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Frank Williams
Emma Williams

Transcribed and edited by
with an introduction by
Jeff Leer

Alaska Native Language Center (ANLC)
University of Alaska - Fairbanks, Alaska

The right to reproduce all or any part of the contents of this book is reserved by ANLC



About the Authors

Foreword, by Michael Krauss

Introduction, by Jeff Leer

Haa Shagoo·n Daa`t At
Concerning Our Heritage

Goo`ch Laa`kanoo`w Daa`t Sh Kalnee`k
The War at Goochlaakanoow

Lin`git Naa·gu Daa`t At
Concerning Tlingit Medicine

Atxa Daa`t At
Concerning Food

Oo`tskaa·yi Shaa`wat
The Lazy Woman

Notes on the Text

At the time this book is being published, Frank and Emma Williams have been married for 63 years. Most of this time they have lived in the same house in Ketchikan overlooking the boat harbor. From there they witnessed a gradual disappearance of the ancient Tlingit way of life and the emergence of a new generation of Tlingits.

Frank Williams has owned three fishing boats in his long career as a fisherman and sometime guide. During his childhood in Metlakatla he learned to speak Tsimshian, and to this day the Williamses are visited by their Tsimshian friends in Ketchikan.

Emma Williams has also earned money by sewing and doing beadwork over the years. As she frequently mentions in her texts, she owes much of her knowledge of the traditional Tlingit life to the fact that she was careful to listen to her mother- and father-in-law.

The Williamses have two daughters and nine grandchildren, who are listed, together with their Tlingit names as far as they are known, on the facing page.

Frank and Emma Williams - click for larger

  Frank Williams Emma Williams
Tlingit Name: Geetwei·n Kalnaa·kw
Moiety: Raven Wolf
Clan: Gaanax.adi Teikweidi
Father’s Clan: Teikweidi Gaanaax.adi
Date of Birth: February 3, 1890 June 22, 1898
Their Family (Daughters and Grandchildren)
Eleanor Allen Daxkei·x
Gene Allen
Terry Allen
Frank Allen
Terry Allen
Eleanor Olsen
Frances Hamilton K'aldal
William Hamilton
Patricia Hamilton
Harriet Hamilton
Deborah Hamilton

It is a special pleasure for me to see this volume of Tongass Tlingit texts appear. I distinctly remember a conversation with Jeff Leer in about 1971, when he mentioned to me that some years before, about 1965, he had noticed that one elderly couple in Ketchikan spoke a remarkably different dialect of Southern Tlingit. As he described it, I was reminded of my work with the Eyak language, also spoken by only a very few people, and with similar traits which answered many questions about the related Athabaskan language family. I immediately urged Jeff to investigate further.

Unlike all other speakers of Tlingit Jeff had heard, Mr. And Mrs. Williams spoke Tlingit without the usual tones. Instead of low-toned vowels, the Williamses had a special "fading-energy" pronunciation, and instead of long high-toned vowels, they had two different kinds, clipped or glottalized, and long sustained vowels, unpredictably. This meant that one can predict from the Williamses’ speech what the rest of Tlingit will be, but from the rest of Tlingit, one cannot predict what the Williamses’ pronunciation will be; and this means that the Williamses have preserved certain information about the ancestral Tlingit language which is no longer to be found in the rest of Tlingit. They have thus kept a legacy that is precious to the whole Tlingit nation. They and Jeff Leer are to be thanked for having understood the importance of this legacy, and for having done this work to preserve it for all.

Michael Krauss


The Tongass Dialect

The Tongass dialect of Tlingit is now spoken by Mr. And Mrs. Frank Williams in Ketchikan, and perhaps by one or two others in Metlaktla. It is the most conservative dialect of Tlingit; besides retaining a vowel nucleus system similar to that of Eyak and being therefore of great comparative interest, it preserves the phoneme y ([i], identical with Tsimshian w, Boas’s r), and in common with the rest of Southern Tlingit, maintains stems of the shape CiCw, which usually become CuCw in Northern Tlingit. As is the case with Eyak, the value of this dialect to comparative Na-Dene linguistics is inversely proportional to the number of speakers.

When I began my acquaintance with the Williamses about 1966 I noted the existence of medial glottal stops in this dialect; but at that time I did not realize how few Tlingits spoke as they did. Since 1974 I have resumed contact with the Williamses, and together we went through the Naish-Story noun and verb dictionaries, so that the stem inventory of Tongass Tlingit is relatively well covered. In 1974 the Williamses also recorded these texts, except for the story of the lazy woman, which was recorded in 1978. at that time also I read these texts to the Williamses, who made the corrections and changes they felt were appropriate.

