Na-Dene languages

North America
Linguistic classificationDené–Yeniseian?
  • Na-Dene
ISO 639-5xnd

Na-Dene (/ˌnɑːdɪˈneɪ/ NAH-dih-NAY; also Nadene, Na-Dené, Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit, Tlina–Dene) is a family of Native American languages that includes at least the Athabaskan languages, Eyak, and Tlingit languages. Haida was formerly included, but is now considered doubtful. By far the most widely spoken Na-Dene language today is Navajo.

In February 2008, a proposal connecting Na-Dene (excluding Haida) to the Yeniseian languages of central Siberia into a Dené–Yeniseian family was published and well-received by a number of linguists. It was proposed in a 2014 paper that the Na-Dene languages of North America and the Yeniseian languages of Siberia had a common origin in a language spoken in Beringia, between the two continents.


Edward Sapir originally constructed the term Na-Dene to refer to a combined family of Athabaskan, Tlingit, and Haida (the existence of the Eyak language was not known to him at the time). In his “The Na-Dene languages: A preliminary report”, he describes how he arrived at the term (Sapir 1915, p. 558):

The name that I have chosen for the stock, Na-dene, may be justified by reference to no. 51 of the comparative vocabulary. Dene, in various dialectic forms, is a wide-spread Athabaskan term for “person, people”; the element *-ne (*-n, *-η) which forms part of it is an old stem for “person, people” which, as suffix or prefix, is frequently used in Athabaskan in that sense. It is cognate with H. [= Haida] na "to dwell; house" and Tl. [= Tlingit] na “people”. The compound term Na-dene thus designates by means of native stems the speakers of the three languages concerned, besides continuing the use of the old term Dene for the Athabaskan branch of the stock.

Family division

In its uncontroversial core, Na-Dene consists of two branches, Tlingit and Athabaskan–Eyak:

For linguists who follow Edward Sapir in connecting Haida to the above languages, Haida represents an additional branch, with Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit together forming the other. Dene or Dine (the Athabaskan languages) is a widely distributed group of Native languages spoken by associated peoples in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Saskatchewan, Yukon, Alaska, parts of Oregon, northern California, and the American Southwest as far as northern Mexico.

The southwestern division of Athabaskan is also called Southern Athabaskan or Apachean, and includes Navajo and all the Apache languages. Eyak was spoken in south-central Alaska; the last first language speaker died in 2008. Navajo is by far the most widely spoken language of the Na-Dene family, spoken in Arizona, New Mexico, and other regions of the American Southwest.

Typological profile of Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit

All of these languages share a highly complex prefixing verb structure in which tense and mood markers are interdigitated between subject and object agreement markers. The morphological hallmark of the family is a series of prefixes found directly before the verb root that raise or lower the transitivity of the verb word. These prefixes, traditionally known as "classifiers", derive historically from a combination of three distinct classes of morphemes and are not found in any other Native American language family.

The phoneme system contains a large number of dorsal (velar or uvular) consonants (fronting in many modern Athabaskan languages to palatals and velars, correspondingly) as well as a general absence of labial obstruents (except where /b/ has arisen from *w). In the historical phonology there is a widespread tendency, observable across many Athabaskan languages, for phonemic tonal distinctions to arise from glottal features originally found at the end of the syllable. The glottal features in question are often evident in Eyak or Tlingit. These languages are typologically unusual in containing extensive prefixation yet being SOV and postpositional, features normally associated with suffixing languages.

Proposals of deeper genealogical relations involving Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit

A genealogical connection between the Tlingit, Eyak and Athabaskan languages was suggested early in the 19th century, but not universally accepted until much later. Haida, with 15 fluent speakers (M. Krauss, 1995), was originally linked to Tlingit by Franz Boas in 1894. Both Haida and Tlingit were then connected to Athabaskan by Edward Sapir in 1915. Linguists such as Lyle Campbell (1997) today consider the evidence inconclusive. They have classified Haida as a language isolate. In order to emphasise the exclusion of Haida, Campbell refers to the language family as Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit rather than Na-Dene. In 2010 Jeff Leer published extensive primary materials on what he calls PAET (Proto-Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit).


