaskan language or dialect has ever been completely isolated from the others for very long.
This characteristic can be illustrated by examining the distribution of phonological, morphological, and lexical features, which display some areal distribution.
Here, for example is a graphic representation of the development of northern Athapaskan vowel systems, which displays the overlapping of these innovations - i.e., most innovations are displayed by contiguous languages.
Compare this with the development of northern Athapaskan tone systems, which disply a discontinuous distribution in the innovations - i.e., there is much less continuity between the nature of the tone systems.
What do these distributions tell us?
That there is no coherent and consistent differentiation to be made between groups; depending on the characteristic chosen we can link groups differently. Thus for northern Athapaskan it is relatively useless to search for the kinds of extensive correalations which serve to develope historical relationships between "subgroups" and an assumed prototype.
This is not to say that historical relationships cannot be developed or inferred for the northern Athapaskan language as a whole. The application of several principles of historical linguistics can lead us to several statements of note:
Based on lexical and grammatical evidence, Athapaskan is related to Eyak, a contiguous Alaskan coast language isolate.
Athapaskan-Eyak is not related to Tlingit-Haida within the so-called "Na-Dene", as Edward Sapir had proposed, although there remains close similarity between Athapaskan-Eyak and Tlingit verb morphology, which may reflect a historical relationship.
PA-E* [Proto Athapaskan Eyak Reconstructed] may have differentiated by 3500 years ago, according to the glottochronological estimates of Michael Krauss.
They are also both likely of an interior origin, Athapaskan as evidenced by the deepest lines of cleavage indicating homelands (Sapirís Centre of Gravity Principle), Eyak by its lexicon and economic adaptation.
Following the split between E and A no linguistic contact is apparent - E is no closer linguistically to Ahtna, its closest neighbour, than it is to Navaho of the American southwest.
The degree of diversity within Athapaskan indicates that PA* was still undifferentiated until about 2500 years ago, or later.
The "homeland of PA* is likely the southwest interior region of its distribution - eastern interior Alaska, the upper drainage of the Yukon river, and northern British Columbia. This is evidenced by a) deepest cleavage (differentiation) between languages within this area; and b) both external connections - Eyak and Tlingit - are in southeastern Alaska.
A series (?) of intermontane and coastal migrations prior to about 1500 years ago led Athapaskan west into central alaska and south along the interior mountains into central and southern British Columbia, with the pacific coast Athapaskan languages being established about this time.
Subsequent to these migrations, two further movements occured: one was eastward into the Mackenzie river basin and beyond to Hudson Bay, the other was south along the eastern rockies into the southwest, forming the Apachean language group, which includes Navaho and Apache. These movements may have been connected, since the closest linguistic tie between the Athapaskan Apachean languages appears to be with the Sarcee, in northern Alberta.
Having said all this, check out the contradictions which exist between genetic and lingusitic evidence on relationships between western subarctic people.
Naming the Landscape - "Wisdom Sits in Places"
A place that is named carries a complex symbolic capacity. Its name may arise from an historical event but the name is remembered less for the event itself as for its contemporary meaning in the construction of local identity and sense of place. As Basso (1996:7) notes:
Long before the advent of literacy, to say nothing of history as an academic discipline, places served human kind as durable symbols of distant events and as indispensable aids for remembering and imagining them - and this convenient arrangment, ancient but not outmoded , is with us still today. In modern landscapes every where, people persist in asking "What happened here?" The answers they supply . . . should not be taken lightly, for what people make of their places is closely connected to what they make of themselves as members of society and inhabitants of the earth, and while the two activities may be seperable in principle, they are deeply joined in practice. If place-making is a way of constructing the past, a venerable means of doing human history, it is also a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.
Basso has also discussed the means by which place names can evoke not only history but complex moral positions, as the stories related to space are embodied in the name itself, an observation which both Julie Cruikshank and myself have made among subarctic Dineh proper.
- Rhodes, Richard L. and Evelhyn M. Todd. 1981. Subarctic Algonquian Languages, in J. Helm (ed.), Handbook of the North American Indians: Volume 6, Subarctic. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 52-66.
- Krauss, Michael E. and Victor K. Golla. 1981. Subarctic Athapaskan Languages, in J. Helm (ed.), Handbook of the North American Indians: Volume 6, Subarctic. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. pp. 67-85.
- Kari, James. 1989. Some Linguistic Implications for Denaina' Prehistory, in Eung-Do Cook and Keren D. Rice (eds.), Athapaskan Linguistics: Current Perspectives on a Language Family. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 533-574.
- Easton, Norman Alexander. 2001. Getting to Know the Neighbourhood: Upper Tanana Place Names and Navigation in the Scottie Creek Valley of the Yukon-Alaskan Borderlands. Paper presented to the 28th Annual Meetings of the Alaska Anthropological Association, Fairbanks, Alaska, 22 March 2001.
- Bloomfield, L. 1933 (and reprints) Language.
- Sapir, E. 1916. Time Perspectives in Aboriginal North American Culture. A Study of Method. Anthropological Series 13, Canada Department of Mines, Geological Survey Memoir No. 90. Reprinted in The Writings of Edward Sapir, D. G. Mandelbaum (ed.), pp. 389-462. Berkley: University of California Press (1949)