About the www.Alaskool.org project and its developers




This handbook has been designed to assist school districts in providing effective educational services to students from the group of Athabaskan languages.

This is one of three handbooks developed to increase school districts and school personnel's understanding of selected Alaska Native language groups. They have been designed for use by administrators and all school staff who have responsibilities for the schooling of these students.

Development of the Handbook

The development of this handbook began in August, 1983, in response to the need for information regarding cultural and linguistic factors which should be understood in the school setting.

This handbook should be regarded as a first edition. It is difficult in one volume to depict the uniqueness and heterogeneity that characterize the languages in this group. It should be recognized that any language group is complex and diverse, having a variety of needs and characteristics based upon different experiences. Much more research and work need to be done to ensure successful schooling for this and other minority language groups in Alaska.

Mike Travis
Program Manager
Bilingual/Bicultural Education Programs



A linguist's fascination with the study of language is based primarily on the complex nature of all language, man's foremost system of communication. Although the origin of language is uncertain, it is clear that all languages have evolved through time, changing with the history of the peoples who speak them. A language reflects the culture of the group who speak it by incorporating vocabulary appropriate to that culture. For example, Athabaskan languages have an elaborate vocabulary pertaining to moose hunting, while Japanese has many different forms of address appropriate to particular situations. In a sense, a modern language recapitulates the history of social and cultural changes among its people, as new words are added and old words dropped to suit a changing environment. For example, even a superficial comparison of the language of Shakespeare with modern English will show how language can reflect the changing attitudes and conditions which English speakers have lived with over the past several centuries.

The grammatical system of a language is a systematic series of relationships which is part of the intellectual ability of anyone who speaks the language. The degree to which language is innate to humans, the way children learn languages, and the existence of so many different types of languages on earth all offer exciting possibilities for linguistic study.

As linguists try to learn about and describe different languages, they rely on a number of assumptions about the nature of all language; these may be considered universal linguistic truths. It is universally held true that all languages are equal in their ability to convey the thoughts of anyone speaking them, that all are effective and valid means of communication. No language is more suitable to human expression than any other, and none has ever been found to be more "primitive" nor more "advanced" in terms of the level of communication whose medium it is. The linguist's objective approach to language does not allow ranking languages as superior or inferior, but we will see that cultural bias or prejudice may lead a person to favor one language over another.

Virtually everyone learns at least one language as a child, and some learn more than one. Throughout history bilingualism (the knowledge of two languages) and often multilingualism (the knowledge of many languages) have been common among people living where several languages are spoken. In Alaska, for example, in areas where the territory of one Native group bordered on another's, it was common for members of one group to speak the language of their neighbors as well. For example, even though Koyukon and Kutchin (see map [link to it]) are extremely different, many people near their border have always been able at least to understand and often to speak their neighbors' language through trade, intermarriage, and ceremonial gatherings. On the other edge of their territory, Koyukon Athabaskans often learned Inupiaq Eskimo and had well-established trading festivals with the coastal people. Bilingualism is, of course, still quite common in Alaska today, especially among Native people who speak English in addition to their own language.

In an environment such as an Alaskan village where more than one language is used, different factors influence which language is spoken in what situation, determining the role of each language in the community. These factors can be quite complex, but generally we can recognize each language's domains, that is, the situations where a bilingual person will choose one language over the other. In such cases, there is often a so-called "intimate" language that is not the national or majority language and is used in the home and among family and community members. In official contexts where one deals with government, institutions, or people unrelated to the home community, people are obliged to speak English, since outsiders do not speak the home language. In situations like this, it is typical that speakers of the minority language, an Athabaskan language in this case, will learn the majority language, that is, English, but outsiders will not learn the local, minority language.

The relation between minority and majority languages brings us to the realm of linguistics pertaining to how people use language and how they feel about different languages. Many people have favorable or unfavorable attitudes toward certain languages, usually depending on the person's perception of the group that speaks the language in question. If that group is held in high esteem, their language too may be regarded favorably. If for some reason the group is disliked or accorded low social status, their language too may be looked on with disfavor. Such attitudes are often expressed in statements that a given language is not as good as one's own, or that it sounds unpleasant. Thus non-linguistic considerations, that is, social attitudes, can interfere with our appreciation and acceptance of languages other than our own. Sometimes the negative attitudes of other segments of society can influence people to feel badly about their own native language, causing conflict and confusion within the individual.