In 2008, Edward Vajda of Western Washington University presented evidence suggesting that the Na-Dene languages (Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit) might be related to the Yeniseian (or Yeniseic) languages of Siberia, the only living representative of which is the Ket language.

Key evidence by current comparative methodologies includes homologies in verb prefixes and also a systematic correspondence between the distribution of Ket tones and consonant articulations found in Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit. Vajda's paper has been favorably reviewed by several experts on Na-Dene and Yeniseic languages, including Michael Krauss, Jeff Leer, James Kari, and Heinrich Werner, as well as a number of other well-known linguists, including Bernard Comrie, Johanna Nichols, Victor Golla, Michael Fortescue, and Eric Hamp. The conclusion of this seminar was that the comparison with Yeniseic data shows that Haida cannot be classified in a genealogical unit with Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit.


A link between the Na–Dené languages and Sino-Tibetan languages, known as Sino–Dené was proposed by Edward Sapir. Around 1920 Sapir became convinced that Na-Dené was more closely related to Sino-Tibetan than to other American families. He wrote a series of letters to Alfred Kroeber where he enthusiastically spoke of a connection between Na-Dene and "Indo-Chinese". In 1925, a supporting article summarizing his thoughts, albeit not written by him, entitled "The Similarities of Chinese and Indian Languages", was published in Science Supplements.

Edward Vadja's Dené–Yeniseian proposal renewed interest among linguists such as Geoffrey Caveney (2014) to look into support for the Sino–Dené hypothesis. Caveney considered a link between Sino-Tibetan, Na-Dené, and Yeniseian to be plausible but did not support the hypothesis that Sino-Tibetan and Na-Dené were related to the Caucasian languages (Sino–Caucasian and Dené–Caucasian).

A 2023 analysis by David Bradley using the standard techniques of comparative linguistics supports a distant genetic link between the Sino-Tibetan, Na-Dené, and Yeniseian language families. Bradley argues that any similarities Sino-Tibetan shares with other language families of the East Asia area such as Hmong-Mien, Altaic (which is actually a sprachbund), Austroasiatic, Kra-Dai, Austronesian came through contact; but as there has been no recent contact between Sino-Tibetan, Na-Dené, and Yeniseian language families then any similarities these groups share must be residual.

Other proposals

According to Joseph Greenberg's controversial classification of the languages of Native North America, Na-Dené (including Haida) is one of the three main groups of Native languages spoken in the Americas. Contemporary supporters of Greenberg's theory, such as Merritt Ruhlen, have suggested that the Na-Dené language family represents a distinct migration of people from Asia into the New World that occurred six to eight thousand years ago, placing it around four thousand years later than the previous migration into the Americas by Amerind speakers; this remains an unproven hypothesis. Ruhlen speculates that the Na-Dené speakers may have arrived in boats, initially settling near the Haida Gwaii, now in British Columbia, Canada.

Bouda, in various publications in the 1930s through the 1950s, described a linguistic network that (besides Yeniseian and Sino-Tibetan) also included Caucasian, and Burushaski, some forms of which have gone by the name of Sino-Caucasian. The works of R. Bleichsteiner and O.G. Tailleur, the late Sergei A. Starostin and Sergei L. Nikolayev have sought to confirm these connections. Others who have developed the hypothesis, often expanded to Dené–Caucasian, include J.D. Bengtson, V. Blažek, J.H. Greenberg (with M. Ruhlen), and M. Ruhlen. George Starostin continues his father's work in Yeniseian, Sino-Caucasian and other fields. This theory is very controversial or viewed as obsolete by other linguists.

Obstruent correspondences

This phonological chart shows where the listed varieties have sounds which are the same, similar, and sometimes different. The sounds shown, obstruents, are a particular class of consonants. Where similarities are found between one or more varieties, this presents at least some evidence of genetic relatedness among those varieties.