It is hoped that not only will these texts provide an interesting addition to the field of Na-Dene linguistics, but also a personal legacy from the Williamses to their descendants, and an addition to that which will be preserved of the Tlingit heritage for the era that follows them.

The Consonant System

The Tlingit consonant system is quite straightforward and stable throughout the whole Tlingit community, the only exception being the merging of y and y in most modern Tlingit. Following is a consonant chart showing the standardized orthography, which is used in this book:

Affricative Series
  Dental Lateral Sibilant Shibilant Unrounded Rounded Unrounded Rounded Glottal
Plain Stops
Aspirated Stops
Glottalized Stops
Plain Fricatives  
Glottalized Fricatives  

[Table Note] 1not written word-initially
[Alaskool note: Tlingit language sound chart with audio here]

Plain and aspirated stops contrast only syllable-initially; syllable-finally or preceding a consonant they are phonetically and orthographically aspirated stops, but morphologically it is usually more convenient to represent them as plain stops, since syllable-final non-glottalized stops almost always appear as plain stops when a suffix beginning with a vowel is added, e.g. Tongass Tlingit hit 'house', du hid-i 'her house'.

Velar and uvular stops are always rounded immediately following the rounded vowel (u, oo) or a rounded consonant in the same word, and with some speakers (including the Williamses) even across word boundaries. Thus it is not necessary to write the w following a rounded velar or uvular after the vowels u and oo, and this is not done in the practical orthography. Also, in a cluster of two rounded consonants, w may be written after only one of the rounded consonants. Thus instead of x'ux'w we write x'ux' 'book', and instead of aa’ yei` tixwx'w we may write aa’ yei` tixwx' 'they are always there'.

The velar sonants y1 [i] and w [u] behave exactly like the other unrounded-rounded pairs in Tongass Tlingit; thus y > w following the vowels u and oo. Within the body of a word morphological y is spelled w when rounded, or else it would look unfamiliar to other Tlingits who do not retain y as a distinct phoneme, and thus cannot consider w simply as a rounded version of y. Some Tlingits who merge the phoneme y with y still retain y as a morphophoneme, such that it becomes w after u or oo. With other Tlingits most occurrences of this morphophonemic y are reinterpreted as immutable y. This is true of most modern Tlingit speakers across word boundaries. Therefore, across word boundaries we have written y instead of w after u or oo, so as to make the words more recognizable to Tlingit readers; in such cases we have given the phonetic spelling in parentheses following the line, to remind the reader how these are to be read.

For example, compare the following words, which illustrate the change of y from a phoneme into a morphophoneme:

Tongass Tlingit Conservative Northern Tlingit Innovative Northern Tlingit  
yak’ei· yak'éi yak'éi 'it is good'
kuwak'éi kuwak'éi 'the weather is good'
yei’ ayaw` skaa` yéi ayawsikaa yéi ayawsikaa 'he said to them' (def.)
yei’ kuwaw`skaa`
(=. .kuyaw. .)
yéi kuwawsikaa yéi kuyawsikaa 'he said to them' (indef.)
ax yee·t ax yéet ax yéet 'my son'
du yee·t du wéet du yéet 'his son'

The Vowel System

The most interesting feature of Tongass Tlingit from a comparative point of view is that it differs from the rest of Tlingit in having a system of vowel nucleus modification which is basically non-tonal, but rather closely resembles that of Eyak. This fact is especially significant in view of the fact that the Tongass community is located at the southernmost end of the Tlingit territory, and shows signs of long association with the Tsimshians, whereas the Eyak homeland is located at the northernmost end of the Tlingit territory, the southernmost of the known Eyak settlements being at Yakutat, where according to local tradition2Tlingits from the south moved in next to the Eyaks in comparatively recent times. Hence it seems out of the question that the common features of the vowel nucleus systems of Eyak and Tongass Tlingit are due to areal contact in recent times; it seems much more likely that this system of modified vowel nuclei reflects the original Na-Dene system which has given rise to the tone systems in most Tlingit and in Athabaskan.3 Ironically, both the language and the dialect retaining varieties of the original vowel nucleus system have only two or three speakers surviving.

