Native languages of Alaska

I just presented a poster on Iñupiaq phonetics at a conference, and while I can’t claim it’s anything other than mediocre and a work in progress, people’s questions really drove home one fact: people, whether linguists or not, really don’t know much about the language families of North America.

Let’s take a tour, shall we? Of the languages of Alaska, anyway.

(Picture from the Alaska Native Language Center.)

  • Eskimo-Aleut
    • Iñupiaq, Central Alaskan Yup’ik, Siberian Yupik, Alutiiq, Aleut
    • The Inuit subgrouping of the Eskimo branch continues through Canada all the way to Greenland.The Yupik subgrouping of Eskimo has members across the Bering Strait in Russia.
  • Na-Dene (Athabaskan)
    • Ahtna, Tanaina, Holikachuk, Deg Hit’an, Gwich’in, Koyukon, Tanana, Upper Tanacross, Lower Kuskokwim, Upper Kuskokwim, Upper Tanaina, and probably Tlingit and Eyak.
    • Also in Canada and the contiguous United States. The most famous member of this family is, of course, Navajo (hence the inset in the picture above).
  • isolates/unknown
    • The genetic grouping of Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Eyak is hotly debated. These are all in Southeast (what we Alaskans call The Panhandle), including over the border with Canada.
    • A large camp of scholars believes that Tlingit and Eyak belong to a larger family including Athabaskan (they call it Tlingit-Eyak-Athabaskan for the time being), with Haida and Tsimshian each being isolates. See a diagram here. Others question the inclusion of Tlingit and/or Eyak in Na-Dene. As I am not versed in the historical linguistics of these languages, I really have no opinion one way or the other (yet!).

So you see, there are twenty indigenous languages comprising at least two language families. Alaska is a bit unusual compared to the rest of the continent, though, where there tend to be a lot more families scattered around. I imagine the terrain and climate have something to do with that.

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3 thoughts on “Native languages of Alaska

  1. Bill Poser November 26, 2006 / 10:52 pm

    At this point I think that the only language whose inclusion in Na-Dene is uncertain is Haida. I don’t think that anyone who knew about Eyak has ever questioned its relationship to Athabaskan. The reason that Eyak does not appear in older classifications is simply that Eyak was unknown to linguists for a long time. Once Eyak became well known due to Mike Krauss’s work in the 1960’s, it was accepted as a sister of Athabaskan. Tlingit is a somewhat different case. I think that it is safe to say that all Athabaskanists now accept Tlingit as a sister of Athabaskan-Eyak. Outside of Athabaskanist circles this is not well known, in part because not much of the evidence has been published. To a large extent, the acceptance of Tlingit is due to the work of Jeff Leer, which he has presented at conferences and in venues such as his class at the 1995 Linguistic Institute, but which has otherwise not been widely disseminated.

  2. tulugaq November 27, 2006 / 12:44 pm

    Yes, that’s what I’ve gathered, too, although I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers by making claims I can’t substantiate (I’m not an Athabaskanist, after all). Unfortunately, a lot of the data aren’t available for other linguists to evaluate, so independent corroboration isn’t always possible. Luckily we have Krauss’ substantial work on Eyak (ETA: all the more important since the last speaker passed away in January 2008).

  3. James Crippen December 17, 2006 / 4:07 pm

    Jeff Leer did some very thorough analysis of the now extinct Tongass Tlingit dialect and found that it had unquestionably significant relationships with Eyak, all the more interesting because it was the most conservative of Tlingit dialects and was found in the south on the exact opposite end of Tlingit territory from the Eyak.

    See among others
    * Williams, Frank, Williams, Emma, and Leer, Jeff. 1978. Tongass Texts. Fairbanks: ANLC.
    * Leer, Jeff. 1979. Proto-athabaskan verb stem variation, part one: Phonology. Alaska Native Language Center Research Papers 1. Fairbanks: ANLC.
    * Hamp, Eric P. 1979. Tongass Tlingit and Na-Dene. Berkeley Linguistics Society 5:460–463.
    * Leer, Jeff. 1991. The schetic categories of the Tlingit verb. PhD thesis, University of Chicago.

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