In the tables which follow, the consonants are arranged according to two factors: place of articulation and manner of articulation. The manners of articulation into which consonants are divided are plain, aspirated and glottalized stops, voiced and voiceless fricatives, nasals, and sonorants. Below is an explanation of each of these, with references to the Athabaskan sounds typical of each group.
Manners of articulation:
Plain stops: Plain stops are consonants which are produced by completely blocking the stream of air in the mouth. These sounds in Athabaskan are similar to their orthographical counterparts in English (e.g., d, g) but they are not voiced; that is, they are pronounced without vibrating the vocal cords as is done when pronouncing the similar English sounds. Athabaskan d is similar to the t in the English word stop, and Athabaskan g is similar to the k in English skip. Typical plain stops are b, d, dl, ddh, dz, g, and gg.
Aspirated stops: Aspirated stops are also consonants that are produced with complete blockage of the stream of air in the mouth, but they are accompanied by a slight puff or release of air. They correspond fairly closely to their orthographical counterparts in English. Typical aspirated stops are t, tth, tl, ts, k, and q.
Glottalized stops: Glottalized stops have no counterparts in English. Basically, they are produced in the following way: the air stream is blocked in both the mouth and the glottis ("voice box"), and then released. The effect is a slight popping sound after the consonant. Glottalized consonants are written by using the characters for the corresponding aspirated stops, showing the glottalization with an apostrophe following the letter or combination of letters, e.g., t', tth', tl', ts', k', q'.
Voiceless fricatives: Fricatives are consonants that are produced by blocking the air stream in the mouth only partially. Some English voiceless fricatives are s, sh, and "soft" th as in think. Typical Athabaskan voiceless fricatives are s,t*, th, sh, yh, and x. (*written as a t with a slash through it)
Voiced fricatives: Voiced fricatives are pronounced with partial blockage of the air stream and with vibration of the vocal cords. Typical Athabaskan voiced fricatives are z, l, dh, y, and gh.
Nasals: Nasals are sounds which are pronounced with the air stream blocked in the mouth but passing through the nose, as in English n and m. Athabaskan nasals include the voiced nasals n, m, and ng (the last in Deg Hit'an only) and the voiceless nasals nh (written n in some systems) and ngh (Deg Hit'an only).
Sonorants: Sometimes nasals and the voiced fricatives or semivowels w, y, and r are grouped separately in a category called "sonorants."
Place of Articulation
The following categories classify sounds according to what parts of the mouth are employed in producing them.
Labial: Labial sounds are made with the lips, either by bringing the lips together to block the flow of air or by touching the lip to the teeth. Labial sounds include m, b, v, f; and w.
Tip alveolar: Tip alveolar sounds are produced with the tip of the tongue touching the alveolar ridge, the area just behind the upper front teeth. Generally, Athabaskan languages have three alveolar sounds: d, t, and t' (plain, aspirated, and glottalized).
lnterdental: Interdental sounds are pronounced with the tongue touching the teeth (as in English th sounds). Typical Athabaskan interdental sounds are ddh, tth, tth' (plain, aspirated, and glottalized stops) and th and dh (voiceless and voiced fricatives).
Lateral: Lateral sounds are l-like sounds where the air stream moves along the sides of the mouth. Except for the voiced continuant l, these sounds have no real counterparts in English. The Athabaskan lateral consonants are dl, tl, tl', l, and t*. (*written as a t with a slash through it)
Blade alveolar: Blade alveolar sounds are pronounced with the blade of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. Typical Athabaskan blade alveolar sounds are dz (plain stop), ts (aspirated stop), ts' (glottalized stop), s and z.
Retroflex: Retroflex sounds are produced with the tongue curled slightly back, as in English r. Athabaskan retroflex sounds are r, dr, tr, tr', sr, and zr.
Alveo-palatal: Alveo-palatal sounds are produced with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth near the center. They include j, ch, ch', sh, and zh.
Velar: Velar sounds are produced with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth behind the center. English g and k are velar sounds. Athabaskan languages also have glottalized velars, giving the system g, k, and k'. In Athabaskan languages the sound y is usually considered part of the velar fricative column and has a voiceless counterpart yh.
Back velar or uvular: Back velar sounds are produced with the back of the tongue touching the roof of the mouth far back near the uvula. English has no such sounds. The Athabaskan back velar system includes gg, q, q', x, and gh (x is similar to German ch and gh is similar to French r). Different orthographies treat these sounds somewhat differently: q is written kk in Koyukon and k in Ahtna (in Ahtna k is written c).
Glottal: There are just two sounds which are produced entirely by air blockage in the glottis: h (same as English h) and the glottal stop, written '. When the glottal stop is pronounced, the air stream is completely blocked, so that it sounds like a "catch" in the breath.
The vowels of the Athabaskan languages are also arranged in charts in the following pages. The vowels of most languages are divided into two groups, full and reduced. The reduced vowels are shorter in duration and more lax than the full vowels.
The vowel charts are arranged according to where the tongue is when a particular vowel is pronounced. For example, when someone speaking Tanaina says the vowel i the tongue is in a high, front position relative to the rest of the vowels; a is low and central; and u is high and back.
Some languages also have a long/short distinction among vowels. Long vowels are longer in duration than corresponding short ones but are similar or identical in all other features. Lengthening of a vowel sound is usually represented in practical orthographies by doubling the vowel character. In the following tables, the long vowels are separated from the short ones with a slash; for example, Upper Tanana has both a long and a short high front vowel, shown on the table as ii/i.