Na-Dene Language

Na-Dené (also Na-Dene, Nadene, Athabaskan-Eyak-Tlingit) is a Native American language family which includes the Athabaskan languages, Eyak, and Tlingit.

The Na-Dene family includes:Tlingit language: 700 speakers (M. Krauss, 1995) Athabaskan-Eyak Eyak language: 1 speaker, (N. Barnes, 1996) Athabaskan languages:  Northern Pacific Coast  and Southern.

Navajo is the most widely spoken language of the Na-Dené family, spoken in Arizona, New Mexico, and other regions of the American Southwest.

Dene or Dine is a widely distributed group of Native languages and peoples spoken in Canada, Alaska, and parts of Oregon and northern California.

Eyak is spoken in the Alaskan panhandle and today there is only one speaker left.

Genetic relation proposals

Haida, with 15 fluent speakers (M. Krauss, 1995), was once considered a member of the Na-Dené family, but most linguists consider the evidence inconclusive and classify it as a language isolate.

According to Joseph Greenberg’s highly controversial classification of the languages of Native North America, Na-Dené-Athabaskan is one of the three main groups of Native languages spoken in the Americas, and represents a distinct wave of migration from Asia to the Americas.

The other two are Eskimo-Aleut, spoken in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic; and Amerind, Greenberg’s most controversial classification, which includes every language native to the Americas that is not Eskimo-Aleut or Na-Dené.

Contemporary supporters of Greenberg’s theory, such as Merritt Ruhlen, have suggested that the Na-Dené language family represents a distinct migration of people from Asia to the New World.

The time of this migration is estimated to have been six to eight thousand years ago, placing it around four thousand later than the initial population of the continents by Amerind speakers.

Ruhlen speculates that the Na-Dené speakers may have arrived in boats, initially settling near the Queen Charlotte Islands, now in British Columbia, Canada.

According to the (also controversial) linguistic theory of Sergei Starostin, Na-Dene is a member of the Dene-Caucasian superfamily, along with the North Caucasian languages and Sino-Tibetan languages.

Professor Edward Vajda from the Modern & Classical Languages Department of the Western Washington University considers these languages to be related to Yeniseian (or Yeniseic) languages in Siberia, which would also support the controversial theory of Starostin and others.

American Indian Language Family Trees, Goddard (1996) & Mithun (1999)

2. Na-Dene (47)          

        Nuclear Na-Dene (45)
        Athapaskan-Eyak (44)           

            Athabascan (Athapaskan, Athapascan, Athabaskan, ) (43)                  Apachean (6)                      

                       Kiowa Apache (1)                           



                       Navajo-Apache (5)                          

                            Eastern Apache (3)                               

                                  Apache, Jicarilla (USA)                               

                                  Apache, Lipan (USA)                               

                                  Apache, Mescalero-Chiricahua (USA)

                           Western Apache-Navajo (2)                                

                                   Apache, Western (USA)                                

                                   Navajo (USA)
                    Canadian (13)                          

                          Beaver-Sekani (2)                               

                               Beaver (Canada)                               

                               Sekani (Canada)                         

                         Carrier-Chilcotin (4)

                                Chilcotin (Canada)

                                Han-Kutchin (2)                               

                                     Gwich’in (Canada)                               

                                     Han (USA)        

                                Babine-Carrier (3)                                    

                                     Babine (Canada)                                    

                                    Carrier, Southern (Canada)                                    

                                    Carrier (Canada)

                              Chilcotin (1)                                    

                                    Hare-Chipewyan (4)

                                           Chipewyan (1)                                    

                                                Chipewyan (Canada)

                                          Hare-Slavey (3)

                                               Dogrib (Canada)                                   

                                              Slavey, North (Canada)                                 

                                              Slavey, South (Canada)

                                      Sarcee (1)                             

                                             Sarsi (Canada)

                                      Ingalik-Koyukon (3)

                                               Ingalik (1)                           

                                                    Degexit’an (USA)

                                              Koyukon-Holikachuk (2)                                   

                                                   Holikachuk (USA)                           

                                                   Koyukon (USA)

                                             Pacific Coast (9)                      

                                        California (4)                           

                                             Hupa (1)                                

                                                  Hupa (USA)

                                             Mattole-Wailaki (3)                                

                                                  Kato (USA)                                

                                                  Mattole (USA)                                

                                                  Wailaki (USA)

                                             Oregon (5)                                

                                                 Tolowa-Galice (5)                                

                                                       Coquille (USA)                                