There are four vowels in Tlingit, which have single-vowel spellings when short, and double-vowel spellings when long:

short (V)
long (VV)

In transcribing Tongass Tlingit, the short vowels are used to represent unmodified vowels, which are short and correspond to the short vowels in other Tlingit, whereas the long vowels followed by a symbol (· ‘ ` ) are used to represent modified vowels, which correspond to long vowels in other Tlingit. Thus the four types of vowel nuclei are:

      1. Short or unmodified (V): the vowel is short and usually mid to high in pitch. Where the syllable is stressed (this is limited to stem syllables, for rhetoric effect or emphasis), it is pronounced at a higher pitch than the preceding syllables.
      2. Sustained (VV·): the vowel is at least twice the length of a short (unmodified) vowel. If the syllable is stressed, it tends to start at a high pitch and gradually become lower, but the effect is not at all similar to the sudden decrescendo characteristic of the fading nucleus.
      3. Clipped (VV’): the vowel is modified by closing the glottis; in other words, this kind of nucleus is equivalent to a short vowel followed by a glottal stop.
      4. Fading (VV`): the vowel is modified by opening the glottis, which results in a rapid fading in the volume and pitch of the vowel accompanied in some cases by breathiness. The fading character of this nucleus is especially exaggerated when the syllable is stressed, as for stylistic effect. Where the syllable is not stressed, the fading effect is much less noticeable and tends to sound like a mid- or low-toned syllable. In either case, however, a fading nucleus is not as long as a long nucleus, but is definitely longer than a short (unmodified) nucleus.

In a very few morphemes we also find sequences of the type VR`, where R is a sonant (y, w, n). in these nuclei, the fading co-occurs with the sonant; the distinction between VR` and VR· is quite marginal and appears to be disappearing from the language. In one case the Williamses felt that there was a distinction between yan· 'hemlock' and yan` 'shore, mainland', but this was not upheld by subsequent checking. Another interesting case is the word lin`git, 'person', which in Saanyaa-Heinyaa Tlingit is lìngít, with irregular low tone on the first syllable. Some Northern speakers also perceive this word as leengít rather than lingít. Similar is the modifier tlen` 'big', Saanyaa-Heinyaa tlen, Northern tlein. Another source for this contrast is found in the contraction of verbal prefixes CV-wu- ® CVw`-, as opposed to the contractions CV-yi-® CVy- and CV-na- ® CVn-, where the sonants are not fading. Apart from these few survivals it does not seem to be possible to retrieve morpheme-specific contrasts, there being too much free variation.

It is interesting to note that coastal Tsimshian has a virtually identical contrast between sustained and fading vowel nuclei both with long vowels and with short vowels followed by a sonant. The fading nuclei in Coastal Tsimshian correspond to forms involving glottalization in other dialects, e.g. Coastal Tsimshian halo·` 'cloth', Gitksan halo?o; Coastal Tsimshian ts'il` 'face, eye', Gitksan ts'a?a. Besides the contrast between sustained and fading vowel nuclei, Coastal Tsimshian has syllable-medial glottal stops (in Tsimshian, however, these are followed by an echo vowel, unlike Tongass Tlingit). Thus it appears likely that the Tsimshian phonology exerted a conservative influence on Tongass Tlingit, so that it retained the archaic vowel modification system—or it may be that the reverse is true—that Tlingit may have had an influence on Coastal Tsimshian phonology. In any case, there was clearly areal influence, and clues to the history of the Tlingit vowel nucleus system may perhaps be found in Tsimshian.

The following chart shows the relationship of the Tongass vowel nucleus system to that of Eyak.

Tongass Tlingit
V (short)
V (reduced)
V` (fading)
Vh (aspirated)
V’ (clipped)
V? (glottalized)
V· (sustained)
V· (long)
V·? (long glottalized)

Schematically the Eyak system differs from the Tongass Tlingit system in that Eyak has two slots following the vowel, length and glottal modification; whereas in Tongass Tlingit length is exclusive of glottal modification, so that they occupy the same slot.

Tongass Tlingit
V +{ ` ‘ ·}
V + · + { h ? }, where V·= V·h

All four types of vowel nuclei occur contrastively in both open and closed stems. Following are the correspondences between the Tongass vowel nuclei and their tone reflexes in the Saanyaa dialect of Saxman-Ketchikan and the Heinyaa dialect of Klawock-Craig, as well as with the Northern dialects, which include all other Tlingit. (V = short vowel, VV = long vowel; tones are high ‘, falling ^ (slightly glottalized preceding a glottalized consonant), low`; low tone is left unmarked in the practical orthography for Northern Tlingit, since there are only two tones.)