Obstruent correspondences
PAET PAE PA Eyak Tlingit
Normal L-assim.
tɬʼ ɬʼ, tɬʼ
ɬ ɬ~l ɬ
tʃʼ , tʃʼ (tsʼ) tɬʼ
ʃ ʂ~ʐ ʃ (s) ɬ
ɡʲ dz [dz], s~z dz ɡ
ts ts ts
k, ʃ
tsʼ tsʼ , tsʼ tɬʼ, ɬ
s s s~z s ʃ
s; ʃ x
ɡ ɡʲ ɡ ɡ(ʷ)
ɡʷ ɖʐ ɡʷ→ɡ
k k k(ʷ)
ʈʂ kʷ→k
kʲʼ xʼ(ʷ), kʼ(ʷ)
kʷʼ ʈʂʼ kʼʷ→kʼ
x xʲ~j x x
ʂ~ʐ xʷ→x
ɢ ɢ ɢ(ʷ)
ɢʷ ɢʷ→ɢ
q q q(ʷ)
qʷʼ qʷʼ→qʼ χʼ,qʼ(ʷ)
χ χ~ʁ χ χ(ʷ)
χʷ χʷ→χ~ʁ χʷ
Extrasystematic fricative correspondences
sx x xʲ~j x s
ʃx ʃ
$ x(ʷ)? $ (ʃ~xʲ) xʷ→x; s χ

Table notes:

  1. To prevent cluttering the table, phonemes in the PAET, PAE and PA columns are not asterisked.
  2. Leer (2008, 2010) does not reconstruct the PAET affricates */dɮ/, */tɬ/ and */dz/. Judging from their rarity, he assumes they may be attributable to the resolution of former consonant clusters.
  3. In Athabaskan and Eyak, sibilants can be diminutive variants of shibilants. In Tlingit, on the other hand, shibilants might sometimes be diminutive variants of sibilants. These correspondences are in parentheses.

See also

Explanatory footnotes

  1. ^ Proto-Athabaskan–Eyak–Tlingit
  2. ^ Proto-Athabaskan–Eyak
  3. ^ Proto-Athabaskan


  1. ^ a b Dene–Yeniseic Symposium Archived 2018-11-15 at the Wayback Machine, University of Alaska Fairbanks, February 2008, accessed 30 Mar 2010
  2. ^ Mark A. Sicoli and Gary Holton, Linguistic Phylogenies Support Back-Migration from Beringia to Asia, PLoS ONE, March 12, 2014, accessed November 25, 2014.
  3. ^
  4. ^ See Vajda 2010
  5. ^ Ruhlen, Merritt (1998-11-10). "The origin of the Na-Dene". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 95 (23): 13994–13996. Bibcode:1998PNAS...9513994R. doi:10.1073/pnas.95.23.13994. ISSN 0027-8424. PMC 25007. PMID 9811914.
  6. ^ Orlandi, Georg (2021-12-01). "Once again on the history and validity of the Sino-Tibetan bifurcate model / Еще раз к вопросу об истории и степени обоснованности бинарной модели классификации сино-тибетских языков". Journal of Language Relationship. 19 (3–4): 263–292. doi:10.1515/jlr-2021-193-409 (inactive 31 January 2024). ISSN 2219-4029.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of January 2024 (link)
  7. ^ Caveney, Geoffrey (2014). "Sino-Tibetan ŋ- and Na-Dene *kw- / *gw- / *xw-: 1st Person Pronouns and Lexical Cognate Sets". Journal of Chinese Linguistics. 42 (2): 461–487. JSTOR 24774894.
  8. ^ Bradley, David (2023-07-24). "Ancient Connections of Sinitic". Languages. 8 (3): 176. doi:10.3390/languages8030176. ISSN 2226-471X.
  9. ^ Wade, Nicholas (11 July 2012). "Earliest Americans arrived in 3 waves, not 1, DNA study finds". New York Times. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
  10. ^ "Center for the Study of the First Americans". Anthropology. Texas A&M University. 15 May 2011. Archived from the original on 20 November 2016.
  11. ^ See Bleichsteiner 1930
  12. ^ See Tailleur 1958 and Tailleur 1994
  13. ^ See Starostin 1982, Starostin 1984, Starostin 1991, Starostin & Ruhlen 1994
  14. ^ See Nikola(y)ev 1991
  15. ^ See Bengtson 1994, Bengtson 1998, Bengtson 2008
  16. ^ See Blažek & Bengtson 1995
  17. ^ See Greenberg & Ruhlen, Greenberg & Ruhlen 1997
  18. ^ See Ruhlen 1997, Ruhlen 1998a, Ruhlen 1998b
  19. ^ See Reshetnikov & Starostin 1995a, Reshetnikov & Starostin 1995b, Dybo & Starostin
  20. ^ Trask, R. L. (2000). The Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pg. 85
  21. ^ Dalby, Andrew (1998). Dictionary of Languages. New York: Columbia University Press. pg. 434
  22. ^ Sanchez-Mazas, Alicia; Blench, Roger; Ross, Malcolm D.; Peiros, Ilia; Lin, Marie (2008-07-25). Past Human Migrations in East Asia: Matching Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics. Routledge. ISBN 9781134149629.