                                                       Chetco (USA)                                

                                                       Galice (USA)                                

                                                       Tolowa (USA)                                

                                                       Tututni (USA)

                                                  Tahltan-Kaska (3)                            

                                                       Kaska (Canada)                          

                                                       Tagish (Canada)                          

                                                       Tahltan (Canada)

                                                  Tanaina-Ahtna (2)                          

                                                       Ahtena (USA) (aka Ahtna, Copper River or Mednovskiy)                         

                                                      Tanaina (USA)

                                                Tanana-Upper Kuskokwim (4)

                                                      Tanana (3)                               

                                                           Tanana, Lower (USA)                               

                                                            Tanana, Upper (USA)                               

                                                            Tanacross (USA)

                                                       Upper Kuskokwim (1)                               

                                                             Kuskokwim, Upper (USA)

                                                             Tutchone (2)                          


                                                                   Tutchone, Southern (Canada)                          

                                                                   Tutchone, Northern (Canada)

                                                              Tsetsaut (Canada)

                                                               Eyak (1)                   

                                                                    Eyak (USA)

                                                               Tlingit (1)               

                                                                     Tlingit (USA)

                                                               Haida (2)              

                                                                    Haida, Northern (Canada)                   

                                                                   Haida, Southern (Canada)/p



Article Index:

Navajo president no longer has to speak the Navajo language

Navajo Nation voters passed a referendum last month that allows for the first time for a non-Navajo speaker to be president. The move, while political, sparked a dialogue among people who see their language threatened as never before. Some Navajos say the approval of the referendum represents a paradigm shift.


Beginning in the 1870s, the federal government tried to wipe out Native American culture and force tribes to assimilate to white civilization. Generations were relocated or forced to attend federally run boarding schools. Despite these efforts, many Navajos have held onto their language and culture. Many tribal elders even today speak only Navajo. 

“It’s a matter of self-identity and it’s a matter of having pride in ourselves as native people,” said Theresa Hatathlie who works with Dine Youth.

Hatathlie is passionate about the Navajo language. But she says not everyone feels that way. And – out of perceived economic need – many have replaced Navajo with English.

“I have individuals I have gone to school with they say, ‘I don’t want my kids to learn their language because they’re not going to ever get a job,'” Hatathlie said. “They’re not going to gain anything.’”

The referendum was an acknowledgement that more and more people see little value in the language. And it reflects deeper changes in the culture that may be irreversible.

When tens of thousands of people move off the reservation to go to school or find work, their language skills start to fade.

Clayson Benally used to speak Navajo fluently when he lived on the reservation. Then his family moved to Flagstaff, so his dad could find a job. Here he was sent to an English-only school.

“It was kind of frowned down that I spoke,” Benally said. “And my accent used to be really thick. I used to be teased a lot. And unfortunately today I don’t speak.”

Benally is worried about the long-term ramifications of this referendum and what it means for the tribe’s culture.

“Our elders are truly our wisdom keepers,” Benally said. “They have our traditional history, all the songs, the prayers, our ceremonies that make us Dine our way of life. And unfortunately every day an elder is passing…the richness, the vast history that each person carries a history from their own region that goes back generation upon generation. When one elder passes a piece of that puzzle is gone forever.”

Like many, Benally is reluctant to practice Navajo with his father.

“I attempt something and you say it wrong and you get scolded,” Benally said. “It can be terrifying for a lot of people. So I relate with a lot of youth. By trying you put yourself on a limb and you risk disapproval.”

Navajo is a very difficult language. I attempted a beginner Navajo course. I used Rosetta Stone software developed as part of its endangered language project.

The difficulty of the language may explain why enrollment is so low in Northern Arizona University’s Navajo language courses.

“Spanish obviously in the southwest and all over the country is a useful language in almost any profession,” said Patricia Frederick who chairs the global languages and cultures department. “And Navajo because it’s in such a limited area and added to that the difficulty of the language might make it less popular.”

Adding to the problems is the issue of economic development in this struggling community. A recent study found a strong link between economic growth and the extinction of indigenous languages. Lead author Tatsuya Amano of the University of Cambridge told the BBC as economies develop the dominant language surroundings indigenous communities tends to take over. The study sadly suggests that to hold onto one’s language might in fact get in the way of better economic conditions.

Still, Navajo Council Delegate Jonathan Hale sees the language referendum as a wake-up call. He said it’s important for tribal members to ask each other the tough questions.