Stem Nuclei Tongass Saanyaa-Heinyaa Northern
V *V

{*V (stressed) }

    {V (unstressed)}
VV· {*VV (except before sonant *VV
  {**VV (before sonant)}  
VV‘ **VV *VV
VV` ***VV VV

[Table Notes:
*denotes accent such as "á" above first "V"
** denotes carrot such as "â" above first "V"
***denotes accent such as "à" above first "V"]

In northern Tlingit, short stem nuclei are unstressed and low-toned when they precede the head noun in a noun phrase. Examples are:

ta 'he is sleeping'
    ta káa 'sleeping man'
aa· áa áa 'lake'
hee·n hêen héen 'water'
kaa’ kâa káa 'man'
shaa` shaàa shaa 'mountain'

In prefix syllables which include object and possessive pronouns as well as all pre-stem syllables in a word, there seems to be a three-way contrast in Tongass Tlingit: short, sustained, and fading. The contrast between sustained and fading prefix syllables was not discovered until these texts were being edited, principally because this contrast is not as consistently maintained in prefix syllables as it is in stem syllables, especially in isolated elicitations. In transcribing the texts, however, it was noticeable that certain long prefix syllable nuclei, such as too- 'we (l.pl. subject pronoun)', yee- 'you (2.pl. subject pronoun)', haa 'us, our (l.pl. object pronoun and possessive pronoun)', yee, hee 'you, your (2.pl. object pronoun and possessive pronoun)’, kaa 'one, one's (indefinite object pronoun and possessive pronoun)', consistently lacked the fading character, and were thus identified with sustained vowel nuclei, although they are not as long as sustained nuclei in stems. Other prefix syllables consistently had fading nuclei in distinct speech, although the fading was sometimes brief and hard to hear in rapid speech, at times manifesting itself simply as a lowering of the tone of the prefix syllable. This contrast does not manifest itself in other dialects of Tlingit, where there is only a two-way contrast between long and short syllables. The correspondences are as follows:

Tongass Saanyaa Heinyaa Northern  
V *V *{V} V  
VV} ***VV {***V1} VV  
VV`}   ***VV    
xadana xádáná xádáná xadaná 'I'm drinking it'
tudana túdáná tùdáná tudaná 'we’re drinking it'
wudwajak wúdwáják wútwáják wuduwaják 'it was killed'
wutwajak wútwáják wútwàják wutuwaják 'we killed it'
akashaxee`t akashaxèet ákàsháxèet akashaxeet 'he is writing it'
tookee·n tòokêen tòokêen tookéen 'we are sitting'
woo kee wòokèe wòokèe wookee 'they sat down'

[Table Note] 1The prefix syllables kà-, kù-, tù-, regardless of their origin, are marked for low tone. If the vowel of one of these syllables is dropped by contraction, the following prefix syllable assumes low tone.

[*denotes accent such as "á" above first "V"]
[***denotes accent such as "à" above first "V"]

Preverbial particles of the shape CVV` are pronounced with a clipped vowel before words which begin with a glottal stop (which is not written word-initially; all words which begin with a vowel orthographically are headed phonetically by a glottal stop). Thus, compare for example

aa’ yei` yatee` 'she lives there'
aa’ yei’ iyatee` 'you live there'

It should be noted that CVV’ (?)V… is indistinguishable from CV (?)V…, so that the last example could as well be written aa’ ye iyatee`; using the clipped vowel simply involves minimal respelling and places less of a burden on the Tlingit reader.

Prenominal demonstratives may have short or long vowels in all Tlingit, e.g. Tongass Tlingit ya, yaa, or even yaa· 'this', elsewhere yá or yáa. Phrase-final demonstratives, however, have fading (low) nuclei in Southern Tlingit, e.g. Tongass ayaa`, Saanyaa-Heinyaa áyàa, but Northern áyá.

In suffix syllables three types of vowel nuclei occur, short, fading, and sustained, but in all Southern Tlingit (Tongass, Saanyaa, Heinyaa), these are in complementary distribution, so that there is no contrast between even long and short suffix syllables.

In Northern Tlingit, however, there exists a contrast between tow kinds of vowel nuclei in suffixes. For some speakers, there is an actual difference in the length as well as tonal behavior; whereas other speakers do not have the length contrast, but the two types still contrast in tonal behavior. In Northern Tlingit, all open suffixes are long4 except for the epenthetic vowel -i/-u, which is not a morpheme but a phonologically determined insert to prevent certain consonant clusters. Closed suffixes containing the vowel a are all short, whereas those containing the vowels i or u are long, except the contingent suffix -in/-un '(whenever)', which may plausibly be identified with the postbase -n 'with' separated from the stem by the epenthetic vowel -i/-u. Short-voweled suffixes are always high-toned, whereas long-voweled suffixes are high-toned after a low-toned syllable and low-toned after a high-toned syllable. Many Northern speakers consistently or optionally shorten the vowel of long-voweled suffixes except those ending in -aa; nevertheless, these shortened suffixes behave tonally as described above for long-voweled suffixes.