General and cited references

  • Bengtson, J. D. (1994), "Edward Sapir and the 'Sino-Dene' Hypothesis", Anthropological Science, 102 (3): 207–230, doi:10.1537/ase.102.207, ISSN 0918-7960.
  • Dürr, Michael & Renner, Egon (1995), "The history of the Na-Dene controversy: A sketch.", in Renner, Egon & Dürr, Michael (eds.), Language and Culture in North America: Studies in Honor of Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow, Lincom Studies in Native American Linguistics, vol. 2, Munich: Lincom Europa, pp. 3–18, ISBN 978-3-89586-004-1.
  • Enrico, John (2004), "Toward Proto–Na-Dene", Anthropological Linguistics, 46 (3): 229–302, JSTOR 30028963.
  • Goddard, Pliny E. (1920), "Has Tlingit a Genetic Relation to Athapascan?", International Journal of American Linguistics, 1 (4): 266–279, doi:10.1086/463725, JSTOR 1263201.
  • Greenberg, J. H. (1987), Language in the Americas, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, ISBN 978-0-8047-1315-3.
  • Greenberg, J. H. & Ruhlen, Merritt (1992), "Linguistic Origins of Native Americans", Scientific American, 267 (5): 94–99, Bibcode:1992SciAm.267e..94G, doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1192-94.
  • Hamp, Eric P. (1979), "Tongass Tlingit and Na-Dene", Berkeley Linguistics Society, vol. 5, pp. 460–463.
  • Hymes, Dell (1956), "Na-Déné and Positional Analysis of Categories", American Anthropologist, 58 (4): 624–628, doi:10.1525/aa.1956.58.4.02a00040, JSTOR 666161.
  • Hymes, Dell (1995), "Na-Dene ethnopoetics: A preliminary report: Haida and Tlingit", in Renner, Egon; Dürr, Michael (eds.), Language and Culture in North America: Studies in Honor of Heinz-Jürgen Pinnow, Lincom Studies in Native American Linguistics, vol. 2, Munich: Lincom Europa, pp. 265–311, ISBN 978-3-89586-004-1.
  • Kaye, Alan S. (1992), "Distant Genetic Relationship and Edward Sapir", Semiotica, 91 (3/4): 273–300, doi:10.1515/semi.1992.91.3-4.273, S2CID 170479577.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1964), "Proto-Athapaskan–Eyak and the problem of Na-Dene: The phonology", International Journal of American Linguistics, 30 (2): 118–136, doi:10.1086/464766, S2CID 144615266.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1965), "Proto-Athapaskan–Eyak and the problem of Na-Dene II: The morphology", International Journal of American Linguistics, 31 (1): 18–28, doi:10.1086/464810, S2CID 144404147.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1968), "Noun classification systems in Athapaskan, Eyak, Tlingit, and Haida verbs", International Journal of American Linguistics, 34 (3): 194–203, doi:10.1086/465014, S2CID 143582680.
  • Krauss, Michael E. (1973), "Na-Dene", in Sebeok, Thomas A. (ed.), Linguistics in North America, Current Trends in Linguistics, vol. 10, The Hague: Mouton, pp. 903–978.
  • Leer, Jeff (1979), Proto-Athabaskan verb stem variation, part one: Phonology, Alaska Native Language Center Papers, vol. 1, Fairbanks, Alaska: Alaska Native Language Center.
  • Leer, Jeff (1989), "Directional systems in Athapaskan and Na-Dene", in Cook, Eung-Do; Rice, Keren (eds.), Athapaskan linguistics: Current perspectives on a language family, Trends in linguistics: State of the art reports, vol. 15, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 575–622, ISBN 978-0-89925-282-7.
  • Leer, Jeff (2010), Kari, James; Potter, Ben (eds.), "The Dene–Yeniseian Connection", Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, 5 (new series): 33–99, 168–193
  • Leer, Jeff; Hitch, Doug & Ritter, John (2001), Interior Tlingit noun dictionary: The dialects spoken by Tlingit elders of Carcross and Teslin, Yukon, and Atlin, British Columbia, Whitehorse, Yukon Territory: Yukon Native Language Centre, ISBN 978-1-55242-227-4.
