In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Dene (Athabaskan) Languages

  • Introduction
  • Family and Subfamily Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Maps
  • Histories
  • Resources
  • Descriptive Grammars
  • Pedagogical Resources
  • Dictionaries and Lexicography
  • Texts
  • Language Shift and Leveling
  • First-Language Acquisition

Linguistics Dene (Athabaskan) Languages
Sharon Hargus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0054


Dene or Athabaskan is a family of about forty languages spoken in primarily three regions: (1) in the interior of Alaska and much of western Canada, (2) in northwestern California and southwestern Oregon, and (3) in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. At the 2012 meeting of the Athabaskan Languages Conference, the participants (linguists, speakers, language activists) voted to use and promote the previous language family name Dene instead of Athabaskan (a Cree-origin name), out of respect for the fact that there is a word similar to dene meaning ‘person, man’ in all of the languages of the family. The family has been recognized as such since 1826 (Krauss 1981, cited in Histories). The languages are most famous (or infamous) for their position-class verbal morphology, classificatory verbs, recent tonogenesis (in some of them), and the “yi-/bi- alternation” (a sort of inverse marking) (in some of them). One challenge in understanding the literature on any language family is keeping track of language names. For most of the languages, the trend has been to refer to a language by a name or spelling that speakers prefer or one that reflects speakers’ pronunciation rather than Anglicization. Examples of this for languages discussed in this bibliography are Babine-Witsuwit’en (older name Babine), Dakelh (older name Carrier), Dene Sųɬiné or Dëne Sųɬiné (older name Chipewyan), Deg Xinag (older name Ingalik), Gwich’in (older names Kutchin, Loucheux), Tsuut’ina (older name Sarcee), Tsek’ene (older name Sekani), Dena’ina (older name Tanaina), and Navajo (older name Navaho). In the annotations I refer to the languages by the names used by the authors. Alternate spellings of Athabaskan are Athapaskan (used now mainly by Canadian linguists), Athabascan (the official spelling in Alaska since the early 1990s but not widely used), and Athapascan (in some older publications).

Family and Subfamily Overviews

Cook 2003 is a short overview of the Dene family. Leer 2006, an encyclopedia article, includes two of the more remote families Dene belongs to, Dene-Eyak (previously known as Athabaskan-Eyak), and Na-Dene (also known as Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit. Overviews are also available for two well-established subfamilies of Dene, the Pacific Coast Dene (Hoijer 1960) and Apachean languages (Hoijer 1971). Northern Dene is a geographic grouping of languages for which, until relatively recently, there were no published subfamilies; Goddard 1996 contains the first attempt at Dene-internal subgroupings. Leer 1996 (cited in Proto-Dene Lexicon) has a different, but overlapping set of subgroups supported by detailed lexical evidence.

  • Cook, Eung-Do. 2003. Athabaskan languages. In International encyclopedia of linguistics. 2d ed. Edited by William Frawley, 158–161. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Contains tables of major phonological and morphological structures and schematic maps of the Northern, Pacific Coast, and Apachean languages.

  • Goddard, Ives. 1996. Introduction. In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 17, Languages. Edited by Ives Goddard, 1–16. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

    The information on Athabaskan was provided to Goddard by Keren Rice. The Goddard-Rice classification of Athabaskan is widely cited.

  • Hoijer, Harry. 1960. Athapaskan languages of the Pacific Coast. In Culture in history. Edited by Stanley Diamond, 960–976. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Phonological evidence for Pacific Coast Dene as a subgroup, but the Proto-Dene reconstructions are out of date.

  • Hoijer, Harry. 1971. The position of the Apachean languages in the Athapaskan stock. In Apachean culture, history, and ethnology. Edited by Keith Basso and Morris Opler, 3–6. Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv1gwqrdw.6

    Discusses phonological evidence for unity of the Apachean subfamily as well as differentiation within Apachean.

  • Leer, Jeff. 2006. Na-Dene languages. In The encyclopedia of language and linguistics. Edited by R. E. Asher and J. M. Y. Simpson, 2665–2666. Oxford: Pergamon.

    Short article with a unique and useful table comparing verbal affix positions in Proto-Na-Dene, Pre-Proto-Dene, Eyak, and Tlingit.

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