In Southern Tlingit, all suffix syllables are usually short except those ending in -aa, which are shortened before a suffix, sustained (high) following a fading (low) vowel, and fading (low) elsewhere. Short suffix syllables are high-toned in Saanyaa-Heinyaa Tlingit as in Northern Tlingit.

This rather complicated state of affairs may be best illustrated by actual examples.

Tongass Saanyaa-Heinyaa Northern  
(underlyingly long in Northern Tlingit)      
ax hid-i áx hídí

ax hídee
ax hídi

'my house'
ax aa`n-i áx àaní

ax aanéez
ax aaní

'my town'
ax jee`-wu áx jèewú ax jeewóo
ax yeewú
'I have …'

Tongass Saanyaa-Heinyaa Northern  
ax jee`-de áx jèedé

ax jeedéi}
ax jeedé}

'(give) to me'
ax xan-de áx xándé

ax xándei
ax xande

'to me'
ax jee`-gaa· áx jèegáa ax jeegáa
'enough for me'
ax xan-gaa` áx xán-gàa ax xángaa 'close to me'
s'ee `n-aa· s'èenáa s'eenáa 'light, lamp'
ax s'ee`n-a-yi ax s’è'náyí ax s'eenáyee}
ax s'eenáyi}
'my light'
oo’n-aa` (or oo’na) ôonàa óonaa 'gun'
ax oo’n-a-yi ax ôonáyí ax óonayee}
ax óonayi}
'my gun'
xasaxan-in xásáxánín xasaxáneen}
'I used to love her'
(underlying short in Northern Tlingit    
kaa `kasaxan kàakásáxán (ín) kaakasaxánín 'whenever I love her'
hitx' saa·ni hítx' (í) sâaní hítx’í sáanee}
hítx'í sáani}
'small houses'
nee·gwal' néegwál' néegwál' 'paint'
daxnax kaa’ dáxnáx kâa xx káa 'two men'

Prefix Contraction in Southern Tlingit

In all Southern Tlingit, from Kake on, certain common open prefix syllables sonsisting of a consonant plus i or u are contracted, with the provision that if it is possible for either of two contractions to take place, only the rightward one will occur. Most frequently contracted are the classifiers whose vowel is i,

  di- ® t-
li- ® l- dli ® tl-
si- ® s- dzi ® ts-
shi- ® sh - ji- ® ch-

and the subject pronouns tu- 'we'® t-, and du- 'one; they (indef.)'® t- (but in Saanyaa and Tongass Tlingit du-wa- ® dwa-, thus kept distinct from tu-wa ® twa-). Also, the syllable gi-, formed by the contraction of ga- and i- 'you sing.' contracts to k-. These subject pronoun and classifier contractions do not take place when the morpheme is word-initial unless it is close junction with a preceding open syllable. Thus compare:

litsee`n litseen 'he is strong'
xat litsee`n xat litseen 'I am strong'
haa` ltsee`n haa litseen 'we are strong'
du twaa’ sigoo·}
du twaa’ sgoo·}
du tuwáa sigóo 'he likes it'
xwas.ee xwasi.ée 'I cooked it'
kaxwas.ee· kaxwsi.ée 'I cooked it' (round obj.)
wutus.ee· wutusi.ée 'we cooked it'
wut.sa.ee`yin1 wutusa.eeyín 'we had cooked it'
wuduts.ee· wududzi.ée 'it is cooked'
wut.s.ee`yin1 wudus.eeyín 'it was cooked'
kakdatee’w {kagidatóow (-téew)}
{gagidatóow (-téew)}
'you will read'

[Table Note] 1A period is used to separate s and h and t and s when they are separate phonemes, to avoid confusion with the digraphs sh and ts.

Other details of the verbal prefixes are different from Northern Tlingit, but these will not be discussed here.

The following prefixes, nominal in origin, are the most frequently occurring of those which contract when they constitute open syllables. They do not contract immediately preceding verb stems.

ji- ® ch- 'hand, etc.'
lu- ® l- 'nose'
shu- ® sh- 'end'

Note that the surrounding consonants remain rounded when the vowel u is dropped: thus shu-ka 'front' (phonetically shukwa) ® shkwa, xu-ka ® xkwa aatop (the midst)', ch'a gunayei·dax ku.oo` or ch'a kwnayei· dax ku.oo` 'people from another place'.


1 In transcription the underline is not raised.
2 As told by the late Harry Bremner of the Galyax Kaagwaantaan.
3 The reconstruction of the Athabaskan vowel nucleus system is explored in my unpublished paper entitled "Spirantization and the development of suprasegmentals in Proto-Athabaskan."
4 except that suffixes ending in -aa shorten when followed by the suffix -yee (-yi).

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