  • Levine, Robert D. (1979), "Haida and Na-Dene: A new look at the evidence", International Journal of American Linguistics, 45 (2): 157–170, doi:10.1086/465587, S2CID 143503584.
  • Manaster Ramer, A. (1996), "Sapir's Classifications: Haida and the Other Na-Dene Languages", Anthropological Linguistics, 38 (2): 179–216, JSTOR 30028930.
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (1962), "Two problems of the historical phonology of Na-Dene languages", International Journal of American Linguistics, 28: 162–166.[failed verification]
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (1964), "On the historical position of Tlingit", International Journal of American Linguistics, 30 (2): 155–164, doi:10.1086/464770, S2CID 144439574.
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (1966), Grundzüge einer historischen Lautlehre des Tlingit (in German), Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. (in German)
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (1968a), "Genetic relationships versus borrowing in Na-Dene", International Journal of American Linguistics, 34 (3): 194–203, doi:10.1086/465015, S2CID 144800160.
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (1968b), "Sprachhistorische Studien zur Verbstammvariation im Tlingit", Orbis (in German), 17: 509–531. (in German)
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (1970), "Notes on the classifiers in the Na-Dene languages", International Journal of American Linguistics, 36 (1): 63–67, doi:10.1086/465094, S2CID 145769810.
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (1976), Geschichte der Na-Dene-Forschung, Indiana Beihefte (in German), vol. 5, Berlin: Mann, ISBN 978-3-7861-3027-7. (in German)
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (1985), Das Haida als Na-Dene Sprache, Abhandlungen der völkerkundlichen Arbeitsgemeinschaft (in German), vol. 43–46, Nortorf, Germany: Völkerkundliche Arbeitsgemeinschaft.
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (2006a), Die Na-Dene-Sprachen im Lichte der Greenberg-Klassifikation [The Na-Déné Languages in Light of Greenberg's Classification] (in German) (2nd revised ed.), Bredstedt: Druckerei Lempfert.
  • Pinnow, Heinz-Jürgen (2006b), "Sprachhistorische Untersuchung zur Stellung des Haida als Na-Dene-Sprache", Unveränderte Neuausgabe aus INDIANA 10, Gedenkschrift Gerdt Kutscher. Teil 2 Berlin 1985. Mit einem Anhang: Die Na-Dene-Sprachen im Verhältnis zum Tibeto-Chinesischen, Bredstedt: Druckerei Lempfert.
  • Rubicz, R.; Melvin, K. L.; Crawford, M. H. (2002), "Genetic Evidence for the phylogenetic relationship between Na-Dene and Yeniseian speakers" (PDF), Human Biology, 74 (6): 743–761, doi:10.1353/hub.2003.0011, hdl:1808/16191, PMID 12617487, S2CID 18265356.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1994a), The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue, New York: John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 978-0-471-58426-1.
  • Ruhlen, Merritt (1998), "The Origin of the Na-Dene", PNAS, 95 (23): 13994–13996, Bibcode:1998PNAS...9513994R, doi:10.1073/pnas.95.23.13994, PMC 25007, PMID 9811914.
  • Sapir, Edward (1915), "The Na-Dene languages: A preliminary report", American Anthropologist, 17 (3): 534–558, doi:10.1525/aa.1915.17.3.02a00080, JSTOR 660504.
  • Thompson, Chad (1996), "The Na-Dene middle voice: An impersonal source of the D-element", International Journal of American Linguistics, 62 (4): 351–378, doi:10.1086/466304, S2CID 143682890.
  • Vajda, Edward (2010), Kari, James; Potter, Ben (eds.), "The Dene–Yeniseian Connection", Anthropological Papers of the University of Alaska, 5 (new series): 33–99.

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