Information about the Athabaskan languages
Where are Athabaskan languages spoken?
These languages are spoken by indigenous peoples of North America across a vast geographic area ranging from north-western North America to the present Mexican border to the south: in the provinces of Saskatchewan, the Yukon, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories in Canada, and in the states of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona and Oklahoma in the United States.
Who speaks Athabaskan languages?
Speakers of Athabaskan languages are members of “First Nations” in North America who inhabited the region long before Europeans arrived and before the creation of the United States and Canada. Nowadays, most users live on reservations in Canada and the United States.
Athabaskan is the North American indigenous language family that covers the largest area and includes one of the largest numbers of languages and speakers.
Total number of speakers (estimated):
Approximately 150,000 according to UNESCO
Approximately 170,000 according to the site ethnologue.com (SIL)
The Athabaskan language family currently has 29 or 33 languages, according to various sources.
Northern Athabaskan Sub-family
Southern Alaska Branch
Ahtna (alternate names: Atna; Ahtena; Copper River): 25 speakers according to UNESCO and 80 according to SIL (1994)
Tanaina (alternate name: Dena’ina): 25 speakers according to UNESCO and 75 according to SIL (1997)
Central Alaska and Yukon Branch
Deg Xinag (alternate name: Ingalik): 14 speakers according to UNESCO (2000) and 20 to 30 according to SIL (1997)
Gwich’in (alternate names: Kutchin, Loucheux, Takudh): 150 speakers according to UNESCO (2000) and 730 according to SIL (1998)
Han (alternate names: Moosehide, Dawson): extinct according to UNESCO and 14 speakers according to SIL (1995)
Holikachuk (alternate name: Innoko): 5 speakers according to UNESCO (2000) and 12 according to SIL (1995)
Koyukon (alternate name: Tena): 150 speakers according to UNESCO (2000) and 300 according to SIL (1995)
Upper Kuskokwim (alternate name: Kolchan): 25 speakers according to UNESCO (2000) and 40 according to SIL (1995)
Tanacross: 35 speakers according to SIL (1997) and 50 according to UNESCO (2000)
Lower Tanana (alternate name: Tanana, Minto): 15 speakers according to UNESCO (2000) and 35 according to SIL (1995)
Upper Tanana: 55 speakers according to UNESCO (2000) and 155 according to SIL (1995)
Tutchone: 190 speakers by UNESCO (2000) and 220 according to SIL (1995)
Northwestern Canada Branch
Beaver: 195 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) and 300 according to SIL (1995)
Chipewyan: 8195 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) and 4000 according to SIL (1995)
Dogrib: 1675 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) and 2110 according to SIL (2001)
Sekani: 75 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) and 30 to 40 according to SIL (1995)
Slave (y)-hare-Bearlake-mountain: 1640 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) and 790 according to SIL (1995)
Thaltan-Tagish-Kaska (alternate name: Nahanni): 155 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) for the sole Kaska, and 437 for Kaska according to SIL (1995)
Central British Columbia Branch
Babine-witsuwit’en: 500 speakers according to SIL (1995)
Carrier: 660 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) and 2000 according to SIL (1987)
Chilcotin: 560 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) and 2 000 according to SIL (2001)
Northern Athabaskan Isolates:
Sarcee (alternate name: Tsuut’ina): 75 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) and 50 according to SIL (1995)
Pacific Coast Athabaskan Sub-family
Athabaskan Oregon Branch
Rogue River (ED): extinct according to UNESCO (2000) and 10 speakers according to SIL (1962)
Tolowa: 1 speaker according to UNESCO and 5 according to SIL (1994)
Upper Umpqua: extinct
Athabaskan California Branch
Eel River: extinct
Hupa (alternate name: Hoop-Chilula): less than 12 speakers according to UNESCO and 8 according to SIL (1994)
Mattole-Bear River: extinct
Western Apache: 14,000 speakers according to UNESCO and 12,600 according to SIL (1990)
Chiricahua-Mescalero: 1500 speakers according to UNESCO (2000) and 1800 according to SIL (1977)
Navajo (alternate names: Navaho, Diné): 120,000 speakers according to UNESCO (2001) and 148,000 according to SIL (1990)
Plains Apache (alternate names: Kiowa Apache, Na’isha): 3 speakers according to UNESCO and 18 according to SIL (1990)
Jicarilla: 300 speakers according to UNESCO and 812 according to SIL (1990)
Lipan: extinct according to UNESCO (1981) and 2 or 3 speakers according to SIL (1981)
Eyak: extinct according to UNESCO (2008) and 1speaker according to SIL (1996)
Tlingit: 355 speakers according to UNESCO and 845 according to SIL (1995)
Comments on the classification of Athabaskan-Eyat-Tlingit languages:
The links between different sub-families (Athabaskan languages, Apache languages, and isolated languages -Eyak -Tlingit) are well established today, but within the Athabaskan sub-family classification is less stable.
According to Mithun (1999), the languages of the Pacific branch are more a geographic group rather than a real-linguistic family. The absence of documentation on these languages makes it very difficult to establish a solid, language classification and the classification may vary according to sources.
The languages of the Alaska and Canadian branches are also extremely difficult to classify because geographical contact has created a system of mutual borrowing between all these languages, as well as the languages of other families (Wakashan languages for example).
Tutchane and Slavey are dialect groups whose boundaries may vary according to the source. Ethnologue.com counts two separate languages for each of these two groups. Here we follow the classification established by Mithun (1999) which is widely regarded as consensual.
Note: The name «Na-Déné» which is found in various works postulates a hypothetical family grouping of the Athabaskan-Eyat-Tlingit family and the isolated Haida language. But the relationship between this family of languages and Haida are strongly challenged by linguists who attribute any common features to language contact, and a lack of familiarity with Haida. To avoid any confusion we have not used the name «Na-Déné».
Note 2: In 2008, Vajda proposed a link between these languages and Yeniseian, an isolated language from Siberia. This theory, if proved valid, would be a valuable contribution to the theory of population movements across the Bering Strait during the last glacial period. The theory is considered very promising by the linguistic community, but it is not yet generally accepted. It has not, therefore, been incorporated into the current classification.
More information about this theory is available on the site of the University of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Are Athabaskan languages in danger?
Yes, all of these languages are endangered.
Many languages have become extinct during the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century.
The Northern Athabaskan languages and the isolated Tlingit language are all classified as “Criticial Status” by UNESCO: there are only a few hundred (or less) older speakers, and younger generations are native speakers of English; these languages are therefore at risk of disappearing over the decades to come if nothing of consequence is done to revitalize them.
As for the isolated languages, Tsetsaut, all of the Kwalhioqua-Clatskanie dialects, and Eyak are now extinct.
The Athabaskan languages of Oregon and California are almost all extinct. Tolowa had only one native speaker at the beginning of the century and can be considered on the verge of extinction. Hupa is probably the last “survivor” of the sub-family, but with less than a dozen speakers, all elderly, it is likely to become extinct in the years to come.
Most Apache languages are in the same situation. Only Navajo, and to a lesser extent Western Apache, are less threatened. Eastern Navajo, along with Inuktitut, the American Indian language of the north, is the language with the most speakers.
Lipan is probably now extinct now.
Mithun, Marianne The languages of Native North America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (1999).
Campbell, Lyle. American Indian languages: the historical linguistics of Native America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (1997)
Site devoted to American Indian languages:
Sites devoted to the defense of indigenous languages and cultures of Canada:
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