Attitudes about language play an important role in situations where more than one language is used, especially where a majority language such as English exists alongside a minority language, in this case Athabaskan. It is important to remember that all languages deserve recognition and respect as equally elaborate and effective systems of communication. Becoming familiar with another language and culture inevitably increases one's respect for them. Learning about another language also brings to light the linguistic accomplishments which characterize that language. No student of English can help but be awed by the genius of Shakespeare; so too do students of Athabaskan languages come to love and appreciate their rich oral literature.

At this point we should explain what linguists mean by "language" and "dialect." A language is a distinct and unified system of spoken communication which can be divided into different dialects. Dialect differences distinguish particular groups within a language community, generally based on such factors as geography, socioeconomic status, or ethnic origin. American English includes all three types of dialects; for example, New Yorkers and Texans often have identifiable geographical dialects, members of the upper class on the East Coast may speak with an accent or vocabulary that sets them apart, and ethnic groups like Mexican-Americans or Irish-Americans may have distinct features in their speech. Athabaskan dialects, on the other hand, are almost exclusively regional or geographical. What distinguishes a dialect from a language is that people who speak different dialects of the same language can generally understand one another, while people who speak different languages cannot unless they are bilingual. Languages may be related, like English and German or Yupik and Inupiaq, but if they are truly separate languages, they are different enough to make communication between them difficult. In this way, we find that Koyukon and Tanaina are related but different languages, while Upper Koyukon and Central Koyukon, whose speakers can understand each other, are different dialects of the same language.


The word Athabaskan refers both to a people and to a group of related languages. The word itself does not come from any Athabaskan language; it is an anglicized version of the Cree Indian name for Lake Athabasca in Canada. Athabaskan languages are spoken throughout the interior of Alaska and the interior of northwestern Canada. There are Athabaskan people in northern California and southern Oregon. The Navajo and Apache people of the southwest speak Athabaskan languages, too. Map 1 shows the distribution of Athabaskans in North America; Map 2 shows the territories of the eleven Athabaskan languages spoken in Alaska. More information is found in the 1982 map "Native Peoples and Languages of Alaska," which we recommend to readers.

Map 1. The distribution of Athabaskan languages in North America.


Map 2. Athabaskan languages of Alaska.


When linguists say languages are related, they mean there are systematic similarities among them. Compare, for example, the words below in four Alaskan Athabaskan languages:





Upper Kuskokwim

'my mouth'





'I'm sitting'





'my belt'





Notice that where Holikachuk has dh, Tanana also has dh; these correspond consistently with l in Koyukon and z in Upper Kuskokwim. When languages share regular, consistent correspondences in their structures and sound systems, we can conclude that they are members of a single language family, that is, that their similarities result from their common descent from one ancestral language.

It is important that these correspondences be regular and systematic. It is not enough to find similar words between languages. For example, many Russian words were borrowed into Eskimo and Athabaskan languages, but we cannot say that Russian is historically related to either Athabaskan or Eskimo because no systematic patterns of similarity exist.

The eleven Athabaskan languages of Alaska are separate though related languages. Within most of these languages we can distinguish different dialects. The word dialect means a variety of a language. When two people speak with noticeable differences but are able to understand each other without difficulty, they are speaking two dialects of the same language; for example, people from Brooklyn and Texas speak noticeably different ways, but they can understand each other easily. In Alaskan Athabaskan, the Koyukon language is divided into three dialects: Lower (spoken in Kaltag and Nulato), Central (Koyukuk, Huslia, Hughes, Allakaket, Galena, Ruby), and Upper (Rampart, Stevens Village, Manley Hot Springs). There are regular differences in pronunciation and vocabulary among these three dialects. For example, words that begin with m in Lower Koyukon begin with b in the other two. Words with the sounds g, k, k' in Lower and Central have respectively j, ch, ch' in Upper. Despite these differences, people who speak one of these dialects have no difficulty understanding those who speak another.

The differences between languages are much more pronounced than the differences between dialects. People who speak different languages cannot understand each other fully, although sophisticated speakers of closely related languages can often communicate to some extent. The differences between Alaskan Athabaskan languages can be compared readily with the degrees of difference between European languages. Koyukon and Tanana, for example, might be said to be as different as French and Spanish, while Koyukon and Kutchin might be as different as English and Italian.