“What is it being Navajo?” Hale said. “What is Navajo to you? That language sets us apart. This is an issue we need to address.”

Navajos will put the language referendum to the test in 2018 when they elect their next president. Former tribal leaders had to take the oath of office in Navajo. That will change if the next president doesn’t speak the language.

Siberian language may be related to Nadene languages

A remote population of a few hundred indigenous Siberians who live thousands of miles west of Alaska speak a language that appears to be an ancient relative of more than three dozen Native languages in North America, experts say.

A panel of respected linguists who met in Anchorage on Friday are hailing new research that links the Old World language of Ket, still spoken sparingly along the Yenisei River in western Siberia, and the sprawling New World family of Na-Dene languages — a broad grouping that encompasses the many Athabascan tribes in Alaska, along with the Tlingit and Eyak people, as well as Indian populations in western Canada and the American Southwest, including the Navajo and the Apache.

A regional Eskimo dialect straddles the Bering Strait

Other than Siberian Yupik, a regional Eskimo dialect that straddles the Bering Strait, a connection between North American and Asian language families had never before been demonstrated.

The research by University of Western Washington linguist Edward Vajda, who spent 10 years deciphering the Ket language, drew upon parallel work by three Alaskans — Jeff Leer, Michael Krauss and James Kari, professors of linguistics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks — who independently detailed patterns in Na-Dene languages.

Establishing that two such far-distant language groups are closely related is both demanding and rare in the exacting field of historical linguistics, according to participants who attended a language symposium at the annual meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association.

Relationships between Asian and North American languages

That Interior Indian languages spoken in North America are related to languages spoken in Asia has long been assumed, since other fields of science have widely concluded that the Americas weren’t populated until ice age hunters migrated across a temporary land bridge from the old world to the new some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

And as early as 1923, other linguists speculated specifically about a genetic link between the Yeniseic family of languages spoken along the Yenisei River (of which Ket is now the only surviving member) and the Na-Dene family, spoken in North America. Ten years ago, American linguist Merritt Ruhlen did so again after producing a list of 36 cognates — comparable words in two languages that sound alike and mean the same thing.

But producing lists of similar-sounding words isn’t sufficient evidence to establish a real genetic relationship between two languages, declared Bernard Comrie, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, speaking at the conference.

That’s because cognates can also occur by accident or chance — when selective words are adopted by travelers from unrelated languages, or when words have a universal appeal.

New findings based on complex and verifiable morphologies

What makes the new finding so exciting, Comrie said, is that it’s based on complex and verifiable morphologies that show how certain Ket words were systematically altered to create Athabascan words — or vice versa (the research doesn’t speculate on which language came first or when).

Vajda began studying the Ket language firsthand in the 1990s after the Iron Curtain fell and he interviewed Ket speakers in the southwestern Siberia city of Tomsk, as well as in Germany.

“There is no road and no train,” Vajda said in an interview last week in Anchorage, here to address the symposium. “You have to go by steamboat or helicopter to get there.”

Only 100 fluent speakers of Ket remain

Through his research and interviews, Vajda determined that there are about 1,200 people who say they are Ket, including about 200 people who speak the language. But only about 100 speak Ket fluently, Vajda said, and nearly all of them are now older than 50.

“They were the last hunters of north Asia that didn’t have any domesticated animals that they used for food,” he said. “They moved around, they didn’t live in the same place.”

That came to an end when the Stalin regime in the Soviet Union forced the Ket to live in villages. Now their traditional lifestyle is nearly gone, Vajda said — and their language is disappearing too.

While trying to capture it before it vanishes altogether, Vajda gained a new understanding about the peculiarities of Ket verbs, suffixes and tonalities — which are unlike any of the other Siberian languages to the east. 

Comparing what he learned with research conducted independently in Alaska, Vajda began to find words the two languages had in common. A news release issued this week by the Alaska Native Language Center at UAF concurs, noting language similarities “too numerous and displaying too many idiosyncratic parallels to be explained by anything other than common descent.” 

Among linguistic scholars elsewhere who’ve reviewed Vajda’s paper in its draft form and reacted favorably so far is Dr. Heinrich Werner of Bonn, Germany — a world authority in the Ket language, whose work Vajda cited and incorporated into his own, along with that of the Alaskans.

Vajda thinks his research might be a door-opener for scientists in other fields, including those who work in human genetics and archaeology, to proceed with additional comparisons of the two cultures. 

He says it also points out the necessity and urgency to record dying languages before they disappear.

Find George Bryson online or call 257-4318.