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

  • Introduction
  • Family and Subfamily Overviews
  • Bibliographies and State-of-the-Art Reports
  • Maps
  • Histories
  • Reference Resources
  • Descriptive Grammars and Grammatical Sketches
  • Pedagogical Grammars
  • Dictionaries and Lexicography
  • Texts
  • First-Language Acquisition

Linguistics Athabaskan Languages
Sharon Hargus
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0054


The Athabaskan family of languages is or was 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. 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). The family has been recognized as such since 1826 (Krauss 1981, cited in Histories), and the Cree etymology of the family name is discussed in Krauss 1973 (cited in Bibliographies and State-of-the-Art Reports). The languages are most famous (or infamous) for their position-class verbal morphology, recent tonogenesis, and the “yi-/bi- alternation.” One challenge in understanding the literature on any language family is keeping track of language names. For most of the languages, the recent 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.

Family and Subfamily Overviews

Cook 2003 is a short overview of the Athabaskan family. Leer 2006 is another short overview of the family, including two of the larger families, Athabaskan-Eyak, and Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit (previously generally referred to as Na-Dene), of which Athabaskan is uncontroversially a part. Leer 2006 is also representative of the recent trend to refer to Na-Dene as Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit (AET); Na-Dene originally included Haida, but the inclusion of Haida in the same family as AET is now generally not accepted. The articles in Kari and Potter 2010 provide an overview of the hypothesis that AET is part of a recently proposed Dene-Yeniseian family, which straddles the Bering Strait. Overviews are also available for two well-established subfamilies of Athabaskan, the Pacific Coast and Apachean languages. Hoijer 1960 provides a detailed overview of the languages of the Pacific Coast Athabaskan (PCA) subgroup, as does Hoijer 1971 for the Apachean subfamily, also known as Southern Athabaskan. Northern Athabaskan is a geographic group for which, until recently, there were no published subfamilies; Goddard 1996 contains the first attempt at a classification.

  • 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. While the Goddard-Rice classification of Athabaskan is widely cited, Leer 2006 uses a different classification of Northern Athabaskan languages, which is supported by detailed lexical evidence.

  • 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 PCA as a subgroup, but the Proto-Athabaskan 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.

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

  • Kari, James, and Ben A. Potter, eds. 2010. The Dene-Yeniseian connection. Fairbanks: Univ. of Alaska Fairbanks, Department of Anthropology and Alaska Native Language Center.

    Seventeen articles plus the editors’ introduction explore various aspects of the hypothesis that the Yeniseian family of Siberia (of which only Ket is still spoken) is related to Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit.

  • 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-AET, Pre-Proto-Athabaskan, Eyak, and Tlingit.

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